5 Things I have learnt about making sustainability training work

Of all the satisfying work I do working in sustainability, I find training one of the most enjoyable. You know that people who you are training are almost always going to be using the knowledge gained in the session for making change. In effect you’re helping them to create their own transformations in their own organisations whether big or small. 

There are some common themes that I would like to share because they might be useful to others: 

1. Empower for change

Can I make a difference? Some of the issues can be overwhelming – for example, issues such as climate change or global biodiversity loss can often make people switch off, feeling that they are not going to be able to have a meaningful influence on an individual or even organisational basis. 

I think the best thing a trainer can do is recognise this, talk about it – and then show how individual, organisational or national/international action can be effective – chiefly if we can influence others in the process. I usually say that we should appreciate some things are out of our control but we can have an impact on them even if we cannot change everything directly ourselves. None of us control how our electricity is generated or forge international agreements on climate change or deforestation, but we can all have influence over these issues. 

Teaching ways to communicate sustainability issues is vital. Following your training course they more often than not are going to have to go back and create change. 

2. Different approaches…

…for different folks… The business, sociological and personal case for acting and working more sustainably is multidimensional, and not everyone is going to be turned on by the same things. I once went to a lecture by a Yale professor who talked about the importance of recognising people’s different ‘moral tastebuds’. 

Some people may be in your session because they have been ‘strongly encouraged’ to be there. One of the best things in the world for me is watching someone on a training course convert from cynic to change-making optimist – or, at the very least, develop a broader view of the facts around environmental issues. Some people are motivated by the ethical and moral case for preserving the environment for its own sake; others by having a liveable environment for future generations; still others because it seems so illogical – and costly – to damage the environment around us. Appreciate the impact of peers and their influence. 

3. Break it up

I am astonished that you can still go on training courses comprised of sitting down for an eight hour day with somebody dictating to you from lengthy wordy PowerPoints. I recently attended a course as a delegate with a well-known organisation whose delivery method was this. 

Throw it back to the delegates; ask them questions, test their understanding, bring out their stories to share – make use of the range of personalities and life experiences in the room. 

Better still – plan your training session with lots of adaptable activities – get people on their feet; use videos and audio of different viewpoints; group activities, debates and discussions. 

Remember that people learn differently and adapt your strategy accordingly – some may be kinaesthetic learners (do-ers) where movement can help, so an activity where they get off their feet or do their own research and present it (depending on the context) may be the most effective. Other learners may respond better to listening and seeing different types of materials such as videos and radio. I have found that the best courses are those with a range of learning activities.

4. Bigger picture

Explain the reasons behind things… This is one of my mantras! 

Describe the why as well as the how. Perhaps a client has to reduce their carbon footprint – but what environmental issues is this making a difference to? Perhaps we should have a policy for auditing sustainability risks in our supply chain assessment – but what are the sustainability risks and why are they important? We have to implement ISO14001 – but what are the underlying issues that it deals with? 

All too often I find people have undergone some training for implementing change but don’t understand the environmental and social issues underlying the reason for change – issues such as climate change or preservation of natural capital. When people understand the ‘why’; the ‘how’ becomes easier to implement. 

5. Relatable

We respond to seeing people like us doing inspirational things – it becomes relatable. 

I always try and build in lots of case-studies to my sessions and adjust them to the audience (including from their own type of organisation and from other sectors completely). 

Some of the theory around sustainability issues can sometimes seem a bit abstract, so make it tangible with real-world examples. Using good case-studies can be really motivating because it shows that working in a different way can be done! The end game is for your delegates to feel that they can create, implement and influence change. 

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