Improving environmental sustainability in the Foundation Industries

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change
Workplace Behaviour Research Centre

Dr Rebecca Pieniazek is a Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Leeds University Business School. Her research focuses on: personal and organizational resilience; motivation and juggling multiple demands; and wellbeing. Dr Jack Daly is a current Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change. His research focusses on equality and diversity within male-dominated industries, with a specific interest on how men can act as both facilitators or sites of resistance to the implementation of effective EDI-related policies.

Coal power station

On the 5th and 6th December 2023, the Transforming Foundation Industries Network+  (TFIN+) held a conference inviting practitioners and academics to come together to share the latest innovations and developments in the Foundation Industries community. 

The foundation industries are made up of the glass, metal, cement, ceramic, chemical and paper sectors, and are by far the UK’s biggest industrial polluters. Events like the TFIN+ Conference are an important way to bring companies and academics together to find solutions to improve the industries’ sustainability and performance.  

As part of the conference, colleagues from Leeds University Business School presented their research in this area. 

How organisational goals affect approaches to Corporate Environmental Sustainability 

Project team: Dr Bekki Pieniazek (PI), Professor Kerrie Unsworth (CoI) and Dr Luba Pirgova-Morgan (Researcher) 
Blog contribution written by: Dr Bekki Pieniazek 

We believe there is no “one-size-fits-all" approach to Corporate Environmental Sustainability (CES). This is because organisations have different corporate goals (i.e., aims, values, and missions; projects and strategies; and initiatives and activities) and thus different interdependencies across these goals (i.e., goal-to-goal alignment or conflict). Hence, current and future CES should be identified and considered in terms of their interdependence with other corporate objectives so that CES solutions are company-specific and part of a contextualised, complex system.  

However, deriving such a complex system of interconnections is beyond current knowledge. There is currently no process or associated tool that companies can use to decide upon their unique and optimal CES solutions particularly when transformational change is required. Thus, our research project (funded by the Transforming Industries Network (UKRI)) aimed to develop a process for doing just that, and an associated tool, namely the Organisational Goal Hierarchy.  

The Organisational Goal Hierarchy tool shows: 

(1) A company’s domain areas (e.g., objectives around productivity, environment, etc.), and whether these exist at higher hierarchical goal levels (including values/vision levels), mid-range levels (including strategies and project goals) or lower hierarchical goal levels (including initiatives and operations). 

(2) Whether the company’s goals help, hinder or are unrelated to one another both within a domain (e.g., interdependencies between values for the environment and initiatives for the environment) and across domains (e.g., interdependencies between business growth strategies and CES strategies).  

Across the 7-month project, two organisations (one large global and one small UK-based) from the foundation industry participated in archival data analysis, executive interviews, focus groups, and an executive group interview, so that we could develop and showcase the novel process as we went. Engaging in our novel process provided the organisations with answers to three questions:  

1) ‘How embedded is the organisation’s current CES?’ - In other words, ‘how well does the current CES ‘fit’ with other corporate goals’? We produced an Organisational Goal Hierarchy (OGH) based on an organisation’s current corporate goals. We then examined goal-to-goal interdependencies and patterns across the OGH to identify current weaknesses, strengths and missed opportunities in terms of their current CES.  

2) ‘What are some potential options to enhance the company’s CES?’ - we produced two future OGH scenarios per organisation with different forms of CES improvements for employees to discuss how that future would look and what would need to happen to transition towards it.  

3) ‘Which CES options best fit the company’s other goals?’ - Using the organisation’s potential CES solutions, and discussions of barriers and enablers, we mapped a new OGH of their potential CES improvement ideas. The new OGH included: new goals, or revised goals depicting the potential CES ideas; and goal-to-goal interdependencies (i.e., goal synergy or conflict) between environmental and non-environmental goals. Based on evaluating the goal interdependencies we categorised the feasibility and readiness of different ideas into five categories. Then, through discussions with executives, we produced an action plan of which ideas the organisation would start, or not, or keep considering, in the next 12 months.  

In summary, our project demonstrated the usefulness of an ‘Organisational Goal Hierarchy’ map for: diagnosing the current state of CES, prompting ideas for CES improvements, and evaluating those ideas. Other organisations can now use our novel process and associated organisational goal hierarchy tool to aid decision-making around their specific (and hence contextualised) best ways to improve CES. We plan to submit an academic paper in 2024, which will outline the process steps in more depth. Furthermore, we will continue developing the theoretical insights and application of the Organisational Goal Hierarchy tool for improving environmental sustainability, at the individual, organisational, and dual levels of analyses.  

How workforce diversity can stimulate transformation towards a more sustainable future 

Project team: Professor Jennifer Tomlinson (PI), Dr Ioulia Bessa, Dr Jack Daly and Professor Vera Trappmann 
Blog contribution written by: Dr Jack Daly 

Our research (also funded by the Transforming Industries Network (UKRI)) focuses on the role of equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in supporting environmental sustainability in companies. 

The foundation industries represent a male-dominated, aging workforce, threatened with a looming-skills shortage that is emphasised by a persistent lack of diversity: in 2020, women made up only 16% of all workers, and BAME workers only 7.1% (ONS, 2020). Working with an industrial partner, the project looked at how firms can improve the recruitment and retention of currently underrepresented demographics, alongside understanding what drives gender and ethnic pay gaps.  

There is a clear and urgent need for greater EDI capacity and leadership to drive positive change around diversity and pay equality in the foundation industries. Through the research, we argue that ED&I policy can shape and support sustainability approaches and vice versa.  

For example, the lack of flexible working is perceived as a hindrance to progress for many working in the foundation industries. The physical need to be on-site conflicted with non-working demands such as caring responsibilities, whilst also failing to fully accommodate the needs of disabled workers. We therefore identified wider implications for the retention of diverse workers who look to alternative sectors to accommodate the required flexibility. Thus, in pursuing flexible working arrangements both in terms of time and location, the foundation sectors can offer avenues into the sector for underrepresented demographics whilst also supporting the careers of those already within, and also concurrently reducing workplace-based emissions.  

Furthermore, workers across the foundation industries saw that diversity and inclusion and environmental sustainability were intertwined with one another: that environmental sustainability cannot be achieved without a truly diverse workforce. Firms have the opportunity to capture innovative ideas when workers from diverse backgrounds are empowered to challenge existing norms and offer new ways of thinking about the challenges of climate change in the foundation industries.  

We are now looking at conducting additional research with the industries to establish this link further through survey data with workers in human resource and sustainability operations. 

Developing a better understanding of barriers for businesses to adopt sustainable practices 

Across the Business School, researchers with different disciplinary backgrounds - psychologists, sociologists, economists, mathematicians, political scientists, consultants – are working collaboratively on solutions for businesses and organisations to respond to the environmental crisis we are facing.  

Read more about the research that is taking place at the Business School on sustainability, net-zero, and the green economy. 

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