Green Steps owes its origins to a small group of Monash University students some thirteen years ago. They came from different disciplines spanning environmental science and engineering through to the arts and economics, but all had a shared interest in working directly with businesses to help them reduce their environmental impact.

“They needed a way to bridge the gap between theory and practice,” explains Manager Mark Boulet, “and so Green Steps was established to equip them with both technical skills and the ability to engage with others to facilitate change.”

Not your typical business

Green Steps isn’t an easy organisation to characterise. Partly a university program for students and partly a stand-alone income generating business, Green Steps owes much of it’s beginning to Monash University and the Monash Sustainability Institute for their support in helping the program grow. Green Steps now delivers programs to universities across Australia and the UK, as well as delivers a vital service to businesses through their professional development education courses and the placement of student interns within organisations in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

“We are essentially run as a social enterprise,” says Mark, “ our mission is to place a change agent in every organisation. Green Steps is about training doers rather than CEOs, and equipping them with the skills to spread sustainable thinking across all the roles in an organisation.”

Getting results

Does the program work? Mark has no doubts. “The fact that we’ve been doing this for thirteen years is an achievement in itself,” he says, but he also has figures to back him. The last survey of over 200 course participants revealed that 90% are still using the skills that Green Steps equipped them with, and 70% are still working in the sustainability area.

Perhaps more important is the variety of different sustainability projects supported through Green Steps. “We have had interns work on waste management, carbon accounting, green procurement, energy efficiency and staff engagements programs in organizations across Australia.  And staff with organizations are now running the same sorts of programs as a result of our professional development programs. Mark gives the example of a regional water authority: “ We ran waste audit training with their green team who noticed that much of the organization’s office-based  waste to landfill was food waste. They initiated a composting system which now diverts over a ton and a half of waste away from landfill each year.”

The mainstream

Mark believes that the business sector is definitely showing more interest in sustainability. “We are at the point where it is easier to have the conversation with businesses, but we still need to translate that interest into action.” He has also noticed that students are viewing sustainability skills as more mainstream. “Students are perhaps less evangelistic now than was the case when Green Steps was founded, and they are more likely to view sustainability as a normal career path.”

This all creates a large and diverse market for Green Steps: universities, students from any discipline, companies, not-for-profits and government organisations. “We’ve worked with everyone from Shell and BP to the Defence Department and primary schools,” says Mark. This experience of diverse income streams leads Mark to provide this advice to anyone looking to start a sustainability-oriented business: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Sustainability has seen a lot of boom and bust with fluctuating government policy. Just look at the insulation industry, solar power, and now wind energy.”

An optimist

After years of working in a number of sustainability-focused roles, is Mark an optimist or pessimist?

“You have to be an optimist and believe in the ability of humans to respond to the challenges,” he says. “The question is will we be forced into action, or will we do it voluntarily? It’s not about saving the planet; it will look after itself. It’s about saving humanity from itself. But it’s big and it’s complex and there is no silver bullet.”

This leads to people either being put off by the level of apathy they see, or daunted by a problem that they perceive as being too big, Mark believes.

“So we start with some simple steps. We equip people with some tools for measurement and reporting, and more importantly, with the skills to influence behaviour. Then it only takes one person to change a department, and from there the whole organisation, which changes the wider community, and so it spreads.”

Subversive? In some ways. But hey, it is the future of humanity we’re talking about.

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