Waking up in the cool of the morning in a wood near Reading, in the south of England, with the first rays of dawn passing through his bivouac and a stiff neck in his neck, Steve Waygood could be forgiven for thinking he registered on the wrong course.
But this is raw “learning by doing”: an increasingly popular practice used by companies to connect their workforce to the real substance of their environmental policies.
As head of responsible investing at British insurer Aviva, Waygood is already more involved than most. Eco-friendly hat or not, he still sees the value in ditching his costume for a few days and heading out into nature. “If we forget to savor the world,” he says, quoting the famous American children’s writer EB White, “what reason have we to save it?
Exasperated corporate environmental departments may well be asking the same question. Despite all the rhetoric about corporate sustainability and ESG in recent years, not much seems to stick.
According to a recent global survey conducted by the British communication agency Kite Insights, the majority [56 per cent] of workers are unable to explain their own company’s climate commitments, despite an overwhelming propensity [77 per cent] to act on the issue.
So could abandoning the classroom and heading for the hills potentially close this ominous disconnect?
Andres Roberts has no doubts. Founder of the Bio-Leadership Project, a UK nature-inspired advisory and scholarship network, he is a seasoned leader of training experiences for organizations including the Barbican Centre, food retailer Better Food and cosmetics group Natura. He’s also the man behind Waygood’s night slumber in the woods — part of a weekend retreat geared toward, in Roberts’ own words, “reviving our ability to see the big picture.”
By conventional training standards, his methods are unorthodox, ranging from playing and chatting around a campfire to journaling and (literally) brainstorming in the blue sky. Building on a core belief that being in nature is the best way to learn about nature, Roberts recently helped design a bespoke training program for the European division of the American outdoor clothing brand. air, Patagonia.
Held in a forest outside the Dutch city of Utrecht, the “Earth University”, as Patagonia dubs it, aims to encourage employees to connect with the company’s stated mission to somewhat ambitious pledge to “save our home planet”. Describing it as “the company’s own forestry school,” Evelyn Doyle, Patagonia’s people and culture manager, insists that the external framework is at the heart of the initiative’s effectiveness.
“Whether it’s sunny or wintry, we’re in the environment we’re talking about,” she says. “It’s about bringing people back to nature so they can learn not from PowerPoint presentations but from the ecosystem around them.”
Patagonia Business District Manager Anne-Marie Robles was only too happy to leave the formal classroom. Part of Earth University’s first cohort, she describes stepping out into the forest as “walking into a green-screen room.”
Gone was the usual training paraphernalia of stuffy rooms and whiteboard scribbles, replaced instead by the wind on his skin and the earth beneath his feet.
For three days it was a break from sketching strategy on whiteboards and instead it was the sight of trees and the feel of the wind in his hair.
“It sounds very esoteric and hippie, but I actually found it to be a really liberating environment to approach subjects from a completely different perspective,” she recalls.
Pukka Herbs, a Bristol-based herbal tea and supplement brand, has struck a very similar deal with The Eden Project, an eco-education charity based in the South West of England. During a two-night stay, groups of 10 staff at a time undertake a range of structured and unstructured activities, from solo nature walks to private tours of the charity’s famous inland rainforests. .
The overarching goal is that attendees have the time and space to consider the company’s values on both the “individual level” and the “Pukka level,” says Suzy Stollery, the brand’s human resources director. . “All of these activities combined gradually take you from head to heart. So it’s not so much a cognitive process as an embodied process, where you really feel things,” she says.
Emma Colwill testifies to the impact of stepping out of a conventional learning environment. As Director of Global Business Development at Pukka, her daily focus is on creating new markets.
But after a few days at the Eden Project (she’s been there a total of three times), she felt able to “step back” and “see things for what they are.”
“Each time I have been struck by how the experience of nature as a classroom has allowed me to tap into my inner wisdom – therefore my conscious and unconscious self – which can be very useful in a professional context,” she said.
The most enthusiastic adopters of classroom nature training tend to come from the more progressive end of the business spectrum (the values of “truth”, “respect”, “clarity” and “courage” of Pukka, for example, derive from ancient wisdom traditions).
But those hardest hit by capitalism are also dipping their toes into it. Among them is Europe’s biggest lender HSBC, which has a long-standing training partnership with the charity Earthwatch.
To date, the UK-based bank has taken over 15,000 employees through the scheme, which started as an off-site for those with direct environmental responsibilities, but is now open to staff from any function.
This shift shows a growing realization that achieving bold corporate sustainability goals cannot be the work of a specialist environmental team, but rather requires global buy-in.
Success here, in turn, relies on shifting employee mindsets from “what? » from environmental responsibility to « why? says John Ward-Zinski, Business Development Manager for Earthwatch Europe. “‘Why is this important?’ “Why does our organization spend so much time on this stuff?” ‘Why should I care?’ Getting employees to start asking these questions is how to move beyond the checkboxes that are still so common in many companies,” he says.
But packing employees in with their hiking boots and wet weather gear requires extra effort from everyone, employer and employee. So, is it really worth it?
George Ferns, lecturer in organizational studies and sustainability at Cardiff University, insists yes. Employees with a connection to nature demonstrate a greater sense of purpose, he says, as well as a greater willingness to execute on their employer’s environmental plans. Still, nature-based training is not without its challenges, he concedes. An immediate concern is maintaining initial employee engagement. A week or two back at the grindstone and memories of the smell of honeysuckle and birdsong can quickly fade.
“The hope is that the lessons learned from these experiences will trickle down to people’s day-to-day operational lives, but the effect often fades as people continue their work,” says Ferns.
Encouraging participants to write down their main thoughts or come up with clear resolutions can help sustain a course’s positive results, he suggests.
Some companies are also looking to integrate nature-based learning features into their office environments. Pukka, for example, now has a dedicated, technology-free “retreat space” in its main office, where employees can head to a moment of quiet reflection, for example, or a yoga session.
A bigger challenge, arguably, is the very real possibility of culture clash. As business-friendly as these alternative training providers try to be, their world is one of protecting the planet, not achieving goals or switching products. In this regard, attendees can expect many invitations to “be present”, as well as many discussions on “interconnectedness”, “regenerative thinking” and other similar ecological concepts.
Pam Horton, manager of leadership programs at The Eden Project, admits some participants may find the experience uncomfortable, especially at first.
However, if people can be patient and avoid having to turn off their phones or even hug a tree, the effects can be profound.
“We have a lot of people who come to us who have never really stopped and immersed themselves in nature. [but] when they do, the effects can be really massive,” says Horton.
Even so, to the hardened city dweller unaccustomed to the outdoors, the thought of a campsite or even an evening walk in a dark wood can still seem daunting.
Aviva’s Waygood is therefore cautious about companies forcing employees to participate, but its strong advice remains that everyone should try it at least once. The only exception are diehard cynics. Not only will they get nothing out of the experience, he suggests, “they’ll ruin it for everyone.”
As for him, he’s already in touch with the team at The Bio-Leadership Project about future weekends – although possibly in a motorhome next time.