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Insight into the Design of an Ethical Ecological Consultancy

Original article on LinkedIn by Richard Dodd


In 2018 we decided to review not only what ecological services we provide and how we deliver them to our clients, but why we do it in the first place. What were we trying to achieve? What could we achieve? What are the challenges of being an ethical ecological consultancy?

It really didn’t take us long to make a list of why each of us chose a career path in ecology. We all care deeply about the natural environment and our place and role within it. The choices we take and the and impacts we make. Then we looked in depth at our own company. What is it that makes us get out of bed for that pre-dawn bat survey, or spend a whole day sifting through regurgitated bird pellets? It must surely be for more than the salary we take home each month, or that invoice we send out!

Well, we all know that life as an ecologist is seen as a vocation as well as a profession! Graduates now entering the job market are more knowledgeable than ever before. But because of the expectation by graduates that most employers rank hard skills equal to, or possibly higher, than knowledge, it is hard to get paid work unless you obtain those skills by free labour.

It’s a risk, both financially and emotionally, that a lot of young people are now not willing to take. A job in the environmental sector is becoming a “rich person’s profession,” that only people with a wealthy background can survive the years of higher education followed by months or even years of unpaid work. And our sector is suffering.

So, couple high financial and emotional risk with low ethical standards of some environmental companies and odds are you begin to question if it’s all worth it!

Unethical behaviour takes a significant toll on companies by damaging reputations, harming employee morale, and increasing regulatory costs—not to mention the wider damage to society’s overall trust in business. Few company directors set out to achieve advantage by breaking the rules, and most companies have programs in place to prevent malfeasance at all levels. Yet recurring scandals show that we could do better.

Creating an ethical ecological consultancy culture at Wildwood Ecology required us to think about ethics not simply as a belief problem but also as a design problem. We identified four critical features that needed to be addressed: values, thought process during decision making, incentives, and cultural norms.

Values

Values are explicitly linked to a set of principles that we, as a company, all share and a common purpose. Values such as honesty, integrity, respect, fairness. These, I’m sure you will agree, are all ‘personal’ traits. So, what role do they play in creating purpose or intent within a company? The main purpose we discussed at length and decided upon was that it should be universally agreed and accepted by the team and be audacious. Possibly out of reach, but inspirational and motivational. I think we came up with both a great vision and good set of values (I’ve placed them at the end of this article).

Thought process during decision making

You would also have thought that making an ethical based decision for an ecological company should be second nature and make sound commercial sense? Yet we read accounts of employees being asked to do things that they felt were morally or ethically wrong. Like knowingly working alongside companies that belittled the natural environment; or worse still, pushed the very boundaries of lawfulness when it came to planning and development. Or being asked to work on projects where scientific evidence has either been undeniably overlooked or manipulated in such a twisted way that confusion reigns over any logical argument for abandonment, for commercial or political gain. Someone is making that decision either on behalf of their company or their employee. People working in an ethical culture must routinely think, “Is it right”? rather than “Is it legal”?

Incentives

We are psychologically as well as physiologically geared to incentivisation. As such, aligning rewards with ethical outcomes is an obvious solution to many ethical problems. But not just with money! We recognised that rewarding people with a good financial package is only one measure in why someone chooses to work for company A over company B where pay was equal. Employees care about doing meaningful work, making a positive impact, and being respected or appreciated for their efforts, and mirrors personal values. Also, people tend to underestimate both how positive they will feel about connecting with others in a pro-social way and the positive impact their behaviour will have on others. In our industry this is demonstrated by those who volunteer at the weekends to count bats, help create new wildlife habitats or go on political demonstrations such as the ‘Walk for Wildlife’ or attend ‘Extinction Rebellion’ rallies.

Cultural norms

For good ethical behaviour to permeate throughout a company it must not only come from ‘top-down’ management, but across all levels. Everyone needs to buy into the company’s core value and the purpose and all need to celebrate successes, however small and trivial they may seem. To use an example from Good to Great by Jim Collins, you need to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats, as well as getting the wrong people off the bus. No matter how great your values are, how consistently you act, or how much you incentivise people, it only takes one or two bad apples to challenge your, and others, ethical credentials.

Summary

So, in summary we are a company who has given considerable thought to why we do what we do. Our values are universally shared across the company, are not driven for financial gains, but are for a greater common purpose that we all relate to. We have the right people on board and look for others who share these values to join us. Our decision making will be active and all can challenge and contribute towards our vision and values.

This is how our ethical ecological consultancy started and here is our great big audacious vision:

“We believe that the natural environment is of equal if not greater importance than the built environment. We also believe that the actions we take in developing the built environment should seek to halt climate change and reverse the decline in biodiversity. To leave the natural environment in a better condition for future generations.”

Complimentary to our vision, Wildwood Ecology now operates on a simple set of values that we all share. These are:

  • Promoting and encouraging sustainable and ethical environmental concepts and solutions that benefit all
  • Providing a friendly and supportive environment for staff where innovation and ingenuity are actively encouraged and rewarded, and personal growth supported
  • Having an ethos that encapsulates personal honesty and integrity in everything we do
  • Always striving to exceed our customers’ expectations

My vision and values are not copyrighted. They are not unique. If they are of value to you, then please use or share them. Tell me if you have a better vision or set of values and let’s share ideas.

Please also hold us to account! As an independent ecological ethical consultancy, we can make a significant positive difference and that means making decisions on who we work for and what projects we work on. We further pledge to not knowingly work with clients or on projects that will or may likely negatively exploit the natural environment.

If you would like help to find your ‘why’, create a great ‘vision statement’, find your ‘core values’ or just need a little more inspiration or motivation across your team, then please do get in touch, or look at joining our supportive group, EcoExec.