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Sustainability Leaders Series: Greensynergy Consulting’s Dr Matthew Parnell

Living sustainably starts with simple acts, but for Dr Matthew Parnell, founder and principal sustainability consultant of Australia-based Greensynergy Consulting, sustainability is more than the act of reducing consumption. Sustainability, he says, is about culture, and changing the way we think and do things.

Dr Parnell has over three decades of experience in applying sustainability to various fields and sectors of society in Australia. He started with the built environment, and worked his way across to academia, community organisations and NGOs, and businesses. He is also a university lecturer and published author. Through his many involvements, he established Greensynergy to enable people and organisations to adopt green practices and cultivate a culture of lasting sustainability.

Recently, Dr Parnell and Greensynergy have added a new service called EcoPractice. It is a sustainability package of processes that advances an enterprise’s change to become a full-fledged green organisation. So far, they have three clients, such as the Fuji Xerox Business Centre Mid North Coast, plus a fourth one in the pipeline. 

Here, Dr Parnell speaks to Eco-Business on how Greensynergy works and effectively enables businesses to go green. 

What inspired you to start Greensynergy? And what value does it bring businesses? 

I’ve thought of doing it for quite a long time. There was a spark that started it, but I wouldn’t call it an inspiration. I just decided that from working at the university I wanted to push for my advocacy of a more environmentally aware society, and running my own consultancy was the way to do it. So I began Greensynergy Consulting in early 2005 after having worked with the academia and NGOs for the previous 15 years.

In this region [of Coffs Harbour, New South Wales], Greensynergy is fairly unique. There are other people who just might do the built environment work or the energy auditing work but they don’t do the business sustainability work and training and educating types of services. Some of my clientele are just seeking compliance with regulations, for example. The other side of things is in business sustainability. It really is about helping them save money by reducing resource use, like energy and water and so forth. But then it’s also about building some long-term value by changing the way they do things, improving their organisational culture to support more sustainability activities.  

What were some of the challenges you encountered in growing Greensynergy and how did you overcome these? 

My major challenge has been operating a generalist sustainability consultancy from a regional base, rather than from a capital city. I gain a certain amount of work through my local region, but I have to go further afield for a full workload. In addition, sometimes the city-located sustainability projects provide more interest for me. The other challenge was the global financial crisis – for over two years my work in the built environment sustainability stopped dead. In response I directed my focus more towards sustainability in business and organisations. There were new regulations that came in that required certain assessments to be done, particularly with energy usage. New regulations helped me create my business.

Your sustainability consultancy firm has a wide range of services now. An interesting service is the research on sustainable indigenous communities. Can you describe what this is, its significance, and how it fares in terms of the value it brings compared to the rest of the business?

I worked in remote indigenous communities with the Centre for Appropriate Technology from 1995 to1998, operating out of their Alice Springs and Cairns offices. Since I started my consultancy, I have been engaged as a contract researcher in the Desert Knowledge Co-operative Research Centre’s Housing Lifecycles Project, investigating whole-system issues affecting the sustainability of housing in remote indigenous communities.

This is about what something costs upfront versus what is its lifecycle cost. With the remote community housing, we were looking at trying to introduce a lifecycle assessment and how you allocate funding for housing. It was about looking at the types of costs after investing in the infrastructure, such as the maintenance costs, operational costs, energy costs, plus also the local capabilities for maintenance. It was about how remote communities, once they have public housing, sustain that.

I’ve wondered why is it that good, sustainable things don’t get accepted when they make common sense?

Dr Matthew Parnell 

I am not currently involved with indigenous community development work at the moment; however, my experiences working with indigenous communities helped to form my approach to sustainability as fundamentally cultural and my understanding of technology as a socio-technical process.

Since we were looking at whole systems and remote communities that are culturally different, the way they viewed technology and housing is different from the mainstream view. Their social needs are different, their family structures are different, and the way they manage their lifestyle is different, and so how do you accommodate those differences when you’re dealing with something that is fairly conventional like a house, and the services that go with houses? And that’s why any solution for those areas that don’t take into account local culture and local lifestyles has an impact on how successful the housing becomes – that links technology with the culture, and with that kind of work it made it very clear to me that even more broadly, the question of sustainability is as much cultural as it is technical.

Greensynergy’s latest programme is EcoPractice. How is this different from other services provided by Greensynergy? 

EcoPractice is an evolution from all the sustainability work I have done in the past. And for the first 20 years of work, I’ve seen a lot of failures and good ideas that failed to capture people’s imagination. In Australia, for example, it took 20 years to get energy regulations in building codes. So it took a long time to make changes happen and I’ve wondered why is it that good, sustainable things don’t get accepted when they make common sense? I’ve always believed that when things don’t work, it’s a cultural problem, not necessarily a technical problem. So I explored that in my research and PhD thesis, which I eventually connected to my business. 

This is basically a commercialisation of my findings, to change the way people do things. EcoPractice is about helping organisations, community groups, and project teams integrate sustainability principles and practices into the culture of their organisation. So this is why I have different levels and programmes depending on how advanced they are on their sustainability journey.

In developing EcoPractice, you say organisations and their employees are only beginning to truly learn about sustainability. EcoPractice addresses this with an induction phase, Greenstarters. How does this enable employees to imbibe a mindset of sustainability for the long term? 

The core of EcoPractice is a programme called Ecoplexity, with the purpose of assisting organisations who have already harvested the “low hanging fruit” or those who have started to reduce waste and energy. These are the organisations who haven’t yet dealt with the core issues of their business, because that’s a lot harder. They need to go further into more difficult complex areas of sustainability and make fundamental changes.

For example, in any organisation it’s relatively easy to save 10 per cent of your energy without changing too much but if you want to save 40 per cent of your energy, you have rethink big on how you do things. That’s where you need to bring a lot more people in to the discussion. You have to start questioning the processes you have like if you’re a manufacturer, it might mean you have to redesign your manufacturing process. 

I wouldn’t be putting myself out as a technical expert for every industry my clients represent. I’m changing the cultural aspect like identifying they really need to redesign a process, and that’s when they can bring in their own production people into the discussion.

What I’m concerned about is if they want to make those changes, they can’t just focus on the technical experts. Sometimes the reason why they haven’t changed is not because the technology or process doesn’t exist but the people who make decisions haven’t thought about the possibility of changing what they’re doing. You have to work on the people first. And Greenstarters is part of the process to achieve that, creating a participatory environment. EcoPractice is coaching people, sitting down with them to work through their issues.

What do you think is the most important point for individuals and organisations to understand or do in order to change and become sustainable?

The thing to understand is sustainability is not something that can happen easily. That’s the challenge. If you want to imbed sustainability principles and practices deep into an organisation, so they’re not just a surface level feature, you have to understand it is a long-term project. Even when it comes to training, you can’t do a staff training for a day and then expect that to start happening. People don’t always pick up lessons immediately the first time. You have to practice, and it takes time. It’s about creating systems and processes and connections between people so that any specific activity or action starts having an effect when everyone joins and participates.

This is really what the sustainability culture is about.

For more on Dr Matthew Parnell’s practice, click here. The Sustainability Leaders Series is a weekly interview profiling sustainability leaders in the Asia Pacific region.

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