It isn’t easy being green: guest blog from the Third Sector Research Centre

We need to utilise the full power of the voluntary and community sector to help people face up to the difficult issues that climate change presents, and to develop the right support for the transition we’ll need to undertake.

But is the sector ready to step up to the challenge, asks Dr Rebecca Edwards from the Third Sector Research Centre.

Using the sector’s power

I think this vulnerable people and climate change initiative is a really exciting and important project for NCVO. As a researcher exploring how the voluntary and community sector (VCS) is engaging with environmental issues, I can see that in the future, it will have to do a lot more thinking and acting on this topic.

Increasingly, commentators from within and outside the sector have suggested the VCS could play a very important part in both helping prevent climate change (mitigation) and supporting those who are affected by it (adaptation).

Traditionally, environmental groups have been a key voice in highlighting environmental issues, but as Stephen Hale (the former Director of Green Alliance) has suggested, in order to tackle climate change we now need to utilise the full power of the VCS because of its unique place in society as a trusted voice, close to citizens, able to explore difficult issues and to provide a supportive role in a time of transition.

Reality check

However, expecting all civil society groups to be thinking about and acting on the environment and climate change is easier said than done. Many organisations that I have spoken to during my research have found it difficult to connect their core mission to the seemingly distant concept of climate change.

For those that do want to think about the environment more, it can be very difficult to know where to start.

Where to start?

Should organisations look to put their own house in order first by doing an eco-audit or even using an environmental management system such as ISO14001 or EMAS. Our research has found this can be useful for some organisations, but for others it is an expensive and time-consuming process for relatively small environmental improvements, given the relatively low environmental impact of many VCOs.

Alternatively, should organisations be advising the people that they work with to live a more environmentally sustainable way; working with them to mitigate and adapt to climate change? But that in itself can be difficult when you are not confident about your own environmental credentials, or if you lack knowledge on the future threats of climate change. I have been told that at a grassroots level, volunteers often aren’t confident to talk about the environment – or have no desire to, given that they have volunteered for an entirely different cause.

This relates to another issue that has been flagged up in our research: what exactly is it about the environment that organisations should be worrying about? Different initiatives advise organisations to think about issues such as sustainability, environmental sustainability, conservation and climate change.

In the course of our research, several participants have suggested it is hard to get started on environmental issues, as they are not sure exactly what they should be prioritising. Some suggest that climate change is the issue we all need to worry about, whereas others think that it is simply too frightening and/or remote for most people. Some organisations appear to prefer the broader concepts of sustainability / sustainable development.

Making the case for a climate change focus

The advice that you will find on NCVO’s climate change web pages chimes closely with the questions and issues raised by many that we have talked with during our research. It expresses well the reasons why VCS organisations need to think about climate change.

  1. The impacts of climate change will be felt by the beneficiaries of all organisations – and probably unevenly so, given that we know climate change is likely to affect those who are most vulnerable in society, including those who are old, unwell or poor.
  2. We know that the VCS is in a unique position to advocate on behalf of those that will be impacted by climate change – some suggest that government has stopped listening to environmental groups – but other types of organisation, such as those caring for the elderly or children could have a far greater impact.
  3. Climate change is likely to influence the way all VCS organisations are run. We have already seen how rising food and fuel prices can place additional pressures on organisations and their beneficiaries, and this is likely to continue as our environment changes due to climate change.
  4. We know there will be increasing external expectations of the VCS to think about climate change from government, funders and other partners – it is arguably better to start working on these issues on your own terms rather than being pushed by others.

A groundswell of action?

There has already been considerable activity across the voluntary sector and government in relation to taking environmental action eg:

  • the Charity Commission’s update guidance on Hallmarks of an Effective Charity, now including good environmental practice
  • funders, such as Calouste Gulbenkian, the City Bridge Trust and the Baring Foundation supporting projects to explore how the VCS can mainstream good environmental practice in their workproject learning and advice including the Big Response Project (NCVO, Green Alliance and Global Action Plan),
  • An Unexamined Truth (Baring Foundation) and the Sustainability Challenge (ACEVO).

Many hoped that the Joint Ministerial and Third Sector Task Force report Shaping Our Future would contribute to even more voluntary sector activity on the environment. But the Task Force reported in March 2010, two months before the last election – poor timing!

We all know that the policy environment and funding arrangements for VCOs have changed dramatically since then. This has meant that it has become even more challenging for many organisations to incorporate environmental work in their activities, as they are increasingly forced to prioritize all but the most essential activity.

It is also unclear how the VCS is expected to contribute to a Big ‘Green’ Society, especially when the future of local environmental action is unclear. Green Alliance has recently published Is localism delivering for climate change? which provides sobering reading on local action on climate change.

No time to lose

What is clear though is that the negative climate change impacts will not wait for improved economic circumstances, or a clear policy trajectory on the Big ‘Green’ Society. Given that the vulnerable in society are likely to be most adversely affected by climate change, it is advisable that all VCOs start to think now about how they can improve their own environmental practice and aid their beneficiaries. What is less clear is exactly how the diverse range of organisations contained within the voluntary sector can do this.

I am really interested to learn from NCVO’s current climate change project, although I think much more concerted research and action is needed from across the VCS (working in partnership with other sectors) to learn more about how the diverse range of VCOs can help us all to respond to, and live with, climate change.

About Becca

Becca is a research fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC) at the University of Southampton, working with Milena Büchs and Graham Smith, focusing on a three year programme of work exploring the environment and the voluntary sector through three interconnected projects:

  • mapping the environmental third sector
  • mainstreaming the environment
  • third sector innovation for low carbon practices.

For further information, email: or visit the TSRC website and click on the environment section under research.

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