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How to Avoid Pigeonholing the Environmental Manager?

University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland//HES-SO, HEIG-VD, Av. des Sports 20, CH-1401 Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland
EA ECCO, Chemin de Vignes d’Argent 7, CH-1004 Lausanne, Switzerland
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2018, 10(7), 2538;
Submission received: 15 June 2018 / Revised: 12 July 2018 / Accepted: 16 July 2018 / Published: 19 July 2018
(This article belongs to the Section Economic and Business Aspects of Sustainability)


The research investigates the role the environmental manager plays to ensure a successful (or not) implementation of environmental performance within an organization. It is based on interviews of 5–7 actors per company within a sample of 7 companies (42 interviews). We build upon bias of perception of the various actors interviewed within each company to define 4 paradoxes related to the roles and mission of the environmental manager that hinder proper efficiency of environmental management at company level. Paradox 1 is that no one takes ownership of environmental performance within the organization. Paradox 2 is that the environmental manager is in an awkward situation vis-à-vis his boss. Paradox 3 is that the role of the environmental manager in relation to employees is ambiguous. Paradox 4 is that corporate and product approaches are decoupled. We suggest that these paradoxes interact and form a vicious cycle that may, in part, be responsible for the environmental decoupling phenomenon—companies often adopt a sustainability policy symbolically without implementing it substantively. Our research suggests that, by leveraging the leadership of the environmental manager through organizational and motivational measures, the vicious cycle can be transformed into a virtuous cycle and the human motivation can become a driver for green change within corporations. We proposed the SEA (Shaping Environmental Action) model based of 4 pillars: information, motivation, organization, and strategy.

1. Introduction

Over the last 30 years, environmental management has been slowly moving from a purely risk-driven to a more opportunity-driven approach. In early stages, ensuring compliance with environmental regulations and standards was the main concern of environmental managers (e.g., through the ISO14001 standard). More recently, companies are moving towards a more pro-active and innovative approach, driven by market competition and consumers. In parallel to their traditional environmental management systems, companies have developed voluntary strategies to improve and communicate their environmental performance [1,2]. These approaches are often based on footprinting and complemented with reporting initiatives [3].
However, in the excitement around “being green” and the rush to keep up with the crowd, it is easy to overlook small discrepancies in sustainability-related actions and messages. Studies that scrutinize the integration of environmental strategies show that while many companies communicate proactively about their efforts [4], implementation lags behind—there is an implementation gap [5,6]. Most executives in practice treat the need to become sustainable as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach, divorced from core business objectives and the very essence of company activity, i.e., the products or services delivered. In this view, business firms often adopt a sustainability policy symbolically without implementing it substantively—the organization “decouples” formal structure from actual work practices [7].
Obstacles to the implementation of sustainability are different, but interconnected, making this a complex organisational, psychological/behavioural, and environmental issue [8]. The contribution of the environmental manager to this decoupling has not been studied extensively, with most research being rather theoretical [9] and not practitioner/actor oriented. In this research we seek to address this gap and open the “black box” of the organizational embedding of sustainability, with a specific focus on the role of the environmental manager. We more specifically address the research question: does the environmental manager constitute an alibi, a driver, or an obstacle to environmental performance in the corporate world?
By analysing the cross-perception of environmental management from 42 actors’ viewpoints within 7 Swiss and French companies, this research brings a substantial and novel insight into the form of 4 paradoxes that are strongly interconnected and generate a vicious cycle, hindering the change towards more environmentally friendly companies and products. We further build on these findings and discuss whether the environmental manager himself, given his status and role within the company could play a significant role in unlocking these obstacles.

2. Literature Review

Our research project draws upon two main streams of literature:
  • The management and organization theory literature, focussing on organizational decoupling and the paradox theory, looking towards the potential role of the environmental manager in this decoupling.
  • The sustainability practitioner-oriented literature, focussing on the application of environmental management systems and of ecodesign, looking towards the role of the environmental manager in making these approaches a success both for environmental performance and business performance.

2.1. Decoupling and Paradox Theories

Past research has revealed that firms have severe difficulties in translating broad sustainability goals into concrete organizational practice [10,11,12], a phenomenon often referred to as “decoupling”. In a recent paper, Wijen [13] discussed discrepancies of decoupling in the context of socio-environmental governance, drawing attention to the distinction between “policy–practice decoupling” and “means–ends decoupling”. Policy–practice decoupling refers to the “classic” notion of decoupling [7], according to which organizations adopt a policy symbolically without implementing it substantively. In contrast, means–ends decoupling indicates that an organization complies with a policy, but fails to achieve the envisaged goals that the policy is meant to serve [14].
In the case of “means–ends decoupling”, major problems are caused by cognitive and behavioural barriers to organizational change, such as “locked-in” mental schemes and occupational habits that are largely incongruous with novel and unfamiliar practices [15]. In this view, a fundamental barrier to sustainability implementation relates to the dominant mind-sets of organizational actors, which deters them from embracing novel practices, especially when they are perceived as misaligned with existing business practice. Research on the integration of organizational practices [16] likewise supports the notion that the alignment with novel bodies of thought and practices is challenging if they don’t “make sense”, that is, if they lack cultural and political alignment with the already existing routines and accepted notions of “how things are done” [17].
Research on policy–practice decoupling [18] has shown that organizations often adopt policies symbolically without implementing them substantively. Decoupling policy from practice enables organizations to maintain their legitimacy in the face of conflicting institutional demands. For instance, an organization may try to please both investors and environmental groups by being profitable or cutting costs, thus being legitimate for the first, and by reducing emissions or addressing other environmental concerns, thus being legitimate for the second.
Other streams of research attribute the failure of some corporate social responsibility approaches using a paradox perspective and explicitly acknowledging tensions between different desirable, yet interdependent and conflicting sustainability objectives [19,20]. These paradoxes include tensions around individual and collective identities and between different values and roles, e.g., when organizational members hold competing values and identities with regard to environmental and social concerns and/or between personal ang organizational views [21]. High alignment companies tend to be those where social and environmental challenges are viewed as drivers for innovation and corporate responsibility is used as an approach to the unlocking of new opportunities [22]. A paradox perspective is also used to describe CSR standards, such as ISO14001. These standards, despite being well-intended, can favour the emergence of a thoughtless, blind, and blinkered mindset which is counterproductive of their aim of enhancing the social responsibility of the organization [23].
These decoupling and paradox perspectives are used to explain the gap between company environmental promises and actions yielding real environmental impact savings. As reported in the literature, this decoupling may have different causes, but the role of the environmental manager in explaining this decoupling has not yet been specifically investigated.

2.2. Environmental Management Systems and Ecodesign

Since the 1970s, environmental approaches have penetrated most companies at different depths and been grounded on different motivations. State regulations were the first driver in the 1980s, leading to the deployment of rather expensive “end of pipe” solutions like filters, waste water treatment, and so on. In the 1990s, the focus switched to normative and industry-driven instruments like resource or energy efficiency and the development of Environmental Management Systems (EMS) based on a voluntary participation (ISO 14001 in 1996). More recently, the market driver has become important, resulting from consumer demand for more green companies and products. This has led to the widespread adoption of tools to measure environmental performance, such as footprinting companies, sites, products, and technologies based on the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach. Footprinting approaches are currently used for (a) providing a factual basis for the discussion between actors of the same supply chain, (b) reporting on products (e.g., environmental labelling) or corporations (e.g., carbon footprint or GHG protocol), (c) comparing the environmental performance of different products, and (d) comparing alternatives during the design process (eco-design). On top of that, companies have increasingly disclosed their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategies and achievements.
The ISO14001 standard is one of the major tools used by companies to manage environmental issues, and its implementation is the prevalent task of most environmental managers worldwide. Until recently, ISO14001 was mostly a compliance and risk-management tool, as well as a system to manage environmental objectives at the company or industrial site level. As such, ISO14001 was often perceived by company actors as an administrative burden, not necessarily correlated with an increase of environmental performance, nor with economic performance for the firm [24,25,26]. Indeed, the literature on the benefits of such a standard is contrasting, some arguing that it is efficient in enhancing the environmental improvement of companies [27] and some not [20,21,22,28,29]. This probably reflects different interpretations of what environmental improvement is and different interpretations and implementation of the standard yielding different results [30]. Often adopting this standard leads to a ceremonial behaviour intended to superficially demonstrate that the certified organizations are compliant. Therefore, although rigorous compliance with the standard often results in real improvements, these improvements are primarily superficial and/or administrative in nature [31].
ISO14001 was fundamentally re-shaped in 2015, introducing major changes and closer alignment with ecodesign approaches. Not only did it introduce new key concepts, such as the “life cycle approach” and “performance” [32], but it also adopted the same high-level structure and wording as the quality management system ISO 9001:2015. This new feature offers a strategic opportunity to better integrate life cycle thinking, environmental management and quality management for companies and products, thus setting the basis for real progress of the company environmental performance, i.e., a reduction of environmental impacts generated throughout the life cycle of its operation and products. However, if this breakthrough in the philosophy of environmental management is a stepping stone for launching innovation and ecodesign projects, it may also radically change expected missions and roles of the environmental manager. Indeed, the job may switch from a rather peripheral monitoring activity to more strategic and change-management oriented missions.
Ecodesign is already implemented by pioneer companies in some pilot projects or, more rarely, fully embedded in the company processes and culture, most of the time tied to economic success [33]. The term ecodesign refers to a pro-active and anticipative approach embedded in the company operation and strategy, to continuously improve its core environmental performance throughout the life cycle of its activities and products [32]. To be of benefit to the organization and to ensure that the organization achieves its environmental objectives, it is intended that ecodesign be carried out as an integral part of the business operations of the organization. Ecodesign might have implications for all functions of an organization. Current barriers and obstacles to the implementation of ecodesign stress the need for more structured processes and integration with management systems [34], and requires motivation of employees to be scalable [35].
Some of the decoupling described earlier may be related to the weak junction between management systems and product-oriented approaches such as ecodesign, which the new version of the ISO14001 norm may improve if properly implemented. The role of the environmental manager in this implementation is not specifically described in current scientific literature and will be further studied in the present research.

3. Materials and Methods

The research presented in this paper followed a hypothetic-deductive approach [36], which aimed to develop a conceptual and theoretical structure prior to its testing through empirical observation, i.e., falsifying hypotheses or finding new evidence to improve theory. In this context, the research was carried out in three main phases: theory development, theory testing, and theory improvement.

3.1. Theory Development through Desktop Research and Conducting Convergent Interviews

Preliminary desktop research was carried out and complemented with interviews using a convergent interviewing technique [37,38]. Convergent interviewing is data-driven: the respondent does the talking and the interviewer lets the data guide the interview. Data analysis occurred after each interview and this data guided subsequent interviews. Over several interviews, a few common themes emerged that the interviewer probed for falsifying or confirming views. If there was disagreement, the interviewer asked for an explanation. From this first round of interviewing we derived ideal-types [39] and a theoretical model that was further tested in subsequent more structured interviews (Section 4.2). The interviews were conducted with 20 environmental managers from a list of companies that the research partners had had previous contact with regarding environmental management practice. These companies were Swiss or French based companies. The average face-to-face interviews lasted about 45 min.

3.2. Theory Testing through Conducting Structured Interviews with 42 Employees in 7 Companies

Seven companies were selected from the list of the 20 environmental managers interviewed. In these 7 companies, we performed multiple interviews with different actors within the company to investigate cross-perceptions and test our theory. The criteria for selection of companies were (i) the presence of at least one employee with formal responsibilities for supporting environmental management, (ii) the environmental management approach having been in place for at least two years in the company, and (iii) the environmental manager declaring facing difficulties during implementation.
Interviews were further conducted with the 7 environmental managers plus 35 employees or managers from the 7 selected companies (6 in Switzerland and 1 France, close to the Swiss border) (Table 1). These companies were different sizes and from very different fields of activities. Each company had 5 to 7 interviewees, including the environmental manager, the top manager, other intermediary managers and employees. The average face-to-face interview lasted about 90 min.
For the information gathering step, a structured interview technique [40] was adopted by pre-establishing a set of specific questions in an interview guide. The pre-determined interview presupposes that the researcher knows what information will be relevant to the informant and there is little opportunity for the interviewer to improvise or exercise independent judgment. An observer would probably note that this is not unlike a survey except that the sample is smaller and purposive [37]. The interviews were structured as follows:
  • Introductory questions (Role and missions in the company, contribution to the environmental approach, personal motivations)
  • A first set of questions based on a limited number of answers or a 1 to 10 cursor
    • Do you think environmental management is important for our company? (position a cursor from 1 to 10 and explain)
    • Do you think your company is mature in term of environmental management? (position a cursor from 1 to 10 and explain)
    • What represents environmental performance to you?
    • Who takes ownership of the environmental performance?
    • How do you consider the environmental manager?
  • A second set of questions consisted of collecting 3 keywords relative to the interviewee perception on (i) environmental management in general and more specifically on (ii) the environmental manager.
  • Some open-ended questions aiming at identifying the perceived drivers and obstacles for change.

3.3. Theory Improvement through Presentation and Unstructured Interviews

Once the data for each company was gathered and analysed, findings were presented in an anonymous way to the respondent representative for each company (environmental manager and/or top manager), asking for confirmation or rejection of our theory. The presentation was followed by a 45 min interview using unstructured interview techniques [40]. The use of unstructured interviews without a predetermined line of questioning enables collection of broad information and provides a greater depth of data than other types of interviews, as the attempt is to gain insight into the informant’s understanding of a situation or process. The opening question targeted the identification of a set of possible actions and remediations in favour of better integration of environmental management and of the environmental manager within the company.

4. Results

4.1. Environmental Managers Feel Like They Are in a “Silo”

The first series of convergent interviewing enabled us to highlight three ideal-types [39] amongst environmental managers. The first ideal-type was named the “norm-driven environmental manager”, who is mainly dedicated to ensuring compliance with given standards or regulations. Often in this case the environmental manager is also in charge of the compliance with other standards within the company e.g., quality management or health and safety. He/she is reluctant to change. We named the second ideal-type the “innovation-driven environmental manager”; he/she is struggling to interact pro-actively with employees and managers in order to implement or trigger a change outside of any normative framework, most of the time based on a company commitment for sustainability. He/she is motivated to make a change. The third ideal-type was named the “institution-driven environmental manager”, who is in a development phase and in the process of proposing a strategy to the direction. He/she has in general not been in place for a long time, feels insecure and/or is looking for advice or consultants to support him/her in finding the appropriate course. These different ideal-types are representative of the current evolution of environmental management from risk-driven to opportunity-driven behaviors, as described earlier with different environmental managers and companies having different levels of maturity in this respect. This evolution is expected to drive companies away from ceremonial behaviors of implementing CSR standards in a counter-productive way i.e., not enhancing the environmental performance of the organization [23].
Similar themes emerged for these three ideal-types: all the environmental managers interviewed agreed that they feel like they are in a “Silo” within their company—somehow disconnected from core business activities and strategies. They report having difficulties connecting and mobilizing a large group of employees in the environmental approach. They most specifically struggle to interact with intermediary managers, who are often driven by other corporate priorities [41], and with whom they have no legitimacy and even less authority to interact. They must therefore convince others to act without having a clear mandate to do so.

4.2. A Stong Bias of Perception Amongst Company Actors

The next round of structured interviews allowed a cross-analysis of the perception of different actors within each company and thus to step back from the perspective of the environmental manager. In all companies we observed a strong bias in the perception of the importance of environmental management. The answers to the question “According to you, how important is the environmental approach for your company in term of competitiveness _ place a cursor from 1 to 10?” were contrasting, as shown on Figure 1. Similar contrast of answers was observed when asking the question of the maturity: “According to you, how mature is the environmental approach for your company _ place a cursor from 1 to 10?”. These results suggest that environmental performance has not been objectivised and communicated at company level. The perception of actors is more based on personal mindset and beliefs than results from any corporate vision or communication. This contrasted perception of the environmental approach by company actors is further confirmed by the analysis of keywords as presented in Figure 2, showing two distinctive and opposed opinions: on one hand some actors are positive and envision environmental management as bringing value. On the other hand, other actors are negative and envision environmental management as a constraint. These findings also reflect the evolution of environmental management over the last decade from risk to opportunity driven, and with the two views coexisting in a somehow conflicting manner. From these structured interviews, we broke down these biases of perception in the form of four paradoxes as described in the next sub-sections of this article.

4.3. Paradox 1: No One Takes Ownership of Environmental Performance

Many companies have sustainability teams, but not all employees know who is empowered to make decisions about sustainability and enforce them. Is it the CEO, the CMO, a strategy officer, the EH&S department, or perhaps the sustainability team itself? In the 7 companies of our panel, we asked the following question to all interviewees: “According to you, who takes ownership of the environmental performance within your company?”.
The answers to this one simple question were varied, as illustrated in Figure 3. On one side, all environmental managers in our panel gave similar answers, saying unanimously that they do not hold this responsibility, arguing that ownership is taken by top management in most companies, or by a product manager in more product design-oriented companies. However, all other interviewees answered differently: about 2/3 said that the environmental manager obviously owns the responsibility of environmental performance, while the rest believed that this responsibility is owned by each employee. The answers from environmental managers versus other employees are thus paradoxical and denote a lack of organisation of responsibilities within the companies in our panel. Most actors don’t have a vision of how the company is organised in terms of environmental performance, and no one takes ownership of it. Obviously, this misunderstanding in the company hinders action. Many actors have admitted that they do not act spontaneously for the very reason that the company already has an environmental manager in place, and that he/she is the one supposed to take action. This paradox is well illustrated by the following verbatim picked up through our interviews “I am the owner of the project, I can support my colleagues, but I do not have ownership of the results”. One could question whether this lack of ownership results from a lack of organisation/formalization in itself or from a lack of internal communication.
If communication is lacking in the majority of cases, the lack of organisation and formalization of responsibilities is also obvious: none of the interviewed companies had environmental clauses. According to one employee “there is a clear will from management, but we are not rewarded and assessed on these environmental aspects”. Lack of organizational structure and appropriate communication have often been reported in literature as two main obstacles for a good embedding of sustainability within organization [22,34]. Besides, the environmental manager has no responsibilities in core business or product related activities. They are laying in a metaphorical silo, disconnected from decision-making. One environmental manager even reported: “I do not exist in the organigram”, meaning that only his role of quality manager was recognised and not the environmental side of his duties. This finding resonates with the other stream of research showing that most intermediary managers do not envisage corporate social responsibility as a core company value [41].
Finally, another signal of this “silo effect” is that the embedding of the environmental management within the organization was very different and mostly resulted from non-rational historical reasons. Indeed, in our panel, we had very different anchoring of environmental management: attached to the direction, to R&D or innovation, to quality management, or to the legal department.

4.4. Paradox 2: The Environmental Manager Is in an Awkward Situation Vis-à-Vis His Boss

The next paradox that was evidenced is related to the way companies define sustainability and sustainability objectives. The following question was raised to the 7 environmental managers “Do you have a clear term of references and objectives?”. To this question also, the environmental managers replied unanimously “No” (Figure 4).
Not being a business-driven priority relayed by marketing departments, the senior management usually expects the environmental manager to propose their own roadmap. This obviously places the environmental manager in an awkward situation where he is the one who should “raise the bar” and make the effort to meet it. Some environmental managers confessed that they did not want to propose too ambitious plans for fear of not achieving expected results. “I cannot be too ambitious, I do not want to shoot myself in the foot”.
The ambition and effectiveness of the environmental approach thus relies on the motivation and beliefs of the environmental manager more than on targets set by top management. In two companies, we witnessed strong motivation from environmental managers. This remarkable engagement was key to the success of the environmental approach and congratulated by top management and other employees: “He is clearly the one who sewed the seeds of the approach and made it alive in the company. He was a support and a motivation for all of us. Thanks to our environmental manager, the CEO could himself understand and support the approach; he tried to turn it into a competitive advantage”. In other cases, the environmental manager adopts a low-risk attitude without launching ambitious plans and, in doing so, pleases the top management.
Integration of business strategy with environmental strategy is key to overcome this obstacle but implies strengthening role and leadership of the environmental manager to be part of a coherent strategy-setting. This is de-facto the case in small SMEs where the founder of the organization, made most of the decisions including CSR activities. In this case, the beliefs and personal characteristics of the CEO are known to get transmitted to the organizational culture and to reflect the business actions of these organizations [42].

4.5. Paradox 3: The Role of the Environmental Manager Is Ambiguous Vis-à-Vis Employees

The next question posed to all interviewees except for the environmental mangers themselves was: “Do you envision the environmental manager as a coach for you or someone who is controlling what you are doing?”. Again, as shown on Figure 5, answers to this question were very contentious. About half of the interviewees (52%) perceived the environmental manager positively as a coach that adds value, while the remaining interviewees had a rather negative vision. Twenty-four percent declared not perceiving the environmental manager at all and 24% had the image of a controller or a “pain in the neck” being more a burden in their work than a support.
This is well illustrated by the keywords from all interviewees as presented in Figure 2. A dichotomy clearly exists. We can question whether this dichotomy is the result of interviewees’ perception (considering the environment as something important or not), or if this is something related to the role of the environmental manager within the company. “Someone should motivate others, otherwise no one acts”, but this is made difficult for environmental managers to take leadership if they are perceived as a controller within the company. “We do not have enough resources in terms of coordination”.
From the perspective of the environmental manager, this double role is a cause of difficulties and frustration at a personal level. Indeed, they have to constantly jump from the one role (“controller”) to the other (“coach”). In one company, these roles were split and the environmental manager, who in this case was in charge of innovation, was much better perceived by other employees. This obviously requires more people involved. However, the environmental performance seems not to be directly correlated to the dedicated resources for environmental management, with full time equivalents (FTE) ratio varying greatly from 0.05% to 1.1% within the sample of companies surveyed. Approaches to appropriately size a sustainability team have not been reported in literature yet. One could argue that team size may not matter much; what matters most may be the existence of a balanced team. This is the rational for the set-up of a transversal sustainability committee, as proposed below in the recommendation section.

4.6. Paradox 4: Corporate and Product Approaches Are Decoupled

Companies in our panel are currently lacking a system that incorporates sustainability into decision-making and a project gating system from marketing R&D, production, sales, and purchasing. There is a gap between the corporate approach of environmental management and the product approach, meaning that most actors (including most environmental managers) envision the environmental approach as a primarily corporate approach. This is especially true for the norm-driven type of environmental manager who does not step aside from his industrial site management vision and struggles to integrate a life cycle mindset or any type of ecodesign thinking. For the most mature environmental managers, corresponding to innovation-driven types of environmental managers (two in our panel), their action is hindered by a lack of adequate structure and connection with intermediary managers (e.g., marketing or innovation). These environmental managers lay in a silo and fail to significantly act at product level, while others do not even have these perspectives on their radar.
This decoupling between the corporate approach and the currently-lacking product approach is also visible at the level of other employees. Most employees envision environmental performance as related to employee behaviours, commuting or waste management. Most actors do not perceive that their daily work or decisions can have an impact on the environmental performance of company products or services. A reason for this is that even in project-based companies, the environmental manager is not integrated in the gating system of the project management. One direct consequence of this decoupling between the corporate approach and the product approach is that both employees and environmental managers lay discouraged as they feel that the environmental performance of products is a status-quo that cannot be influenced. Actors are not able to identify decisions or actions that they can take to enhance environmental performance. Even the environmental manager struggles to identify key actions to reduce the company footprint, and thus is discouraged because of lack of hope and action. Without clear action in mind, the project management does not evolve towards improved systematic integration of the environmental thinking. These two sentences picked up from the interviews illustrate the above analysis: “I do not really see what could be done for the environment from here; there is not much room for innovation in our business” “If we had 10 obvious possible improvements, then I would set up a committee to have them implemented”.
This fourth paradox is in-line with findings from other studies showing that a lack of embedding of sustainability within product design as well as a lack of understanding of the life cycle perspective are major obstacles to environmental performance [32,34,43].

4.7. Possible Driver: The Motivation of Employees

The interviews with all actors (except environmental managers) showed that most do not act because they are not incentivized and/or feel that someone else (the environmental manager) is in charge.
If at a personal level they are motivated to achieve sustainability, in the corporate context they are not mobilized. Being on the side of profit-driven routines, actors at many levels of the company implicitly receive the information that sustainability is not a key question to management and sustainability does not easily become part of the corporate culture of companies, but rather is perceived as a burden.
However, all but one of the 42 people interviewed admitted an interest in better integrating environmental aspects into their jobs and a large proportion felt frustrated for not doing so. Indeed, all actors declared that environmental protection is important to their personal values, and they feel they behave better in their personal life than in their professional life. They currently do not act because they are not incentivized to do so, or feel they have no legitimacy for action. Most actors would happily be assessed for their contribution to environmental performance. Most are motivated but need to also be rewarded for taking decisions. The lack of communication has also been stressed by most employees; most do not know how to act in accordance with a company strategy if any “communication towards employee is still missing to really raise awareness about sustainability”.
We conclude that there is room for bottom-up, employee-driven force to generate environmental change and leverage environmental management within companies. This driving force could complement or palliate the legal and market driving force for environmental change. “What is really missing is listening to employees; having a sustainability committee would be positive”. Similar findings were reported by other authors showing that bottom-up innovation and employee engagement are key to the successful implementation of CSR strategies [22].

5. Discussion

5.1. The Silo Effect as a Consequence of a Vicious Cycle

Our research highlights 4 paradoxes related to the way environmental managers do their job and interact with other employees. We can question whether these 4 paradoxes are consequentially connected with one another e.g., if the lack of responsibility setting could explain the lack of objective, which in turn could explain the lack of clarity of roles, etc. We advocate here that these 4 paradoxes are strongly interconnected, as illustrated in Figure 6. The lack of responsibility-setting yields a situation where no one sets objectives. The absence of objectives creates a situation where no one takes ownership of the issue. For employees, the role of the environmental manager is not clear, and as such, the environmental manager is not considered as having the legitimacy to set objectives. Because there is a decoupling between the corporate and the product approach, objectives are not set for products, which makes the approach a side-approach and reduces the legitimacy of the environmental manager to generate change.
This strong interconnection between the four paradoxes results in a vicious cycle, with each paradox reinforcing the other and the environmental manager laying in a “silo” on the side of core business routines, and most of the company actors not being mobilised for any sustainability action. We believe that these facts partly explain the decoupling described in literature as this vicious cycle yields an implementation gap between promises from the company and action on the field. To bring environmental management to the next level and allow the environmental manager to gain back leadership and contribute to value creation in a more sustainable company, this vicious cycle must be interrupted and ideally converted into a virtuous cycle. This is required to ensure that all relevant decisions made across their business align with their green intentions. Some authors suggest that the tensions between conflicting personal and organizational identities and values around sustainability can foster change for sustainability, since the coexistence of conflicting identities and values within the organization can drive cognitive organizational reorientation, organizational creativity, and organizational learning [19]. Firms can foster the coexistence of competing identities and values, for instance, by creating structures and temporal pockets in the organization where alternative individual identities and values can flourish and eventually feed back into the organization so that the confrontation with diverging identities and values nurtures a productive process of progress, e.g., as proposed in the discussion section of this paper in the form of a “sustainability committee”.

5.2. Moving Towards a Virtuous Cycle?

Moving towards a virtuous cycle, where each actor of the company would have ecodesign as a mindset requires each actor to have the right conditions as described in Figure 7. If an actor has a clear and convincing answer to the 4 questions related to information, motivation, organisation, and strategy, conditions are set for them to improve their own environmental performance as well as that of the company as a whole. This model in consistent with previous research showing that companies exceling in their approach to corporate responsibility tend to be those that integrate the principles of sustainability into both their everyday business processes and their strategic decision-making [22].
We have evidenced throughout interviews that if most employees are not mobilised, they would happily change their work practice towards a more sustainable model if they could or knew how to do it i.e., have an answer to the 4 questions of our model. It may, however, appear that in some environment or company cultures, some of the employees may not be intrinsically motivated by sustainability [41]. The challenge of the environmental manager is thus to build capacity of employees so that each employee has these questions in mind as well as to support them in providing the specific answers. This finding supports other research [44], showing that employees are motivated to engage in sustainability actions within their companies, but need more information on how to act at the individual level and in collaboration with other employees through corporate communications or interest groups within companies. This finding seem to be true at all level of the company including within top management teams, where high behavioural integration and sharing of information are proved to increase sustainability and the level of innovation [45].
The findings of our research allow us to formulate 3 recommendations aiming at helping companies and organizations to shape environmental action:
  • To set up a sustainability committee (organizational approach)
    In most companies, environmental aspects are not part of the core business and they are not considered in the same way as core business issues with respect to business processes, information management, capacity building, and motivation drivers. The environmental manager alone is in a silo (result from the vicious circle) and fails to permeate these processes. An adapted structure is obviously necessary in this case.
    In two of the companies of our panel, a sustainability committee was in place (or has been created after our survey) and has shown many benefits. The purpose of the committee is to link the different actors in a horizontal and vertical way i.e., actors from different departments, both employees and managers, are involved. The environmental manager becomes the manager of this group and can provide some leadership. This group is then in charge of defining the strategy and monitoring the progress of sustainability projects. This way, responsibilities, objectives, and roles of the different actors are better defined and the vicious cycle is interrupted. Amongst our panel, the most mature company was the one having experienced this type of committee for several years.
  • The new (2015) version of the ISO14001 standard (normative approach)
    The 2015 version of the ISO14001 standard brings a significant change. In its previous version, ISO14001 primarily sought to manage risks, accidents, and waste, rather than to improve the environmental performance of core activities or products. These systems are not substantively integrated within the rest of business and innovation processes and generally remain the prerogative of only one environmental manager who ends up being in a silo, loosely bound to some department or other. As a consequence, the environmental role is symbolic, mostly limited to monitoring activities, and very often not even visible to most employees in the firm. This lack of adapted structure, processes and clear responsibilities hinders implementation of any sustainability strategy or environmental innovation by top-down management approaches, as well as bottom-up innovations. The new version of the norm integrates drastic changes through the life-cycle approach, the requirement of a leadership from the top management and the notion of environmental performance replacing the improvement of the system [32].
  • Bottom up innovation and gamification (motivational approach)
    Motivation of employees to get engaged in sustainability can come from organizational measures but also from motivational measures [46]. Gamification of sustainability would be in this respect an interesting way to explore as proposed by several interviewees: «taking care of the environment should be more fun». Gamification, i.e., using game elements in non-game context, has proven successful to mobilize employees [47]. Outside the sustainability arena, gamification has been used for different objectives such as learning [48], crowdsourcing [49], and change management [50]. Gamification increases the motivation of employees, especially in bottom-up creative activities, collective tasks as well as for monotonous tasks and implementation [51]. Different game mechanics and dynamics may trigger different psychological intrinsic motivators (e.g., social connection, spirit of competition, feeling of achievement) and may be complemented by extrinsic rewards [52]. Whether the positive effects on motivation are durable over time, and, more precisely, whether intrinsic motivators are a sufficient driver of long-term participation in projects are still in question. The scientific literature on the benefits of gamification for sustainability is still extremely limited but is attracting more and more attention. The gamification approach is described as a more promising approach than approaches based on more formalised job descriptions. Providing rewards is known to increase employee engagement [53]. The very nature of environmental challenges requires the company to innovate and change from usual operation and business processes. Unless clear disruptive technological innovation is available, the change requires incremental implementation of solutions that do not necessarily readily exist and most of the time need to be invented along the way. This requires a shift from environmental information (LCA) to environmental improvement which most of the time requires a bottom-up innovation approach i.e., capturing practical solutions from the field. Some authors argue that more initiative and self-organisation is better than rules: the laissez-faire context i.e., featuring a combination of a weak compliance HR configuration and a strong market and self-initiative drivers is better suited for fostering employee proactive behaviour than the nurturing context [54].

6. Conclusions

This study has been important in determining the reasons for which environmental managers may be ineffective in motivating positive environmental practices within their companies through studying perceptions of environmental managers from various actors within 7 companies. Previous studies have noticed the decoupling between corporate policy and action, but have not investigated the reasons for or solutions to this phenomenon. Our research has supported previous evidence for the decoupling phenomenon with environmental managers being separated from core business processes and routines. We have demonstrated that organizational paradoxes exist within most companies and hinder effective action of the environmental manager. Nobody takes ownership of environmental performance, with different actors believing the responsibility lies with others and not themselves. Furthermore, the role of environmental managers is rarely clearly defined—often not appearing in organigrams—which creates an unclear relationship between environmental managers and other employees. Environmental managers may therefore either be perceived as controllers on activities and therefore a hindrance to general corporate functioning, or a coach in how to improve environmental actions and therefore a positive influence. The negative perception of environmental managers as controlling diminishes the effectiveness of environmental managers as they are not welcomed into the company structure. No clear environmental objectives are set by top management, thus discouraging environmental managers from setting overly optimistic goals for fear of falling short, which again leads to less effective environmental engagement. Objectives also rarely include changes at the individual level, leaving employees to feel that their ability to improve sustainability performance is minimal, when in fact individual actions in the workplace as well as motivation for achieving better environmental performance are important in overall company performance.
We discuss and exemplify that, by overcoming theses paradoxes through setting up official committees, implementing the new ISO14001:2015 standards and introducing gamification to motivate positive employee action, the vicious circle can become a virtuous circle, thus enabling a more efficient and human-based integration of sustainability within companies. Obviously, all actors must take ownership of their environmental responsibilities, but the leadership of the environmental manager certainly is a good catalyst and guidance for the success of the approach over time. We therefore conclude that providing more power to the environmental manager should allow for a better integration of environmental management within the core business of companies and a better understanding of its role and missions by other company actors, thus overcoming some of the decoupling situation described in the literature.

Author Contributions

J.B. and G.S. designed the research. C.J. conducted interviews with the support of G.S. and J.B. Data analysis and writing was performed in a collaborative manner by all authors.


This research was funded through internal funding of the HES-SO.


We would like to acknowledge the HES-SO for the support as well as all contributing companies for sharing their time and data.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Contrasted perceptions of the importance of environmental management for 42 interviewees within 6 companies.
Figure 1. Contrasted perceptions of the importance of environmental management for 42 interviewees within 6 companies.
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Figure 2. Keywords from the 42 interviewees related to environmental management within their company, classified between the positive and the negative perceptions.
Figure 2. Keywords from the 42 interviewees related to environmental management within their company, classified between the positive and the negative perceptions.
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Figure 3. Environmental manager is in bold (other actors drawn with thinner line) answering the question of who takes ownership of environmental performance within the company.
Figure 3. Environmental manager is in bold (other actors drawn with thinner line) answering the question of who takes ownership of environmental performance within the company.
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Figure 4. Environmental manager answering the question “Do you have a clear term of references and objectives?”.
Figure 4. Environmental manager answering the question “Do you have a clear term of references and objectives?”.
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Figure 5. Responses to the question “Do you envision the environmental manager as a coach for you or someone who is controlling what you are doing?”.
Figure 5. Responses to the question “Do you envision the environmental manager as a coach for you or someone who is controlling what you are doing?”.
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Figure 6. The 4 paradoxes throughout our research create a vicious circle that hinders actions towards more environmental performance.
Figure 6. The 4 paradoxes throughout our research create a vicious circle that hinders actions towards more environmental performance.
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Figure 7. The 4 conditions for shaping environmental action. The SEA (Shaping Environmental Action) model.
Figure 7. The 4 conditions for shaping environmental action. The SEA (Shaping Environmental Action) model.
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Table 1. Detailed description of the companies (anonymized) included in the study.
Table 1. Detailed description of the companies (anonymized) included in the study.
SectorNumber of Employees (FTE)FTE Dedicated to EM% FTE Dedicated to EM14001 Certified
Company AFood350.20.57%no
Company BHealth10,0000.40.004%yes
Company CConstruction79020.25%yes
Company DTools manufacturing1421.51.1%yes
Company EServices/logistics100080.8%yes
Company FServices/transport8000.40.05%no
Company GElectronics/Manufacturing4000.250.06%yes

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Boucher, J.; Jenny, C.; Plummer, Z.; Schneider, G. How to Avoid Pigeonholing the Environmental Manager? Sustainability 2018, 10, 2538.

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Boucher J, Jenny C, Plummer Z, Schneider G. How to Avoid Pigeonholing the Environmental Manager? Sustainability. 2018; 10(7):2538.

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Boucher, Julien, Clotilde Jenny, Zara Plummer, and Gerhard Schneider. 2018. "How to Avoid Pigeonholing the Environmental Manager?" Sustainability 10, no. 7: 2538.

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