Taking social responsibility together through education

Christian Pladerer from the Austrian Institute of Ecology has been a consultant and auditor for the Austrian Ecolabel since 2008. Among others, he is in charge of all 3 guidelines of the educational sector. He gave an interview to the VKI about how consulting and audits are carried out and what certification brings to educational institutions and society.

How did you join the Austrian Ecolabel Network?

The Austrian Institute of Ecology as a non-profit research association has been a member of the Ecolabel Advisory Board from the very beginning. I have been a researcher at the Institute of Ecology since 1998 and since 2002 I have been part of the Institute's management and a member of the board. In 2008 a colleague and I decided to complete the training as consultant and examiner for the Ecolabel for schools. This was followed by activities for extracurricular educational institutions and, since 2017, also for kindergartens. In the meantime I can look back on more than 60 consultations and exams in the field of educationg. Furthermore, I am also active in the field of tourismus, green meetings and events, green producingg and reusable containers as an assessor, examiner and consultant throughout Austria.

What are your tasks as a consultant and how do you arrange the consultations?

Interested schools, educational institutions or kindergartens contact me if, for example, they have learned more about the Ecolabel at an information event of the Ministry of Environment. At this event they will be presented with the contents and requirements of the guidelines as well as the pool of advisors in their region. Normally I rather accept advice in Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland. I have also worked as a consultant in other provinces. I carry out exams all over Austria and since Corona I also do them online. Of course it happens that educational institutions find me on the net or get to know me in the context of other projects or events and ask me for support in implementing the Ecolabel.

The first step in the consultation process is to get to know the stakeholders personally in order to make clear the importance of forming an eco-labelling team. Ecolabel is a team effort! During the first meeting I try to get an overview of what is already being implemented and where there are still activities to be done. We also try to work together as a team to determine which priorities should be chosen for the initial assessment. One standard sentence in my consultation is: "If we can implement the mandatory criteria, we will also achieve the necessary target points. The target points area is an important source of ideas for discovering the strengths of educational institutions and where they can still score points in follow-up examinations. It is advisable to concentrate primarily on one's own strengths in the initial examination. It is important for me to act as a companion and supporter in the process and explain how the criteria are to be implemented and proven. This is where my experience and tips are needed.

Is there a difference between counselling in kindergartens, in schools and in educational institutions for adults?

Basically, the counselling services are very similar. It is about team building, pedagogy, nutrition, communication and technical questions of environmental and climate protection. The aim is to actively involve as many participants as possible in educational institutions: Children, young people, pedagogues, employees and, if necessary, parents. It is particularly important to me that the educational institution recognises its own strengths and uses these as an entry point into the eco-labelling process. Almost all institutions implement many ecologically, health-related or socially relevant projects and measures even before a consultation. They often do not know it yet or have not documented these activities. For me, one thing is essential for all forms of education - communication both internally and externally.

What do different educational institutions implement with the Ecolabel?

One focus is on educational activities in the field of sustainable development with the SDGs - Sustainable Development Goals. This also deals with questions of respectful cooperation and the social climate. It is important that the management, the Ecolabel team and above all the children and young people involved deal with questions of environmental and climate protection. Among other things, correct waste separation, waste avoidance, airing or turning off lights. For example, the educational institution must deal with a future-proof energy supply: Are renewable energy sources used, and if not, how can this be changed in the medium term?

Are there 2 or 3 best practice examples with regard to environmental and climate protection?

I do not want to highlight specific educational institutions here, but rather to mention good practices in principle. If, for example, the building is newly constructed or thermally refurbished, many educational institutions have exerted great influence on their preservationists to ensure that sustainable construction criteria are taken into account. Many educational institutions now meet the criteria of the building standard "climate-active". Many institutions have completely changed their procurement and now only buy sustainable, ecologically compatible cleaning agents, hygienic and printing paper or other products and services. But above all, examples where pupils have started a project to change a school buffet towards organic, seasonal, regional, vegan/vegetarian should be mentioned.

Are there 2 or 3 best practice examples regarding health promotion?

Again, nutrition - from a healthy snack, a balanced lunch to the right choice in the vending machine. A regional organic apple juice in returnable glass bottles is preferable to sugar water in aluminium cans. After all, there is no such thing as: "That won't work" for the Ecolabel. Everything works if you want it to, often not tomorrow but perhaps the day after tomorrow. Physical health promotion should also be mentioned in this context. From active movement during breaks to ergonomic sitting and writing.

Are there 2 or 3 best practice examples with regard to the promotion of educational quality?

By integrating environmentally relevant topics into lessons and promoting teaching and learning methods of Education for Sustainable Development, the understanding of ecological interrelationships is promoted and opportunities for ecological action are shown. This understanding is integrated into everyday school life and serves as a stimulus for personal everyday life. I am convinced that the quality of education increases if the institutions make the contents of the Ecolabel an issue in their mission statement, quality or educational programme.

In what way does the Ecolabel promote the achievement of the Sustainability Targets 2030 (SDGs)?

Sustainable and environmentally friendly action requires knowledge. Knowledge is conveyed at educational institutions, both to children and young people and to adults. As a sign that this action is also lived out there, there is the certification option. For a school, a kindergarten or an educational institution to be awarded the Austrian Ecolabel, it must implement measures from environmental management but also from environmental and health education and thus meet the requirements of education for sustainable development. By means of examinations recurring every 4 years, the educational institutions continue to develop with ever new focal points. All educational institutions can be supported during the implementation phase by specially trained consultants of the Austrian Ecolabel.

What can you tell about the promotion of counselling?

Fortunately, there is a promotion scheme in the individual provinces, which, although it varies, generally speaking, especially kindergartens, primary schools and secondary schools make it easier to obtain the Ecolabel.

Changing sides: What are your duties as an auditor and how do you set up the audits?

An Ecolabel audit does not give you the opportunity to get to know the educational institutions as well as a consultant. Nevertheless, this wonderful activity allows me to get to know many great educational institutions throughout Austria. Thanks to the user-friendly software (note for schools) it is possible for me as an auditor to check the documents and certificates in advance and, above all, to read the written comments and descriptions. During the audit itself, I attach great importance to the fact that as many members of the Ecolabel team as possible are present, at least in part. The audit process begins with a round of introductions. After that, I take a detailed tour to get an idea of how the Ecolabel criteria are implemented. Finally, we look at the open points. In principle, I see the audit as a further consultation in the Ecolabel process.

Can you tell us about special experiences and lessons learned during audits?

Many schools and kindergartens prepare themselves lovingly for the audit. You can immediately see how the Ecolabel is lived. There are audits with a welcome by the entire school choir with an environmental song specially rehearsed for the Ecolabel audit. But I have also experienced audits alone with the headmaster in the Direktionskammerl. The involvement of the children/young people, if necessary parents, teachers and non-teaching staff as well as the management is very important to me.

What are the benefits of the Ecolabel for individual educational institutions?

Team building is often mentioned to me as one of the greatest benefits of the Ecolabel process. The process leads to environmental projects, activities and measures, excursions, events etc. being planned more efficiently and also better communicated. There are often cost savings through energy saving and better waste separation.

What does the Ecolabel bring to society?

Particularly when buildings are renovated or newly constructed, sustainability plays an important role in the construction process, right up to the choice of suitable renewable energy sources. Cost savings can often be achieved through better maintenance and control of heating, ventilation or solar energy systems.

Especially for parents, the Ecolabel is a guarantee that they have chosen a kindergarten or school for their children, that they take on social responsibility and pursue a sustainable educational concept. With the Ecolabel, educational institutions signal that acting in terms of sustainability is important to them. This is an important competitive advantage for them: Because future pupils or their parents but also the customers of the educational institutions take a very close look at the diversity of educational offers.

How could the Ecolabel become even better?

I would like to see a better broad impact of the Ecolabel. This also includes introducing user-friendly software for further guidelines, e.g. for schools or tourism. I would value communication both internally and, above all, externally even more and would also make it a mandatory criterion.

This year the Austrian Ecolabel has been in existence for 30 years. What do you wish the Ecolabel on the occasion of the 30th anniversary?

As a bland answer I could say another 30 successful years. But what I would like to see for the Ecolabel in general is that it is no longer necessary as an instrument, as all educational institutions and companies implement the Ecolabel criteria on their own initiative or are legally obliged to do so. But until then, the Ecolabel is the only national eco-label as an independent distinguishing feature.

Thank you Christian Pladerer for the interview, and good luck in the future!

The questions were asked by Arno Dermutz from VKI.

About the person:

DI Christian Pladerer Phone +43 699 1523 6101 pladerer@ecology.at

Executive Board of the Austrian Institute of Ecology, www.ecology.at
Partner of pulswerk gmbh, www.pulswerk.at
Lecturer New Design University, St. Pölten
Lector FH Campus Vienna, FH Wiener Neustadt - Campus Tulln
Eco-label consultant and examiner for some guidelines of the Austrian Ecolabel