3 ways to leverage your sustainability story with your employees

by Mar 8, 2018

We’ve published and spoken a lot lately about the cultural shift we’re in the middle of regarding the mainstreaming of sustainability (here’s my 10-minute talk on the subject at GreenBiz 18).

I’ve talked about how Americans – and Millennials in particular – are not actively changing personal behaviors, but they are changing buying behaviors. They’re seeking out companies who are doing good in the world, checking out their stories, trying out their products and, as trust and belief in that company is built, they’re advocating to their friends and family, encouraging them to buy from those companies, too. And of course, the reverse is true as well.

We learned a long time ago in our Pulse research that “we all take ourselves to work every day” (I guess we didn’t actually need research to figure that out), and many of the beliefs and actions we take in our home lives translate to our work lives. Thus, we should expect that the shift that’s happening related to our buying behaviors will run in parallel to our decision-making related to our work lives – specifically who we go to work for.

Why this matters

In the present state of low unemployment, this matters. You want the best, brightest people working for you, and if they know about your sustainability commitments, and if they’re actively engaged in helping you achieve your organizations’ sustainability goals, they will be more loyal to you, more engaged in their work, and producing better outcomes.

Here’s some data from the 2016 Cone Communications Employee Engagement Study of the U.S. workforce:

  • 58% consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work. That number jumps to 79% for Millennials only.
  • 55% would choose to work for a socially responsible company, even if the salary was less – and that’s true for 76% of Millennials.
  • 51% say they won’t work for a company that doesn’t have strong social or environmental commitments.
  • 70% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues; 83% of Millennials say so.

So being committed to people and the planet matters for employee recruitment and retention. But that’s not enough … you have to talk about it! Cone’s research also reveals that 75% of the U.S. workforce thinks it’s important that their company shares its goals, progress and related achievements.

Insights from WeSpire’s founder: why & how to engage employees

To dig into this further, I chatted with my friend Susan Hunt Stevens, the founder and CEO of WeSpire, the leading digital platform for engaging employees in a company’s sustainability efforts. She told me a couple of other interesting tidbits:

Despite all the data pointing to a neon sign that flashes, “Communicate with your employees about your sustainability commitments and engage them in your efforts,” WeSpire’s annual State of Employee Engagement survey found that only about a quarter of companies actually do that.

“It’s an incredible missed opportunity,” Susan said. “Why invest in sustainability and not bring your people along – especially when it’s clear that more engaged employees are more likely to build a great business?”

When I asked her how companies can best do that, she noted, “Employees look at frequency as an indicator of importance. So how often are they seeing a blog post from the CEO talking about sustainability, how often are they seeing signage in the lobby or elevator talking about it? If these communication vehicles focus in on the usual suspects of wellness and safety, but never mention sustainability, employees will get the message that it doesn’t really matter.”

3 things Susan recommends that you can do to change the game:

  1. Map your existing employee communications materials. Look at every channel you’re using to communicate with employees, look at every piece of communication and integrate sustainability with the same frequency as the other key messages.
  2. Professionalize Green Team participation. Don’t have these teams just be fun volunteer things that people participate in because the environment matters to them. Make these teams be a vehicle for professional growth and advancement. Then people will participate not just because they care but because their participation will help their careers.
  3. Unleash innovation ideas more systematically. Many companies will send out general employee communications asking, “What should we do about sustainability?” These can cause some employees to mutter under their breath, “For the 47th time, we should add composting into the break rooms.” Instead, make the request specific and set up a challenge around it, i.e., “We’re looking for specific ideas to reduce packaging for these three products. Submit your ideas and we’ll ask your colleagues to vote for the best one.” In other words, identify a specific problem for folks to solve vs. asking them to add to the suggestion box.

Bottom line: if you’re already committed to sustainability, you have an enormous opportunity to leverage that commitment for better employee – and customer and sales – outcomes. Start implementing these steps today!

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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