As companies large and small wake up to the urgency of the climate crisis, many are marshaling their resources to reduce their environmental impact and transform their business. But all too often they fail to leverage one of the most powerful and readily available resources they already have - their employees. This article will explore why sustainability should be a part of everybody's job and how to get there.
Environmental sustainability is quickly moving from a "nice to have" function of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to a centerpiece of business strategy, increasingly embedded into everything a company does. Until recently, corporate sustainability teams were relegated to hiding in the shadows of a large org chart, invisible to most employees and an afterthought in strategic decisions. Companies are finally elevating the importance of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) to the C Suite, reflecting the growing influence - and resourcing - these sustainability teams have. And yet, full time sustainability jobs remain very low proportionally to the overall size of an organization's workforce. Corporate Eco Forum (CEF), a membership-based organization that Microsoft is part of, recently conducted an informal, anonymized survey to generate insights around sustainability-related organizational structures. When asked to report on total headcount for corporate sustainability groups, nearly a quarter of respondents reported just 5-10 employees.
This is not enough to solve planet sized challenges. Even with growing influence and resources, sustainability teams remain small and siloed. These factors can limit their ability to enact the widespread changes needed to embed sustainability throughout every part of an organization. Like most things in the climate crisis, this is a problem of scale. From reducing global carbon emissions to creating a circular economy to minimize waste, these problems are literally planetary in size. Solutions will have to match that scale and getting there will require widespread cooperation across the entirety of an organization. By engaging all of their employees to amplify the efforts of professional sustainability teams, companies can scale to meet these challenges.
In this context, I define employee engagement as actions to increase employee participation in a company’s environmental sustainability efforts. It's about proactively and intentionally creating ways to educate, inspire, and activate all employees (more on that below) to make sustainability part of everybody's job. The end goal is to have sustainability be a part of your organization’s culture.
That does not mean that an organization knows precisely how every employee can find their own unique way to contribute – it means creating the right conditions and incentives to enable the creativity and experimentation required for everyone to figure it out collectively. For example, who could articulate the principles of green software engineering better than software engineers? Who better to define the principles of sustainable design than designers? You don’t have to have sustainability in your job title to come up with the next great idea. Every role at every level will need to figure out how they are distinctively positioned to accelerate this transformation. This is about the democratization of sustainability, grounded in the idea that everyone has something meaningful to contribute.
Creating opportunities for employees to work on sustainability in nontraditional ways has benefits beyond scaling the efforts of sustainability teams. There are implications for hiring and retaining top talent, especially young workers.
Demographics are changing and so are the expectations placed on companies by their employees. As of 2020, millennials already make up 50% of the US workforce. According to Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study "64% of Millennials consider a company’s social and environmental commitments when deciding where to work, 64% won’t take a job if a company doesn’t have strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) values, 83% would be more loyal to a company that helps them contribute to social and environmental issues (vs. 70% U.S. average), and 88% say their job is more fulfilling when they are provided opportunities to make a positive impact on social and environmental issues.” Young workers see the fundamental role of companies differently from their predecessors. Gone are the days when businesses simply produced goods and created profit. Companies are now expected to create jobs, improve society, and reduce their harm on the environment simultaneously (commonly referred to as the triple bottom line). Companies who want to attract, hire, and retain this generation of talent will need to earnestly pursue sustainability and give employees a chance to contribute.
There are risks for companies who fail to engage employees on sustainability too. The climate crisis can elicit strong reactions and complex feelings; we are talking about nothing short of civilization-ending catastrophes. Employee suggestions (sometimes demands) for how their employer should respond to this existential threat are inevitable – it’s how a company responds that matters. Internal and external employee activism can tarnish a company’s reputation (footnote 1) shareholder activism can disrupt business plans (footnote 2), and the inability to hire and retain top talent equals the inability to remain competitive in a rapidly changing landscape. Every company realizes it’s one disgruntled tweet away from a potentially fatal PR crisis. Proactively engaging employees on this topic is a better proposition for everyone.
How do we do it?
So how exactly does an organization successfully engage its employees in sustainability? There are no one-size-fits-all answers but here’s what I’ve learned in my time doing this work at Microsoft, widely considered to be a leader in corporate sustainability. I like to think of this as a 3-step process - the virtuous cycle of employee engagement. This cycle will assume kinetic energy and become self-propelling over time. Like a snowball rolling down a hill becoming an avalanche, it will gain momentum and draw in everything in its path. Individual employees can enter the cycle at any point depending on their experience, but it’s critical they move through all three phases. Once they have, they will understand what sustainability is (and isn’t), how to make it part of their job, and how to help others do the same. This is how culture change happens.
Education is a critical precursor for everything that follows. With a topic this massive and complex, you must first establish a shared language and understanding of what sustainability is (and isn’t). Providing formal training can go a long way and, in my experience, it isn’t very common. Every employee should understand what sustainability is, why it matters, and how their company is approaching it. With that knowledge, they are much better positioned to figure out the unique ways they can contribute. Without it, employees may not understand how their individual actions align or ladder up to the company’s which can lead to wasted effort and frustration on both sides.
Tips for effective education:
Kick-starting the process with education provides everyone with a shared language and better idea where to focus their efforts. Education on sustainability is an ongoing endeavor for everyone that requires a learn-it-all mindset.
With education in place, it's time to inspire people by demonstrating what is possible! This is especially important because people need to understand how to move from abstract concepts and data to tactical application.
Tips for inspiring employees:
Connecting this work down to an individual employee level is a tangible way to embed sustainability into the company’s culture. It may take time, but helping employees connect the dots to their day jobs can ultimately unlock all kinds of incredible innovation and energy.
Now the really cool stuff can happen! With foundational knowledge and a belief in what is possible, employees can be turned loose to figure out exactly how to make sustainability part of their job. Leaders, in turn, should provide the resources and conditions that allow experimentation to thrive.
Tips for activating employees:
Above all else, strive to meet people where they’re at and make participation as easy as possible! Activation is a critical part of this process because it creates the energy that keeps the cycle going, bringing more people in.
Companies who pursue sustainability and invite all their employees to contribute will be far better positioned to weather the climate crisis than those who continue on with business as usual. They will attract young talent, unlock innovation, and reduce their environmental impact simultaneously. Jamie Beck Alexander, from Drawdown Labs asks “What would it look like to make climate central to the business model of every company on earth? How many new skillsets and capacities might that bring to the table? How many new jobs? How much passion?” There is no challenge more vast, complex, or consequential as the climate crisis. We will have to reimagine nearly everything we do with the upstream and downstream environmental impacts front and center to our decision making. What we need right now is an unprecedented level of human cooperation and creativity. It's time to make sustainability part of everybody's job.
Want to learn more? Start here
About the author: Drew Wilkinson is a climate activist, community organizer, and co-founder of
Microsoft’s 10,000 member employee sustainability community. He works for Planet Earth but provides
consulting services on the people side of sustainability: employee engagement, culture and change
management, community building, green skilling, and leadership development. Learn more on his
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