Authentic engagement of employees in sustainability delivers real value, including an increase in innovative ideas, cost savings and attracting and retaining the best talent.
At a recent talk at Harvard, sustainability author and strategist Andrew Winston estimated that the intangible value of retaining talent is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He points to Unilever, a global corporate leader in sustainability, which LinkedIn has named as the top consumer goods company to work for.
The following six best practices can energize employees, deepen their connection to your sustainability efforts and inspire action. They originate from Green Impact’s new white paper, Green Happens Here: Six Best Practices to Empower Employees and Inspire Action and a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article on employee engagement.
1. See the big picture
Take the time to step back and look at the big picture. Identify strategic areas where you can capture more value and impact. Greening your operations and facilities and committing to social responsibility can capture cost savings from eco-efficiencies and reduce risk, but these activities often happen behind-the-scenes and are invisible to employees, students, customers and suppliers.
The holistic sustainability framework above encourages you to look at two other aspects that are often neglected, but offer real business value. If you are leaving out these upper quadrants, you are leaving value on the table:
- Employee engagement: Your employees are potential green champions and collaborators on your sustainability journey. Are they aware of your commitment to sustainability and engaged on a day-to-day basis? Have you created a culture that cultivates creativity and innovation? Are employees looking for ways to build revenues from a sustainability lens?
- Tell your success stories: According to Winston, companies tend to undersell the good they are doing.
This gets to the upper right quadrant — the value of communicating externally about your successes and (perhaps your challenges). Are your success stories and best practices visible to your employees, customers, community and other stakeholders? Is your sustainability message integrated into your communications channels?
2. Create a culture of creativity
To inspire more innovation, create a culture that nurtures creative flow and taking risks. We know that sustainability can promote innovation and push businesses to save money, discover new business models and identify new products and services.
Three particular qualities can cultivate an internal culture that improves and fosters sustainability innovation: leadership from the top; comfort with risk and cross-collaboration.
These tips are more about nurturing innovation at the organizational level, but they don’t directly address the three key blocks to creativity: the inner critic; the comparing mind; and overthinking. These additional tips can inspire you and create a culture of creativity:
- Make consistent time for creativity.
- Turn off the inner critic.
- Use nature to spark creativity.
- Gather available resources.
- Dive in and move into the unknown.
- Take risks and be willing to fail.
- Ask for feedback.
3. Build off your brand
To increase visibility and impact, stay true to your core brand, yet create a memorable green message.
When you start engaging employees and telling success stories, a tension exists between how to stay true to your core brand, yet create a memorable green message.
In 2013, ecoAmerica launched MomentUs, a strategic cross-sector communications initiative designed to build support for climate change solutions. MomentUs created unique brands and messaging for each key sector.
For example, to engage business leaders, it created America Knows How with the tagline “Better Business, Better Climate.” To engage health care leaders, it created Climate for Health, with messaging targeted around the link between health and climate. Both programs built off ecoAmerica’s core values, but use targeted branding and messaging to engage specific audiences.
4. Tap into values
To capture attention, connect with your audience and inspire action tap into the values of your target audience and use values-based messaging. The more you can hone in on who you want to reach and what they care about, the more successful engagement efforts will be.
Here are three examples of this idea in action:
- MomentUs’ Climate for Health campaign recently released Let’s Talk Health with suggestions on how to message climate change. Understanding your audience’s priorities and talking about their values, including of family, community or even fairness, can open hearts and minds.
- Another health-related example is University of California, San Francisco’s most recent campaign, Climate Changes Health. To reach faculty, staff and students, working to promote world health, the messaging makes the connection between climate solutions and improving people’s health.
- Building on its Jesuit roots, University of San Francisco’s Beloved in Nature, a short video created to inspire action on climate change, emphasized the message that we are part of nature, not separate from it.
5. Make sustainability visible
To amplify your impact, make sustainability visible internally and externally: Put a face to it and highlight success stories.
Several social cognition models point visibility and salience playing a role in changing people’s beliefs and attitudes and influencing behavior. Here are a few ways to make sustainability more tangible and visible:
- Highlight success stories and green champions: Consistently integrate success stories and best practices into communications. For example, each month the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) posts three such highlights on its sustainability website.
- Put a face to it: Use images and stories that spotlight personal connections to sustainability and put a face to it. America Knows How‘s website highlights success stories and figures, such as Leilani Münter, race car driver, and Tachi Kiuchi, chairman and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America.
- Use video: To promote sustainability to faculty, staff, and students UCSF created a fun sustainability video built on its core mission to protect world health. The main character, Dr. McGreeny, delivers the message, “A healthy planet means healthy patients.”
6. Identify and empower green champions
Identify employees with a passion for sustainability and empower them to move into action. Top‐down vision and commitment is critical. However, all employees should be engaged.
An effective strategy for embedding sustainability deeper into your organization is to identify green champions or ambassadors, employees who can help support new sustainability initiatives. Clothier Marks & Spencer, for example, has sustainability champions in its 1,380 stores. Here more such programs:
- Bloomberg’s BCAUSE program includes ambassadors to support green initiatives; Bloomberg also has extended its program and events to employees’ families, engaging spouses and dependents to increase impact.
- At Genentech, 500 GreenGuides volunteer to serve as a peer resource to support new green initiatives.
- Mattel has identified green champions at over half its American Girl stores as part of a green team effort know as SEEDs: Sustainability for Employee Engagement and Development. For Mattel, a key to effectively scaling green teams to multiple locations has been to empower green champions to take action by providing them ongoing resources, activity ideas, collateral and support.
One of my favorite activities to activate green champions? Ask a values-based question. This gets employees thinking about why environmental stewardship matters to them. Learn more about this activity HERE.
Other great entry points for engaging employees include promoting sustainable food, reducing waste, recognizing green champions and engaging employees’ kids.
One route to happier, more engaged employees is to offer a meaningful and strategic purpose. Find ways to connect your purpose to employees’ values and day-to-day work, and it can become a competitive advantage. Another way to go deeper is to embed sustainability more directly into employee’s goals and compensation.
And if you are feeling overwhelmed and not sure where to start, begin with a good story and a clear call to action.