Engaging Employees in Sustainability: Why It Matters

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Sustainability is a hot topic these days, but it's not just about implementing policies and processes. One of the keys to achieving a sustainable future is engaging employees. While many companies are taking action to address their environmental and social impacts, they often overlook a crucial factor in achieving their sustainability goals: engaging their employees.

In this post, we'll explore the reasons why employee engagement is so important for sustainability efforts and provide examples of best practices for doing so.

Employee engagement drives sustainability outcomes

Does employee engagement really move the needle on sustainability outcomes, you might ask? Obviously, the scale of the ‘materiality’ of employees depends on the business. A service company whose main resource outputs are coming from employees will be a different story from a manufacturing company. It also depends on whether things like Scope 3 emissions (which includes employee emissions) are being measured.

However, regardless of materiality and reporting, it’s worth zooming out here to think about how this all fits together. It’s easy to forget that people are the ones that make sustainability happen; whether it’s through their actions and implementing policies, or through their ideas. A culture of sustainability — one where every team member is thinking about how to reduce risk and coming up with creative solutions — is one of the most powerful sustainability weapons in your arsenal.

… Peter Drucker’s well-known statement ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ comes to mind here.

The great part? When you cut carbon, you also cut costs. For example, IBM engaged its employees in sustainability initiatives and saved $43 million in energy costs in just one year.

Employee engagement drives innovation

Related to the above point is that of innovation. When employees are activated, empowered, and have their sustainability mindset ‘switched on’, they can generate valuable ideas for opportunities and efficiencies relating to sustainability in your business. Capturing these ideas can not only help you identify waste happening on the ‘front lines’, it can even inform growth into new markets/offerings.

In fact, sometimes the most creative and/or impactful ideas come from outside of the sustainability department. Take Marks & Spencer for example; they now have clothes-recycling boxes in all their stores, which provide income for the nonprofit Oxfam. The boxes were an employee’s idea that received support from the top and achieved great success.

Sustainability is a proven innovation catalyst, and given that 93% of CEO’s believe that sustainability is critical to the future success of their business, this is another obvious line to draw… Particularly coming out of COVID, where businesses have identified the need to be more agile and innovative than ever.

Finally, encouraging and listening to these ideas can help employees to develop a sense of ownership over sustainability. Suddenly, it’s not just the mandate of the sustainability department; it’s something that everyone has a role to play in. And as that sense of individual and collective identity grows, it’s a virtuous loop. The more they feel that this is ‘how things are done around here’, the more they act to live up to this identity, becoming your ultimate sustainability ambassadors.

Employee engagement boosts morale and retention

When employees feel like they are making a difference through their work, they are more likely to be satisfied and motivated. This, in turn, leads to increased retention rates. In a study of 1,000 employees, 84% of those who felt that their company was committed to sustainability said they planned to stay with that company for the long term.

Employee engagement improves reputation and brand loyalty

Companies that prioritise sustainability and engage their employees in these efforts are viewed more favourably by consumers. For example, Patagonia, a clothing company known for its commitment to sustainability, has a loyal customer base that includes many people who are passionate about the environment. By engaging employees in its sustainability efforts, Patagonia has been able to reinforce its values and strengthen its customer and employer brand.

To summarise, employee engagement in sustainability is key not only for achieving ambitious targets and resource efficiency goals, but also for unlocking future business opportunities through innovative thinking and capturing employee frontline insights.

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