Today’s guest post is by Eric Brody, a member of the R.Bruer Sustainable Branding Collaborative. Eric is founder and principal of Shift Advantage, a sustainability consultancy in Portland, Ore. He was previously the sustainability business integration manager for Nike and sustainability manager for Nau, a technical outdoor and urban clothing company recognized for its innovative sustainability practices.
Much has been written about how to involve employees in more environmentally friendly office practices, such as reducing paper consumption, carpooling, turning off computers at night, recycling, and composting food scraps. As important as these and many other behaviors are to greening an office, they only take a business so far down the sustainability path.
If your vision is to build a sustainable business operating from a triple-bottom-line (people, planet, profit) philosophy, then sustainability is core to your business strategy. Your challenge involves more than green office practices. It means creating a business whose success is measured by its social, environmental and financial contributions.
Executives can only achieve their vision of a sustainable business by engaging and involving their work force. They need everyone in their companies on board. The question is how to engage all employees in the practice of strategic sustainability.
Fully engaging employees in strategic sustainability
At the risk of over-simplifying what can be a complex undertaking, I’ll offer a 10-step approach to employee engagement:
- Develop a strategic business plan that clearly articulates your social, environmental and financial objectives and strategies over a period of up to five years. I’ve worked with companies that set very aggressive stretch goals such as zero waste or zero carbon footprint by a certain date to ones that set more pragmatic goals such as reducing waste or the carbon footprint by a certain percentage.
- Share your business plan with each group or department. Ask each group to review their individual plan and goals with the intention of incorporating or expanding the practice of sustainability into their metrics of success. Each unit may be different: Purchasing may adopt social and environmental performance requirements in their procurement contracts with suppliers. Product development and design may adopt design for environment (DfE) techniques into their processes. This type of thinking leads to innovations such as creating products that are lighter, repairable, utilize rechargeable energy sources, use energy more efficiently, or require low impact cleaning by the user. Accounting may investigate new models for measuring and tracking social and environmental impact, in addition to financial performance such as the greenhouse gases associated with business travel.
- Set department goals, both short term and long term (quarter, annual, three-to-five year). Companies may choose to make their environmental and social goals based on company totals or on a per unit or per dollar basis.
- For each job function and individual, determine responsibilities and expectations related to achieving the department’s and the overall business’ sustainability goals. As much as possible, make this an exercise of co-creation between a manager and an employee. You want every employee feeling enthused and empowered to make a difference. You also want to let employees know their contributions to sustainability will be a factor in their annual performance reviews (see Step 7). Set goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely.
- Provide training for each employee to grow competency and skills related to improving their individual contributions to your triple bottom line. Where possible, develop or seek sustainability training that is domain-specific, e.g., marketing, product development, manufacturing, customer service, human resources. This can include sending your employees to conferences or workshops or participating in industry or cross-industry collaborative working groups that are addressing specific issues such as water, logistics, fair labor and energy efficiency.
- Check-in regularly (weekly, monthly, quarterly) to monitor progress on the sustainability front, such as in manager/employee one-on-ones or staff meetings. This enables mid-course corrections and prevents year-end disappointments in group or individual performance.
- During annual reviews, evaluate each employee’s performance related to his or her individual and group sustainability goals. This reinforces the importance of achieving these to the company.
- After their performance reviews, ask employees to produce new or revised 12-month SMART goals to help their departments and the company achieve sustainability objectives. Be sure to share with employees any changes to business or department plans so they can align their individual efforts accordingly.
- Throughout the year, acknowledge and celebrate individual and group sustainability achievements across the company. Consider contests that motivate individuals and groups to out-perform each other and help make the sustainability journey about having fun and making a difference.
- Work with each department to engage their stakeholders and report publicly the achievements and challenges. This may include summits with your supply chain, reporting achievements and challenges to the public through corporate responsibility reports or websites or engaging customers through customer surveys and communications. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) provides a thorough framework for corporate responsibility reporting.
We have seen great success with companies that take these steps to fully engage their employees. This strategic approach moves sustainability from theory to practice within a company. The more engaged employees are, the more they will help your business innovate, achieve industry leadership, reduce costs and increase market share.