Many businesses are heeding the growing call to address sustainability issues. However, this is largely being implemented in a ‘top down’ manner, with limited employee involvement and penetration of the workforce culture. As sustainability continues to grow as a core strategic concern, this will no longer suffice.
To put this growth in context, 90% of the S&P 500 now report on sustainability (up from just 20% in 2011). This is largely due to market pressure from investors and consumers, as well as rising regulations. Organisations are also making historic sustainability commitments; particularly when it comes to carbon emissions. To achieve these ambitious targets, every department needs to be on board — and employees themselves must be ‘swimming in the same direction’ to help make this happen.
Employee-led sustainability outcomes
Does employee involvement really make a difference to 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 to 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 or ideas. A culture of sustainability — one where every team member is thinking about how to reduce waste 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.
Beyond resource efficiency: 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.
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.
We started SeedCulture as a way to drive both sustainability and innovation outcomes. Our gamified software platform helps businesses engage their teams around sustainability, inspiring them to take action and collaborate on sustainability solutions.