Sustainability programmes that actively engage employees put a stamp on the employer’s brand

Companies used to schedule their annual community service days more out of a sense of obligation than social responsibility, letting their employees put in a day or half a day to volunteer at soup kitchens or pick up trash on a beach.

Then executives discovered that employee engagement and sustainability projects brought other benefits: they save money and generate revenue; employees like them; they create positive impressions of the company; and they help with morale, retention and recruitment. Sustainability programmes took shape and took hold, and by all measures of the triple bottom line – financial, social and environmental – they are paying off for firms that invest in them.

“Since the mid-1990s, it has been people, planet, profits,” says Andy Savitz, founder of Sustainable Business Strategies, a Boston-based sustainability consulting firm, and the author of two books on the triple bottom line. Originally, the profitability argument bolstered sustainability programmes because companies enjoyed savings from reducing waste and increasing efficiency, but now the “people” benefits are starting to garner even more attention. “It’s a golden triangle, it shows a connection,” Savitz says of activities that involve employees.

“When people are involved or engaged, they also become more enthusiastic about being at the company and more committed to their jobs, assuming that it resonates with their values. When some employees are involved, it has a halo effect on other employees, who see the company more in line with their own values.”

New sustainability programmes boost employee service hours

This is especially true for younger employees – the Millennials, or people born between 1980 and 2000 – who observers say are more likely to look for jobs aligned with sustainability and business ethics.

Engagement and the triple bottom line

The programmes have a direct impact on business: anything that can be measured in terms of savings, Savitz says. Whole teams of engineers at PepsiCo, for example, are entirely focused on finding ways to save water. The indirect benefit is motivational — benefits that people will acknowledge but that were rarely measured in the past.

That is also changing. A 2012 Gallup report featuring 263 research studies from 192 companies found that “companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22% higher profitability, 10% higher customer ratings, 28% less theft and 48% fewer safety incidents”, according to an article in The Triple Pundit.

Adding social issues to sustainability programmes opened up volunteer opportunities for workers eager to help in their communities and elsewhere. “A lot of people are concerned about the environment, work-life balance and income inequality,” Savitz says. “Employers are trying to align corporate and employee values beyond profitability. [Sustainability] puts a stamp on the company’s brand.”

Engaged and enthusiastic employees are also a company’s best advertisement. According to Savitz, staff members who are keenly involved in and excited about the firm’s sustainability initiatives are also more likely to talk about it and meet other people, which often helps with recruitment. “Sustainability arms people to be ambassadors for the company,” he says.

Kathrin Winkler, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer for the data storage provider EMC Corporation, says that engaged employees become the source of new products, processes and culture innovations that drive revenue and reduce costs. “A more engaged workforce is more productive and committed to the success of the company. Relationships that are formed create cross-functional networks that further drive innovation,” she says.

Sustainability teams at the company devise their own programmes in line with both the corporate headquarters and employees. EMC’s social networking site, Inside EMC, provides staff with a platform to share ideas and self-organise into teams. The firm’s annual Innovation Showcase also solicits hundreds of new ideas; meanwhile, a new ambassador programme aims to bridge all grassroots initiatives with the corporate programmes.

Professional services company PwC regularly attends recruiting fairs at universities and colleges, and used to give visitors to its booths plastic balls with the corporate logo on them. Then a few years ago, the company tried a new incentive, telling visitors to its booths that it would donate $5 to their favourite charity. “The idea was environmentally sound, showed they cared, and they got an idea of what causes people supported,” says Savitz, who used to work at PwC. “They got a lot of important data.”

At Swedish clothing retailer H&M, sustainability training is mandatory for all employees. “We can see that working with sustainability is important to attract new employees and retain them,” says H&M Spokeswoman Ida Ståhlnacke.

In 2012, the company started implementing its global learning management system, Grow, which allows H&M employees to manage their training, access additional optional e-learning or classroom courses, and test their knowledge.

Sustainability training is obligatory for all H&M employees

A sustainable outlook also draws like-minded people. Because Canadian technology company has its own sustainability programmes, it tends to attract people interested in those areas, many of them young, according to Kaitlyn Annaert,’s human resources manager.

“It does come up a lot during recruiting when people ask what we like here,” Annaert says. Employees also volunteer at events in the community, where they network. “They are always meeting new people at community events.”

To really show its commitment, after much preparation, became paperless in November 2014. All recruiting is done online; no paper applications or resumes are accepted. Paper files were scanned and filing cabinets emptied. Those wishing to print something from their computer must get permission from a supervisor. “We always try to consider the environment,” Annaert says.

Listening to staff

For Timberland, the New Hampshire-based outdoor clothing and equipment company, engaging employees in its sustainability programme is both critical to its recruitment efforts and reflective of the business’s identity.

“Employees said it was an important factor in choosing to come and stay,” says Atlanta McIlwraith, the company’s senior manager of community engagement. “In exit interviews, we ask people what we should start, stop or continue, and they always say continue the service programme. People who do leave say they plan to start this at their next company — so it spreads.”

The human resources department uses the programme to illustrate that Timberland is a different place to work and has a brochure that highlights all of the company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives.

During one Timberland activity, for example, the company pulled together cross-functional teams to brainstorm ideas, organised around the theme of driving profitability. About a quarter of the ideas employees proposed had an environmental base to them.

“They are thinking differently; the majority of them have [sustainability] in mind for business solutions, and they are conscious of the environment and the community,” McIlwraith says.

Through engagement activities, Timberland also gains employees who are more productive, work more efficiently and are less likely to leave, all of which helps the financial bottom line. By working on company-wide projects, employees get to know people in other departments, helping to build community and develop contacts they can call on for other projects.

Employees suggested disconnecting Timberland stores in malls from the central heating and cooling systems, and installing remote thermostats in stores, including in free-standing ones. After testing the idea, Timberland’s management plans to replicate it system-wide.

More companies put employees at the heart of their business

Workers chosen to lead service projects receive leadership training and learn skills they can apply in their own positions. “[Leading a project] means a lot to employees who don’t have the opportunity to lead in their jobs,” McIlwraith says. “It’s exciting if they get the CFO on site and they can tell him or her what to do for the day.”

Unlike most corporate sustainability programmes, Timberland encourages its business partners also to get involved. “It’s a popular way to have a direct connection with Timberland values,” McIlwraith says. “Let’s not underestimate the effect of the service site relationship on the business relationship. The wholesale accounts don’t just hear what we do; they are part of what we do. And they want to be part of it.”

Following joint projects, some business partners ask how they can start their own employee engagement initiatives. McIlwraith says she and other Timberland employees spend a lot of time helping other companies launch their initiatives.

These projects also build long-term corporate relationships. On 11 September, 2001, Timberland had invited several wholesale partners to join some of its employees who were renovating a school in New York City. After the terrorist attacks, the volunteers had the choice of “sitting and fretting,” as McIlwraith put it, or completing the project. The volunteers decided to stay and work at the school.

Since then, Timberland and some of its business partners have returned annually to New York on 11 September to participate in a service project and are branching out to other schools. Even when the economy gets bumpy, McIlwraith says, those partners remember that Timberland worked with them year after year, which builds trust and respect.

As sustainability programmes continue to grow and involve more people, they are yet to become fully embedded in corporate life. Winkler says she is seeing greater integration of sustainability into broader employee engagement programmes – not as a separate initiative, but as a broader recognition that employees help drive sustainable practices and that opportunities to engage in sustainability initiatives drive employee engagement.

More and more companies are waking up to the fact that they cannot make systemic change if they aren’t applying a sustainability lens to every aspect of the business, from finance, to manufacturing, to HR and sales, to investor relations, engineering, services and legal.

Employee engagement  employees  H&M  Timberland  volunteering 

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