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Lead Your Team Leadership

How to Increase Employee Engagement in Sustainability

How to Increase Employee Engagement in Sustainability
Credit: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock

Globally, businesses of all sizes are beginning to embrace the values of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability. However, most executives haven't figured out how to engage employees in daily activities that put those values into practice.

One CSR leader, the consumer goods giant Unilever, has adopted the slogan, "small actions can make a big difference." Unilever truly puts this into practice – the company actively encourages employees to behave sustainably in the workplace.

 "The key to creating a vibrant and sustainable company is to find ways to get all employees, from top executives to assembly workers, personally engaged in day-to-day corporate sustainability efforts," Paul Polman, Unilever's CEO, wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Reviews.

Employee engagement is essential in transforming your business's sustainability goals into reality. Taking the first steps are simple, by properly educating and engaging, you can build a sustainable culture in your workplace. 

From an employee's perspective, sustainability initiatives are rarely tied to paychecks or profit margins, but rather are intended to combat societal challenges, such as climate change. It's important to provide proper sustainability training to create a feeling of individual responsibility for your employees.

These education sessions should evaluate the company's long-term purpose and align them with your employees' own goals. According to Polman, this approach is undoubtedly more aligned with the good of society and the planet and can help to erase the conflict that people feel between their work duties and personal values.

By clearly spelling out the economic case for sustainability, employees will begin to think about sustainability as more than just "doing good" but also "doing well." A business must be profitable, but it can do so in a way that follows the triple bottom line approach, which considers profit in addition to people and the planet.

Peter Seligman, former CEO and founder of Conservation International, told Entrepreneur he believes that sustainability efforts don't hurt profits, but soon they'll drive them.

Many sustainability initiatives require special knowledge and expertise, so you'll need to explain new changes and why they are happening. For smaller businesses without the budget for formal training, a simple email or quick update at a meeting will go a long way.

After you educate your employees, you'll need to create a sense of accountability for your new initiatives to be implemented. Dave Balser, project manager at Briteskies, wrote in GreenBiz that employees who participated in the company's sustainability program often contributed additional program ideas. For example, one Briteskies employee coordinates an office community-supported agriculture program that he suggested.

It's easy to update your sustainability goals on your company website, but changes in the office can be difficult. Make sure to recognize your colleagues and reward positive change. A small present like a reusable water bottle, coffee cup or canvas bag could also help kickstart your efforts. Oliver Russell, a marketing agency in Boise, Idaho, even offers employees a bonus of $2.50 each time they take alternative transportation to work.

You should also celebrate success when goals are reached. This keeps visibility high and promotes a sense of healthy competition. One way to do this is establishing a weekly green spotlight, or offering a group prize when certain sustainability goals are met.

When it comes to sustainability, leaders' actions speak louder than words and play a vital role in reaffirming company values to employees.

Stakeholders are often skeptical about a company's motivation for getting involved in sustainability initiatives. Polman wrote many employees were persuaded to embrace such initiatives only when convinced the company is sincere about making a positive difference.

Although your small business may not have the same budget of sustainability leaders like Unilever, businesses of any size can adopt these practices.

John Arthur, author of "Manage Your New Career," (Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2018), believes when executives embrace sustainability values, they attract the right kind of people.

"In my years helping grow a 50-person to a 400-person firm, I found that a social mindset was a major employee motivator and common bond for them," he said.

The idea of concept driven work is increasingly correlated with professional fulfillment. Sustainability initiatives and employee engagement take time, but the development of a sustainable company will benefit by having a highly productive workforce that is proud to bring positive change.

Carlyann Edwards

Carlyann is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Business Journalism with minors in sustainability and music at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will graduate in 2020. She is incredibly interested by the intersection of business development and environmental preservation. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys working for non-profit organization Carolina Thrift, running and playing the ukulele. She can be reached by email or LinkedIn.