Operational efficiency, keeping up with competitors, and regulations such as the UK government’s 2050 net-zero carbon ambitions are driving companies’ green investment plans. Many leading the sustainability charge have given their employees and other stakeholders a sense of ownership that sustainability is everyone’s job.
Now, organizations are more aware that employees aren’t just colleagues, but also citizens and customers. As customers, we vote for the world we live in through the brands we choose and the products we buy. Increasingly, these are the brands made with consideration for the environment and our society. All of these roles are interrelated and have an impact on each other through customer and employee experience, brand reputation, and citizen activism.
It's important that employees are actively passionate about their company’s impact on climate and the environment and have a key role in helping the business succeed. A sustainable workforce is essential if a company wants authentic results. It brings organizations together, thus creating a better work culture and work-life balance while contributing both to customers and the world.
The challenge is that sustainability initiatives are often removed from the core business and aren’t as value-generating as they could be. This article will share some initiatives we’ve seen that have successfully driven internal behavior change.
Break down organizational silos
To embed sustainability within your organization, you need to break down some of the barriers and silos that exist. When different parts of the business work together to integrate CSR, training, and communications initiatives, organizations are able to achieve sustainability more quickly.
This can start with very small steps. For example, IKEA has made its product range more sustainable by designing it to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold, and recycled—generating as little waste as possible. It also intends to create a movement for a better, more sustainable everyday life.
IKEA's Sustainability Communication Manager, Malin Pettersson-Beckeman, says, “It’s about enabling and inspiring as many people as we can: our customers, coworkers, suppliers, and even other companies to join in the effort and make more sustainable choices every day.” This includes helping employees understand their sustainability goals.
One small step has led IKEA to develop sustainability training materials for its employees. If people on the shop floor don’t understand what’s meant by sustainability and can’t explain it to their customers, then even the best PR and marketing won’t hold. Ensuring the message is understood internally and externally is essential, and it is only achievable if different functions work together.
Profit over purpose?
Over the last few years, some have debated whether purpose should come before profit with the idea being that if organizations do the right thing, profits will follow. Another angle is that being profitable, in turn, enables organizations to do the right thing.
One brand example is Iceland Foods, which has cut palm oil out of its supply chains and eliminated plastic packaging from products under its proprietary label.
Iceland Foods’ Managing Director, Richard Walker, calls the company’s profit-purpose balance “long-term greedy,” i.e., make the right long-term business decisions and profits will follow. Walker believes that the underlying health of the business is paramount and says that Iceland Foods tries to avoid “short-termism” at all costs. He is also aware that Iceland Foods is in an easier position than publicly-owned and -listed companies. He says, “We’re allowed to think long term because we are a private business: we don’t need to solely chase profits quarter after quarter in order to please city shareholders.
Whether privately or publicly owned, organizations have work to do when it comes to purpose. Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2020 shows that businesses saw a four-point uptick in trust to 62 percent from the previous year. But COVID-19 has exposed areas of concern: half of the people believe business is doing poorly at putting people before profits.
Mounting research shows that younger employees especially pay attention to their organization’s purpose. According to PwC, millennials who feel connected to it are 5.3 times more likely to stay. There’s also growing evidence suggesting that millennials, in particular, decide where to work based on a company’s environmental values. More than 70% say they’re more likely to choose to work somewhere with a strong environmental agenda.
Be clear on which behaviors you want to see—and those you don't
This may sound obvious, but if an organization isn’t clear on the employee behaviors it needs for success, you won’t be able to manage your workforce beyond some of the most obvious behaviors (e.g., respect and integrity). Other behaviors also make a difference when it comes to leading in combating climate change.
Many of those are to do with travel behavior and include:
- Using public transport and walking and cycling more.
- Avoiding using cars for short journeys.
- Encouraging car sharing and buying electric bikes or cars.
- Avoiding flights, especially long-haul, or choosing an airline with carbon offsetting programs.
Think about which of these would make a difference to your organization and its employees. Think about what you’re trying to achieve and define the behaviors that will enable you to get there. Clearly communicate what you expect people to do and not to do. Focus on three or four behaviors at a time to avoid confusion.
Encourage and reward positive behavior
Organizations should recognize and reward good employee behavior. There are several tools and techniques to do this, from thanking someone to publicly praising them or using existing organizational performance management and reward systems.
Peer rewards can play a critical role, too, as peers are often much better connected to everyday behaviors and can authentically comment and reward each other in real-time. As so many employees are currently working from home due to COVID-19, it’s a good idea to find out from your workforce what they’re doing at home to reduce their carbon footprint.
You could establish a “green” Slack channel with stories about employees (or your company) using renewable energy to power their buildings and homes. Perhaps share examples of employees upgrading their house lights to LEDs or choosing energy-efficient appliances, if applicable.
Create great habits
Research shows that up to 40% of what we do in organizations is habitual. This means that it’s critical to identify habits, assess whether they’re aligned with target behaviors, and create powerful new ones, too.
The biggest single reason people don’t change is that they don’t form new habits. To change, we need to understand what habits are and how to form new ones. When we first decide to do something new—like not checking emails every five minutes or taking the bike to work rather than the car—we’re taking intentional, rational, and goal-directed actions.
Habits, in contrast, are characterized by automatic behaviors. We don't have to think about what we’re doing every time we do it. Habits follow a loop pattern with a trigger, followed by the behaviors and a reward. We need all three to build a powerful habit. Without a trigger, it won’t start. Without reward, the habit won’t stick.
Educating employees about habit loops could be the first small step in making them aware of the power of habits and how they affect our everyday lives, inside and outside of work.