How do you achieve corporate sustainability success? Employee engagement.

The business case for sustainability is increasingly well understood and as result, most big companies have a sustainability strategy and are making intelligent operational changes to save energy, waste and water. Many companies are also launching green teams to solicit ideas and implement support from passionate employees.  But those teams tend to represent only a small fraction of employees. What if 100% of employees were engaged in corporate sustainability initiatives? Could that engagement drive a true transformation from a business with a sustainability strategy to a truly Sustainable Brand?

This question, and other “What If” aspirational, inspiring questions wove through the conversations of over 2,500 marketing, communications, and sustainability professionals who met early last month at the Sustainable Brands 14 (SB’14) conference. Engagement was a key topic in the Organizational Development & Intrapreneurship track, but also was highlighted in several other tracks including Leadership & Strategy, Stakeholder Insights & Influences, and Brand Positioning & Communications. As a result, the Sustainable Brands conference was a perfect platform for my company, WeSpire, to release original research around the connection between sustainability and engagement.

The State of Employee Engagement in Sustainability & CSR

On the second day of the event, we released our report, The State of Employee Engagement in Sustainability & CSR. The report is the third iteration in a series conducted to assess how organizations engage employees in sustainability efforts. Brighter Planet, a leader in sustainability technology and research that disbanded in 2013, conducted the two previous surveys in 2009 and 2011. We continued the study, which provides our four-year-old company, very valuable five-year trending data.

The survey showed that employee engagement policies on sustainability have been increasing significantly, as almost twice as many organizations have an official policy in place compared to those in 2011. This growth in sustainability has been largely driven by demand from millennials (those under 30) for purposeful, engaged work. Of the surveyed millennial workers, 55% wanted to see a change in their employer’s stance on employee sustainability efforts moving forward.

The findings also show that companies view employee recruitment and retention as one of the main purposes for sharing organizational sustainability efforts. Strong employee engagement programs attract new, young, talented millennial workers, and it follows that HR is increasingly seen as sustainability’s main advocate. In turn, the power of employee engagement to strengthen sustainability actions has bolstered the growing relationship between sustainability and HR.

Perhaps my favorite finding was that the survey emphasized the importance of the workplace in driving behavior change. Respondents overwhelmingly stated (89%) that they would try a sustainability tactic at home that was introduced at work, indicating the power of these initiatives to have lasting and far-reaching effects on employees. For my company, this is what it’s all about. This statistic is at the core of WeSpire’s mission, to inspire sustainable choices at work, home, and in the community. As behavior change technologists, we specialize in building platforms for companies to build awareness, inspire action, and change behavior using the science of persuasive technology. The research shows that frequent promotion of sustainability programs increases employee engagement and improves the effectiveness of such measures. We know that the best way to encourage organizational change is to consistently inspire changes in employee habits; it is natural for these work-introduced habits to extend to home life.

Finally, we consistently found a theme around millennials. There is a growing influence of millennials in shaping sustainability and CSR strategy for organizations. They want more purpose and greater value in their work—and where they work. They want to learn more about what their employer and co-workers are doing in this area. And, given their propensity for social media, we know they’ll share that information. So the human resources function, charged with attracting and retaining talent, is getting more involved. From this research, we can see the landscape of employee engagement changing and we aren’t surprised at all that millennials are heavily influencing it.

These findings are completely congruent with what we’re experiencing with our customers —who are some of the largest global businesses—and with what we’re seeing in the market in general. The C-Suite is increasingly adding employee engagement in their management dashboard because they recognize its impact on the overall health of the business. Bain & Company’s 2013 study, The Big Green Talent Machine, states that a full 40 percent of employees care “a lot more” about what their company is doing in sustainability than they did three years ago, with an additional 30 percent caring “somewhat more.” A plugged-in leader knows full well that these are perilous numbers to ignore.

So, in addition to all the obvious sustainable changes companies can make, we challenge companies to engage their employees in initiatives that matter for the earth and the community. Companies that do well in engaging employees in sustainability initiatives are already seeing the substantial HR, environmental, and financial benefits. Our hope is that our report will inform roadmap development for even more effective employee engagement strategies, better business, and long-lasting sustainable outcomes.

Featurd photo courtesy of WeSpire

About The Author

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Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder/CEO of WeSpire, the leading technology provider of sustainability engagement programs to global companies. She is a recognized expert in the use of social and game mechanics to drive positive behavior change. Previously, Stevens spent nine years at The New York Times Company, most recently as senior vice president/GM of Boston.com, one of the largest news and information sites on the web. She is a graduate of Wesleyan University and The Tuck School of Business. She serves on the board of Xconomy, the New England Clean Energy Council, the emeritus board of the Center for Women & Enterprise and the Sustainable Brands Advisory Board.

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