Prioritizing sustainability can be one of the easiest, yet most effective, ways to increase employee engagement and attract top talent. While factors like pay and work-life balance certainly play a role, a company’s approach to environmental sustainability can have surprisingly strong HR effects. As a result, companies can save money on recruiting expenses, reduce turnover costs and get more productivity out of existing employees.
These benefits are not limited to younger employees. A popular study by Cone Communications did find that nearly two-thirds of millennials wouldn’t work at a company that lacks strong corporate social responsibility values, but workers across generations tend to care about sustainability too.
For example, 90% of millennials say working for sustainable companies is a top priority, but Gen X is not far behind at 84%, followed by Baby Boomers coming in at 77%, according to a Rubbermaid Commercial Products study reported by Sustainable Brands.
If businesses want to attract and engage employees because of these efforts, they need to find ways to act more sustainably, and they need to make these efforts apparent. Companies also need to prove to employees that their efforts are genuine and actually make an impact, rather than looking like a greenwashing scheme. Because even if an organization recruits an employee by touting sustainable business practices, they won’t necessarily be able to retain that employee long-term if they don’t show results.
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Getting buy-in from leadership
Part of becoming a more sustainable company, beyond just implementing token measures, requires getting buy-in at multiple levels of an organization. Sustainability efforts pursued by volunteer committees or grassroots movements can only go so far without executive support.
Yet even if executives or boards prioritize sustainability, they often still need employees to implement these initiatives into the business. In other words, both sides need one another, and if a company lacks either grassroots or executive support, then they should find ways to motivate movement toward sustainability. Doing so can require a mix of connecting sustainability to business and social goals.
According to CB Bhattacharya, Chair of Sustainability and Ethics at the University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Graduate School of Business, companies must entice employees and stakeholders to own sustainability and make it an opportunity to contribute to the future well-being of both the company and society. Some people are moved by financial and career incentives, and some are motivated by social good. However, it’s often a combination of both these areas that get people on board.
Putting sustainability into practice
What does it look like when a company gets this type of buy-in, combining both business and social goals? Consider the actions at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), rated as one of Glassdoor’s 2021 Best Places to Work.
BCG is a large company that prioritizes sustainability both in its consulting work with clients and in its own internal operations. Overall, BCG has over 1,000 green team members access 79 offices, while also using a steering committee of managing directors and partners to oversee their sustainability initiatives.
BCG also has a goal of achieving net-zero climate impact by 2030. Detailed in its annual sustainability report, the company designed a new office in Boston that earned them a LEED Gold Standard certification and Energy Star Score of 100, but they didn’t stop there. After moving into the office, the company’s local green team worked with the landlord to start a composting program.
Smaller companies can do a lot, too
Even though smaller companies often have fewer resources to implement sustainable business practices, they also have a unique advantage compared to larger corporations. Smaller companies can integrate sustainability more easily from the ground up and use it as a recruitment and engagement tool. For example, Ninkasi Brewing Company in Oregon, which received an honorable mention in Outside magazine's rankings of the best places to work, puts its commitment to achieving zero waste directly in its job descriptions.
The company notes that all members of the Ninkasi community are expected to positively contribute to a culture of continuous improvement by focusing on creating a safe workplace, producing zero waste and having the best customer experience.
Ninkasi has also incorporated sustainability into areas such as building design. For example, the company installed a living plant roof on its administrative building, which minimizes stormwater runoff and pollutants that would otherwise go into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. Since pure, clean water is an essential ingredient in their beer, they wanted to make sure they were sensitive to local waterways.
It’s not one size fits all
As these examples show, companies large and small can put sustainability at their core as a way to advance business goals, engage employees, and protect the planet.
There isn’t one specific practice that engages employees more than others, as much can depend on the type of company and what their employees value. However, companies that take a multi-pronged approach to sustainability, both in terms of involving a diverse amount of stakeholders and tackling multiple areas related to sustainability, companies can appeal to workers who want to be part of a positive mission.