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For many business leaders, becoming sustainable is, first and foremost, a practical affair. It tends to be viewed as a clearly defined goal consisting of measurable targets that require concrete plans and actions in order to be achieved. While this focus on the tangible is certainly important and valuable, it does not tell the entire story. When it comes to meeting sustainability goals in the long-term, the intangible plays just as essential a role.
Putting sustainability at the heart of company culture is a powerful way to meet your company’s environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals while simultaneously driving employee engagement. When done effectively, these two commitments create a positive feedback loop that turns social good into an engine for growth.
“It’s important not to impose cultural changes from the top-down, as this goes against the nature of sustainability,” says Tara Milburn, CEO of Ethical Swag, a sustainable branding company that works with hiring professionals to attract, onboard, and retain talent by helping businesses develop a holistic approach to social and environmental sustainability. “A truly sustainable culture is one that balances concern for both people and the planet, so encouraging involvement at every level is essential.”
Start Where You Are
Beginning your sustainability journey can seem intimidating. Many organizations and individuals want to make the change, but have trouble knowing where to begin. Without a clear starting point, it becomes easy to get caught up in making piecemeal changes that do not add up to a clear and holistic vision. This can have the unfortunate effect of creating disappointment and dissatisfaction with sustainability initiatives as a whole.
One way to help avoid this outcome is to begin with a sustainability audit. These audits, which can be devised internally or conducted by reputable outside agencies such as B Labs, take a broad look at how a business performs across a variety of sustainability metrics. By gathering reliable and relevant data on a company’s current performance, these audits can show businesses what they are already doing well and how they can improve.
Having a clear idea of where to start makes it much easier to get other stakeholders on board with these initiatives. Sharing this data with employees and using it to chart a path that indicates which changes will be made–as well as how, when, and why–gives employees an increased sense of confidence and security. Mapping out the company’s future provides individuals with a clearer idea of where they fit into it and may inspire them to bring ideas of their own to the table.
Communication is essential for the success of any business, regardless of their particular goals. When it comes to promoting sustainability, however, the need for communication becomes even more dramatic.
For many organizations, a commitment to sustainability involves an element of change. “Change that is carried out suddenly and without people’s knowledge or input can sometimes be frightening,” Milburn says. “Establishing a framework of two-way communication is essential, as employees’ opinions are just as important as management’s goals, and keeping the two in dialogue is the best way to ensure that both parties remain aligned.”
Assessing employees’ attitudes towards sustainability does not need to be a dry, boring affair. Framing questions of sustainability as questions of meaning and encouraging employees to explain what sustainability means to them is a powerful way to get them intrinsically motivated to participate in company initiatives. Allowing especially passionate employees to act as sustainability evangelists, engaging their peers more directly and modeling sustainable behavior in a directly relatable fashion, is another impactful way to organically create a thriving culture.
Make It Fun
“One of the greatest barriers that sustainability initiatives face is the perception that they require a kind of sacrifice, which is far from the truth,” Milburn observes. “It’s always more effective to inspire, rather than depress, people into action. Emphasizing the positive aspect of these initiatives and using them as opportunities to create community is essential to their success.”
Putting a sustainable slant on the activities that your company already does for fun is one of the best ways to get people involved and excited. Working sustainable ideas and practices into weekly meetings, as well as organizing activities such as team competitions and fundraising campaigns, is an innovative way to make a difference while having fun at the same time.
Another key factor is to emphasize that sustainability does not just refer to environmental performance, but to employee health and happiness as well. As Milburn says, “When you remind employees that sustainability also means allowing staff to cultivate a healthy work-life balance that empowers them to actualize their broader life goals–through health and mental health initiatives, flexible scheduling, and more–they are more likely to experience the joyful, flourishing life that we are really looking for when we talk about sustainability.”
When it comes to sustainability, perception is extremely important. Helping employees realize that these initiatives come with benefits to both their work experiences and their lives outside of work is key to ensuring that they are able to be effectively implemented, and leaders within the organization play a key role in laying out this message in an engaging, accessible way.