Engaging Employees in Sustainability

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been in several conversations about employee engagement in sustainability. While not a new trend, employee engagement in corporate greening is gaining ground and emerging as a strong force to move corporate social responsibility forward.

I recall about nine or 10 years ago, when I led the environmental function at Intel and several employees from our Oregon site formed the Intel Employee Sustainability Network … I used to call them my own personal NGO.

While some saw a new hassle, the fresh perspective and new ideas injected vitality into our program. We had to work out some boundary conditions around areas like setting corporate policy and public relations, but these were easily managed and, on balance, the collaboration was a benefit to the program, the company and the employees.

When the Intel group started we brought in a speaker from the well established HP green team for some tips on how to get started. Fast forward a few years at Apple when a rep from Intel "paid it forward" to help "Apple Earth" get rolling. There are so many of these groups now that networks are beginning to form to share ideas and resources:

Green Team Project: Participate on a Green Team
Bay Area Green Team Program
Sustainable Silicon Valley's New Green Teams Resources Page

Typically, the members of these groups have little or no involvement in the official corporate environmental or sustainability efforts. They are environmentally minded individuals who are driven to green their lives at home and work.

More than a common interest club (think chess club), these teams want to change the way their company functions. Usually, it starts with the most visible items -- e.g., cafeteria waste, lighting, commuting, landscape irrigation etc. After some success with these items, these groups can transition into influencing corporate business practices from design to manufacturing to purchasing and more.

While I am certain there are numerous examples of success (please send me yours!), here is a random, unscientific survey of a few employee engagement approaches:

• Coming in first for best name is "GreenGenes" at Genentech.
• The trophy for most employees engaged goes to WalMart's "personal sustainability plans."
• Topping the "wired" list is eBay's green team with the recently announced e-Bay Ink.
• And, not to be outdone, my former colleagues at Intel are rewarding green with green by building sustainability criteria into the bonus formula for all employees.

Looking ahead, employee engagement in corporate sustainability will continue to grow as the "millennials" (young folks) enter the workforce. The next generation may the greenest yet, having been raised with Captain Planet, Mom's Prius and curbside recycling.

The folks in HR have not missed the trend and are becoming big fans of the sustainability group. A recent survey found that American workers are paying growing attention to companies' environmental policies and an increasing number (36 percent) report that they would be more inclined to work for "green" companies.

The bottom line: a key benefit of corporate sustainability programs may be the corporation itself. Increasingly sustainability is becoming a tool to recruit, retain, inspire and motivate your workforce.

Tim Mohin is a principal consultant and team leader for EORM's growing sustainability and corporate social responsibility practice. Formerly, Tim was Apple's senior manager for supplier responsibility and led Intel's environmental and sustainability efforts. He also led the development of national environmental strategy at the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Senate including the development of the National Environmental Technology Act. Email him by clicking here.


Image CC licensed by Flickr user mscaprikell