Sustainability, Employees and Social Media: 4 Keys to Success

Unilever Australia/New Zealand recently launched a groundbreaking campaign by announcing, "Every employee is the head of sustainability." Emma Peacock, Unilever's Australasian manager of corporate affairs, explains that this campaign is the start of their local efforts to engage employees in the aggressive environmental and business goals set as part of their global Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

"It's the only way to achieve the growth that we have planned over the next 10 to 30 years," Peacock said. "Frankly, we can't do it unless everyone is involved," she said. To that end, each employee got five business cards and a job manual. Some employees were also featured in posters around the workplace.

Unilever's multi-channel effort is truly impressive. But the company is not alone in thinking employee engagement is critical to the long-term success of sustainability initiatives. A recent survey of sustainability executives conducted by Green Research reveals that employee engagement will be one of the top areas of focus for 2012.

This growing emphasis on employee engagement has multiple roots. For starters, it has a bottom line benefit. Dupont recently announced billions of savings in energy costs, crediting a "culture of sustainability," and not some new upgrade or piece of equipment. While sustainability executives at countless companies have typically spent their time tackling straightforward initiatives like reporting, carbon measurement tools, and energy retrofits, they're starting to see that behavior change can also make a positive impact. It can be harder to influence, though.

Unilever acknowledged as much in the consumer insights report that accompanied their global initiative, entitled "Inspiring Sustainable Living: Expert Insights into Consumer Behavior and Unilever's Five Levers for Change." [PDF] A letter from CEO Paul Polman that introduces the report likens sustainable behavior change to as the challenge of fitness and weight loss. He explains that they are making this framework available to everyone because it's the only way to make "sustainable living an everyday reality rather than a pipedream."

If engaging employees is the goal, the challenge now turns to finding strategies that really work. Most companies don't have formal sustainability programs that incorporate employee engagement and those that do are often underwhelming. In a survey released this month from Brighter Planet [PDF], more than 50 percent of employers are now promoting sustainability to their employees on a frequent basis, but only 17 percent have formal programs. Worse news is that only 14 percent of employees believe the efforts to engage them are very effective.

However, a growing body of research identifies employee engagement programs that do work -- and many have social media at their core. The Brighter Planet survey found that organizations with programs that empowered employees to share ideas were six times more likely to be effective. Sustainable Brands Insights recently released a survey that showed 50 companies were already using social media in their sustainability efforts. Seventy-six percent of sustainability professionals believe investment in sustainability-themed social media will help gain market share or increase the size of the overall market. More importantly, those using social media saw a 10 to 15 percent increase in recognition of their sustainability efforts and, crucially, increased compliance.

Next page: Four elements of a successful employee engagement strategy