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Two Steps Forward

Hire Education: Do Greener Employees Make Greener Companies?

Who's greener, your employees or your company?

This isn't just some idle query. The answer can have a significant impact on the success of your company's environmental commitments, initiatives, and progress.

Consider:

-Millions of people now engage in a variety of green-minded activities in their personal lives, from cutting waste to recycling to saving energy to purchasing greener goods and services. But then they go to work and see those efforts dwarfed by the mountains of waste that collect just around their own workspace, never mind the lights, computers, and other machines that burn 24/7, the dumpsters full of packaging trash, and 1,001 other environmental insults. It's discouraging, to say the least. 

-Conversely, some companies' ambitious efforts to reduce waste, pollution, and other forms of inefficiency — not to mention create new markets for cleaner and greener solutions to meet customers' needs — can be thwarted by employees' lack of environmental awareness and personal habits. The disconnect squanders opportunities for employees to embrace a green ethic all week long, not just during the workday, and to bring to their jobs ideas and inspiration for a greener company.

The greening of employees can create a virtuous circle, one in which their personal and professional commitments and habits continually reinforce each other. Along the way, the more employees understand about the impacts of their jobs and the opportunities to make them greener, the greater the chances they'll rise to the occasion.

Companies are just starting to wake up to this, according to a soon-to-be-released study by the National Environmental Education Foundation. Earlier this year, NEEF set out to gauge "how leading companies approach internal employee education and engagement." It surveyed more than 1,300 people (many respondents coming from the GreenBiz.com newsletter audience) as part of a larger study on corporate environmental and sustainability education.

NEEF found that a significant number of companies saying they offer advanced or very advanced environment and sustainability education — 51% of small company respondents and about 30% of medium and large companies. (These numbers may be skewed somewhat, since the survey respondents come largely from environmentally minded audiences. A more representative cross-section of companies would likely yield different results.)

NEEF also found that 65% of respondents value job candidates' environmental and sustainability knowledge, with 78% saying such knowledge will likely increase as a hiring factor within five years. Moreover, nearly half of respondents who have no environmental education programs believe their company will begin educating employees in the next two years.

Company efforts notwithstanding, employees feel ill-informed about their employer's environmental commitments, programs, and progress, according to recent research. For example, a study this year by the consumer trends consultancy Yankelovich concluded: "In general, consumers leave their green values and expectations at the office door or the factory gate. Even the greenest among us seem to attenuate their environmental demands and expectations when it comes to their employers."

Yankelovich's 2008 "Going Green" report — an annual study of green attitudes, behaviors, and opportunities — assessed for the first time the impact of green attitudes on work choices, a topic that has not been as thoroughly examined as consumers' impact on consumption and political choices. It looked at three key questions:

  1. Are people who may be unwilling to go green in their personal lives nonetheless likely to hold their employers to a higher standard?
  2. Are people who are ardently green in their personal lives unlikely to choose to work for employers who are not as green as they are?
  3. To what extent do employers need to consider the greenness of their policies, processes and carbon footprint in the context of being able to attract the best and brightest employees?

In general, most U.S. workers aren't yet choosing employers based on a company's environmental practices, Yankelovich found.

Given the relatively low levels of concern within the marketplace regarding environmental issues, it is not surprising that the vast majority of employed consumers do not allow an employer's greenness to influence strongly their employment decisions. What is perhaps surprising is that even the greenest among us seem to [reduce] their environmental demands and expectations when it comes to their employers.

On the other hand, according to the 2008 Corporate Sustainability Employees study by the marketing firm Fresh Marketing, "Most employees want more education and resources on corporate sustainability as only one in 10 feel completely prepared to help their companies go forward on corporate sustainability." Just over half of employees "feel confused over how environmental and social impacts are addressed or feel they are treated in silos."

So, what's really going on? Are employees, as Fresh Marketing found, wanting to be more informed and engaged with their employers' environmental efforts? Or, as Yankelovich found, are they not that interested? It's likely a little of each.

Smart companies aren't waiting for employees to ask. They recognize that while workers may not seek out information about the environmental impacts of their company, they would do well to receive it anyway. A wide range of companies have found that once employees are empowered to identify opportunities to cut waste and improve their company's environmental performance, they usually step up to the task.

One of my favorite stories dates back several years, when I visited Quad/Graphics, the world's largest privately held printer, based in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. During my visit, I was impressed by the wide range of environmental initiatives that were taking place in the company's main plant. For example, the employees learned that Quad was creating 17 drums a month of waste ink — each with 550 gallons of toxic material that needed to be carted off at considerable expense to a hazardous waste facility. Using their ingenuity, they figured out how to reduce that waste to just one drum a month.

At the end of a long day of hearing dozens of such employee heroics, I asked John Imes, then the environmental manager at the 9,000-employee plant, "How many people do you have working on environmental issues at Quad?"

Without missing a beat, he responded, "Nine thousand."

Bingo. That's the power of educated and engaged employees.

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