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How to engage employees on your net zero goal

Employees are a key part of your company's net-zero plan and sustainability professions should be taking advantage of them.

Figures looking at sun

Entering the net-zero world requires employee buy-in. Image by Julia Vann/GreenBiz.

The Hire Learning column highlights knowledge from those inside the sustainability office to make sense of the career in this decisive decade. Have an idea you want to write? Email ]

Employees of organizations with net zero goals are getting excited. They are convinced that their companies need to take on a larger role in the fight against climate change and by setting net zero goals, their companies have demonstrated to stakeholders, including the workers, that they intend to mitigate their role in climate change and be part of the solution.

When Cisco announced their goal last year, I received many emails from employees across the globe thrilled to hear our company was tacking action and asking how they could take part. 

But in most cases, an employee’s day-to-day activities don’t significantly impact a company’s Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, especially at technology companies. So why are employees still a key stakeholder in any net zero plan?

Why to engage employees on net zero 

First, sustainability is unique in that it is an area of personal interest that can be directly applied to work. I can’t bring my passion for baking to work —beyond the occasional office cupcake — and it can’t benefit my company’s bottom line. Sustainability, on the other hand, provides many opportunities to engage employees on a topic they are passionate about while helping a company save resources and costs. Encouraging employees to bring their personal sustainability interests into the workplace can reap economic benefits for the long term. For example, employee-driven efficiency projects or perks for those with electric vehicles can reduce fossil fuels. Waste reduction programs such as recycling or composting in office or cutting down on excess breakroom products can reduce consumption and the resulting emissions. And biodiversity practices such as support for native grasses over manicured lawns can decrease landscaping costs while simultaneously saving the business costs.

Second, feeling connected to goals such as net zero can also help employees feel more connected to the company as a whole. Instead of feeling isolated in HR or another department, working towards a net zero goal will help an employee feel part of a bigger project of helping to create a healthier world. This can also be a retention technique, encouraging employees to stay with the company instead of finding a similar role elsewhere with a company that might not have a similar net zero plan.

How are small sustainability teams supposed to communicate and engage hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of employees on sustainability goals.

Third, employees who are satisfied with their company’s goals and mission are also likely to talk about the goals with others. Many people in my life proudly tell me they work in a LEED-certified building, or that their company got rid of paper cups years ago. By sharing your sustainability achievements with employees so they can share it others, building your brand and acting as a form of recruitment.

How to engage employees on net zero

So how are small sustainability teams supposed to communicate and engage hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of employees on sustainability goals.

I recommend four steps of engagement: excite, educate, train and empower. Give them a responsibility to execute. 

1. Excite

Your net zero goal should be exciting. Your employees will be happy to hear positive news in the grim face of climate change. The goals can be an opportunity for your employees to channel their excitement and passion into tackling big challenges. Start a competition that challenges your employees to work towards a pain point for the company’s goal, such as alternatives to foam-based packaging or incentivizing suppliers to use renewable energy. Building excitement around the goal can inspire employees to come up with new solutions and help the company reach net zero.  

2. Educate

After you’ve piqued your employees’ interest, work towards educating them about climate change, sustainability and your goals. For example, use Earth Day to organize engagements that dive deeper into explaining what your net zero goal is and how your company will meet it. Host sessions where employees can calculate their own carbon footprint and learn ways to reduce it, drawing parallels to how you are working towards your organization’s net zero goal. And it doesn’t hurt to take a few minutes at large company meetings to share the new goals and how employees can take part. The more people learn about your goal, the more likely they are to understand it and take action to support it.

3. Train

You will likely have only a handful of people interested in delving deeper into net zero and sustainability. And that is OK. You have managed to find a handful of passionate individuals who want to do more. Turn these engaged learners into ambassadors who, with extra support, can continue the work of communicating about climate change and your goals to their communities. Host a training on the key stakeholders, hurdles and opportunities around meeting net zero. Armed with the right information, your ambassadors can amplify your impact, all while giving you more time to work on actually meeting the goal.

4. Empower

Lastly, connect jobs to your new goal. This doesn’t necessarily mean hiring more people into sustainability roles, but instead empowering employees already at the company to incorporate sustainability into their existing role. This could look like an engineer focusing on increasing the efficiency of and reducing the weight of the product. Or a designer who challenges the status quo by designing a new product line that is paint-free. All of these personal actions taken on behalf of the new goal will start to add up.

A company is just a collection of people working towards the same goals, so make sure they know that net zero should be one of them.

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