The State of Green Business: Sustainability becomes an employee perk

carrot perk
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Corporate sustainability practices can help you gain and keep talent.

When it comes to creative corporate benefits, Facebook is no slacker. But one of its newer employee incentives — a $10,000 bonus for those who move closer to to its corporate campus — underscores the value it sees in encouraging employees to embrace sustainability.

To be fair, a large part of the motivation is the San Francisco Bay area’s notorious traffic jams and housing costs. But it’s also an acknowledgement that long commutes aren’t great for Facebook’s environmental credentials, not to mention employee morale. Supporting a culture that encourages long drive times runs counter to at least two of the tech giant’s five core values: "Focus on impact" and "Build social value." Long commutes are unsustainable over the long term.

Ask any accomplished business leader the secret of his or her company’s success, and invariably the answer points to an elusive concept: corporate culture. To quote GE’s legendary CEO Jack Welch: "The essence of competitiveness is liberated when we make people believe that what they think and do is important — and then get out of their way while they do it."

Culture is a notoriously difficult thing to define or measure. But if you’re looking for clues about whether a company really believes sustainable business practices are important, you should start with its mission statement or its declared core values. Increasingly, the organizations that really care about sustainable business practices — and that want to attract millennial workers who care about how their employers treat the planet — are embedding the notion of environmental responsibility right into their central corporate belief systems.

Great examples include Unilever, which wants to "make sustainable living commonplace." Or PepsiCo’s "performance with purpose" declaration, which requires "delivering top-tier results in a way that sustains and respects business, society and the planet." Caterpillar even officially amended its code of conduct in 2015 to add a fifth core value to its existing four. The company now urges employees to prioritize "Integrity, excellence, teamwork, commitment and sustainability."

"It is not appropriate to have a huge sustainability department," Caterpillar’s global sustainability chief Tim Lindsey noted in an interview two years prior to the wording switch. "More can be accomplished having a culture of sustainability. It’s a lot like quality and safety, too. Everyone is responsible. I want to move sustainability forward to that point."

The good news is that a growing number of businesses are embracing a similar mantra by embracing sustainable development goals and, in some cases, offering financial incentives or perks to encourage employees to act on them.

In reality, the sum total of businesses taking things this far is still pretty small. Just a quarter of the 613 companies tracked by nonprofit group Ceres link some portion of executive compensation to progress on sustainability strategy, although far fewer tie it to specific goals such as cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Still, that’s substantially higher than the number of organizations that did so back in 2012.

Moreover, a higher percentage of the organizations surveyed by Ceres — about 40 percent — are building sustainable business principles into corporate training programs, or engaging employees across a variety of roles, from the front office to the manufacturing floor.

"Sustainability-focused employee engagement sometimes emanates from a highly engaged CEO or other senior management, and sometimes from employee-led ‘green teams,’" according to a 2014 Ceres report. “No matter how they begin, it is necessary to embed sustainability within the culture of the organization and across all functions of the business to ensure they last."

Facebook’s unusual commuting perk is just one small example of how green behavior pervades the tech company’s workplace. Another reminder can be found right in the company’s parking lot. The social media giant is one of more than 250 active participants in the Workplace Charging Challenge, a Department of Energy program meant to encourage adoption of electric vehicles. The program’s goal is 500 participating companies by 2018.

The initiative helps fund the installation of plug-in charging stations. Among the big businesses that have signed up: 3M, Baxter International, Capital One, Cigna, Cisco Systems, Coca-Cola, Dell, Eli Lilly, Ford, General Motors, Google, Intel, Kaiser Permanente and MetLife. Over the past three years, the program has encouraged the installation of more than 5,500 charging stations that are available to more than 1 million workers at more than 600 workplaces. Over that time, the system’s fleet has grown to more than 9,000 vehicles.

Logistics company Deutsche Post DHL isn’t a Workplace Charging partner, but it’s also encouraging EV adoption through GoGreen, the umbrella program for all of its sustainability initiatives. For example, the company teamed up with Nissan to create an EV test-drive program at its headquarters in Plantation, Florida, and at airports in New York and Los Angeles. Employees can sign up to borrow the cars on specific days of the month. "Our hope is that employees and customers will get as accustomed to the idea of an [EV] as they are with their smartphones, helping the companywide GoGreen initiative to gain even more traction," Deutsche Post said.

Some businesses, including financial services giants Bank of America and Swiss Re, support even bolder efforts to help employees embrace or reinforce sustainable behaviors at home. During 2015, BofA supported a $500 discount for employees investing in a solar rooftop installation from SolarCity. It also offered a $3,000 reimbursement incentive to workers buying a hybrid, compressed natural gas or "highway-capable" EV. As of the last update, more than 7,200 BofA employees had taken advantage of that benefit.

You can credit Swiss Re for being among the first multinational organizations to create a program of this nature — and for standing behind the effort over the long term. Its COyou2 grant initiative was first established in 2007 and is scheduled to run at least through 2020.

Employees must apply for the funds, but anyone is eligible after working at Swiss Re for three months. The payout comes in the form of a grant for up to 50 percent of the overall investment for a project that helps shrink an employee’s carbon footprint. Over the first seven years of the program, the insurance company granted more than 9,000 subsidies. Last year, there were more than 2,268 approved worldwide — ranging from home appliance replacements to home insulation replacements and other energy-efficiency upgrades to more environmentally friendly forms of transportation.

Given the scale of this employee incentive program, it’s not surprising to learn that sustainability looms large in the core values and mission of companies such as Swiss Re. To be successful in that mission, companies must embed sustainability into the cultural norm. That includes providing employee incentives that encourage the right behavior — not just in the workplace, but at home.