Skip to main content

Sustainability, Employees and Social Media: 4 Keys to Success

<p>Getting everyone on board with your company's sustainability efforts is the single most important factor for its eventual succes. Here's how companies large and small are making it work.</p>

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.

Experiences as well as hard science can explain why social media-themed sustainability initiatives work. The success can be summarized into four critical success factors.

It's Personal. Wal-Mart's pioneering personal sustainability initiative was one of the first large-scale efforts to recognize that engaging employees at a personal level is key to driving sustainability into the culture. In 2010, they updated their program with the launch of "My Sustainability Plan" as an internal social networking site that enabled employees to select and track their personal sustainability goals.

Brighter Planet's 2009 survey found that 60 percent of employees were interested in what their coworkers were doing personally that was related to sustainability. Social media, whether one is commenting, liking, or sharing, inherently encourages employees to interact at a personal level.

It's Visible. Workplaces are extremely influential on social norms. Robert Cialdini's theory of social proof and flocking says that people are more likely to embrace a behavior when the people around them are doing the same.

Since sustainable behaviors are often invisible, co-workers aren't likely to know who, for example, has figured out how to change the power settings on a computer. Finding ways to show employees how they as individuals -- or as part of a work group -- share and compare with others can be a powerful motivator for change.

It Enables Recognition. Many social media initiatives include gamification, defined as the inclusion of game elements like badges, points and leaderboards to drive real-life behavior change.

These elements enable status and recognition, which is also a powerful motivator for engaging, influencing, or acting sustainably. Gamification elements can also be tied to nominal incentives; for example, every employee who earns a badge is invited to a pizza lunch.

It's Accessible and Measurable. Most employees now have digital access in the workplace, even if it's on shared devices. Unlike offline education and engagement initiatives, social media efforts can be rolled out globally rather seamlessly.

They can be accessed 24/7 from work, home, or via a phone and, perhaps most importantly, engagement and impact can be measured and tracked more seamlessly.

So which sustainability programs are using social media and gamification well? Some of the best examples using social media to influence employee behavior can be found at a range of new start-ups.

For example, Lucid Design Group's Building Dashboard Network has amazing info graphics about energy use at the building level, whether from heating or outlet usage.

However, Director of Engagement, Andrew deCoriolis, says it's the social network and competitions that drive engagement. "Feedback, about anything, but especially with something as opaque as energy, is going to be most useful when it's a compelling social context. Building occupants will be motivated to change because of what their peers are doing or because the social expectation is that they conserve. The feedback will only help inform and reinforce those actions."

Zimride, the social media-based carpooling app, has over 70 private networks using their social tool, including Harvard University. In addition to using social media to bring visibility to other people driving to where you also need to go, the application enables generating revenue from filling that seat as well as making real-life friends.

Seventh Generation, the natural cleaning product company, recently launched a social-media based sustainability engagement program with my company, Practically Green.

It enables employees for the first time to share and compare the sustainable actions they've taken personally and at work, to create individual plans to improve their overall "greenness," and to earn recognition for specific changes they make.

Seventh Gen's Director of Corporate Consciousness, Ashley Orgain, kicked off the program with a "water badge" to motivate water savings.

"As a company, Seventh Generation cares deeply about its water footprint," Orgain explained. "We're actively working to reduce the amount of water that goes into our products, as well as the amount used in their manufacture and transport. This fall, we went one step further and challenged everyone who works at Seventh Generation to take the issue of water conservation to heart. Together, using the Practically Green platform, we learned about the simple steps we each could take to be more mindful of our water use and our employees committed to nearly 500 actions designed to reduce our personal water footprints."

Unilever Australia also intends to add social media into their program. Peacock, the director of corporate affairs, says they haven't determined a specific solution yet, but added, "We are continually looking at opportunities to leverage social media and other innovative tools within our employee engagement initiatives."

The Brighter Planet survey concludes that the time for convincing employers of the importance of engaging employees has passed and now the emphasis needs to be on effective programs. "The data suggest we have reached a point at which effort may need to be transferred from recruiting new organizations to helping organizations that are already promoting staff conservation improve their practices with new tools and techniques to engage employees."

Based on the results of early social media based initiatives, my prediction is that these tools will likely be part of the arsenal for most sustainability-focused companies. And that is good news not just for employees, but for the environmental challenge we all care passionately about.

More on this topic

More by This Author