The untapped power of employee engagement

A waste removal truck at a footwear factory in China, circa 1997.
Jan Dell
A waste removal truck at a footwear factory in China, circa 1997.

What's the next frontier in sustainability and who will lead it?

The 2015 State of Green Business published last week confirmed what the latest reports on climate change, water availability and ecosystem health tell us: The remarkable innovations and actions by businesses, cities, NGOs and individuals — indeed, the progress that has happened to date — isn’t enough. The cumulative impacts of the behaviors of 8 billion people living on the planet are still adding up to be too much.

What’s left for business to do? We believe one way is to make a bigger impact on the behaviors of the world’s 8 billion people through employee engagement. The 50 largest companies in the United States have over 11 million employees alone. Imagine the cumulative scale and power of employees in big and small companies around the world to have positive impact outside of their companies' fence lines.

But how?

Companies have an influential connection to the behaviors of their employees outside of the workplace. On matters such as personal health and safety, companies promote wellness and home safety campaigns because the business case for mutual benefits to the company and employees is clearly seen.

The next frontier is for companies to harness the power of their employees — and those employees' families, friends and extended social networks — to take action and adopt behaviors that conserve and protect natural resources in their personal lives. Companies can go beyond promoting e-waste recycling and volunteering at trash pick-up days. 

But a review of U.S. companies’ employee engagement efforts on external environmental issues found that programs are limited and participation performance metrics are rarely reported.

At the Wyland Foundation, we started the U.S. National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation in 2012 to harness the influence that mayors have with city residents to adopt behaviors that benefit people and the environment.

The pledges add up. Last year, residents from 1,000 U.S. cities in all 50 states made online pledges to conserve a billion gallons of water, save energy and reduce waste.  

The 2015 U.S. National Water Challenge will run from April 1 to 30 and is available at  It is a ready-made platform to engage and educate employees to adopt long-lasting behaviors, reduce environmental impacts and help their communities. The 17 pledges are common sense actions and are not just about water; they also include reducing energy use and food waste.

As the summary chart shows, the pledges save costs for consumers, save infrastructure and operating costs for cities, promote drought resiliency, and protect watersheds and ecosystems. Quantified financial and environmental savings are provided to each individual based on the pledges they select. Details about the research that went into the design of the pledge program has been reported.  

Our aim is to provide an educational pledge program with comprehensive, measurable and long-lasting environmental benefits to individuals, cities, companies and the planet. A GreenBiz analysis of Sustainability and Employee Engagement (PDF) in 2014 showed that measuring participation rates is vital for success and the website does that. Later this year, we’ll be expanding the U.S. program to the World Water Pledge program to reach out to all 8 billion people.

Companies have made progress that was almost unthinkable back in 1997 when I took this photo of a waste truck at a footwear factory in southern China. Trucks and manufacturing waste such as this are long gone, along with inefficient, water-wasting denim washers and anonymous supply chains. Products are stamped with sustainability certifications and customers can read carbon footprints. Companies have teams of staff with “sustainability” in their titles.

Across the spectrum of industries and business sizes, companies have treasured, measured, managed and reported on their environmental, social and governance performance. And innovative products have been invented to take a photo such as this from a cell phone and share it with the world instantly instead of a roll of film and a lengthy wait for expensive digital processing.

Business ultimately will address planetary challenges by optimizing within its operational boundaries and by going beyond the fence line and into the horizon.

Will you be a pioneer into the next frontier?