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How does a focus on environmental responsibility help companies hire the best talent?

In 2020, increasing numbers of CEOs recognise that incorporating sustainable practices into their company's policies helps them to hire the most forward-thinking, desirable talent.

Max Parnell
Max Parnell
September 22, 2020 | 8 min

Evidence suggests a clear correlation between a company's green efforts and their prosperity, so why hesitate in adopting sustainable practices? Frequently, many CEOs and board leaders still fall into the trap of viewing it in terms of ‘either / or’. Either we focus on productivity, growth and profitability, or we make room for sustainable practices. However, as you will see in this article, there is growing evidence that engaging with sustainability actually benefits a company’s performance, profitability and potential to hire the best talent. In actuality, this mode of splitting values into different groups of priorities falls short in recognising that, in 2020, framing the question in terms of ‘either / or’ doesn't benefit a company. Instead, astute leaders are succinctly aware that in order to hire the best talent (the real bedrock for determining any company’s success), actively incorporating green initiatives into their company’s strategies significantly helps to draw in the most desirable employees.

A multitude of studies and surveys that investigate the values of the millennial generation across different continents have demonstrated that the size of their paycheck is not enough of a factor to guarantee a successful employment. For example, according to a comprehensive survey undertaken in the US, nearly three quarters of millennial candidates said they would accept a smaller paycheck to work for a company that was environmentally responsible. Similarly, in the UK, research carried out by the consultancy Global Tolerance showed that at least 62% of candidates wanted to work for an institution that had a positive impact on the world, and over 50% would work harder if they believed their work benefited others. As documented by the Network for Business Sustainability, greater numbers of career fair goers are reporting that they have more respect and are more inclined to work with a company that can demonstrate that it is environmentally responsible. Whilst there are myriad reasons why employees are attracted to sustainable companies, there are three core reasons worth noting.

Employee Pride

Integrating sustainable practices into your company not only helps employees feel like their work is valuable, it also enhances your company’s reputation and image which in turn allows employees to feel publicly proud of where they work. In order for your company to best sustain this reputation, there are some key steps you can take. Primarily, aim to exceed the industry norms for sustainability. A good example of this is Patagonia’s 1% self-imposed Earth tax, by which they donate 1% of their revenue to environmental non-profits. Certified evidence that this actually leads to prouder employees is demonstrated by the fact that 94% of their workforce verify they are proud to tell others where they work, with many listing environmental causes as a key reason.

Going above and beyond will show that these are fundamental values inherent to your business model, and not merely targets to be ticked off a PR checklick. To strengthen this, you should actively seek out approval, recognition and rewards from reputable third party organisations. This works in tandem with the final point, which is that you should actively encourage your employees to share their appreciation and respect for the company’s policies, either through written or oral testimonials that can be documented and broadcast with pride on the company website and elsewhere. A pertinent example of this is Unilever's 2017 sustainability programme, in which they took reports from over 40,000 of their employees in which they described how they saw the future of sustainable business. The run on effect from this inclusion was that their employees shared content on Linkedin 14 times more frequently, which has helped lead Unilever to become the most sought after consumer goods firm on the platform.

Sustainable practices indicate further values

Logically, one would recognise that if a company wants to contribute positively to wider-society, it will likely show the same care to its employees. So, by actively demonstrating that you care about the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, you will give prospective employees the impression that your company would be a meaningful and healthy place for them to work. A great way to reinforce this is to focus on employee-driven sustainability initiatives, such as cycling-to-work programmes and collective waste reduction in the office. These practices will demonstrate that for your company, sustainability and employee participation are interconnected. As noted in Raconteur, a company’s sustainability and longevity depends on the well being of its workers. So if a company wants to be environmentally sustainable, it has to start with caring for and sustaining its workforce. A good example of this is Nike’s Wellness in Motion programme, which gives employees the chance to promote sustainable well-being through company outreach.

Connecting company and personal values

It is increasingly likely (at least 75% of young workers) that environmental responsibility will be one of your prospective employee's values. For this reason, if your company can aptly demonstrate a track record of integrating sustainable practices into the company's organisation, prospective employees will get a better idea of whether your company’s values align with their personal ones. In order to do this, you will need to clarify what exactly your sustainability initiatives are and how you are measuring them. Just offering ‘we are committed to sustainability’ will come across as greenwashing, and any intelligent candidate will be able to see through it. Instead, you should be able to map out, from the CEO down to new employees, what the roles are and how a commitment to sustainability is inextricable from the company’s work. This is possible through extensive corporate social responsibility schemes that outline what role sustainability plays for each department of the workforce. If you can successfully do this, the chances of you hiring intelligent, pro-active and open-minded employees will increase significantly. A good example of this is Unilever's aforementioned co-creation exercise in which they asked 40,000 employees to contribute to the new sustainability policy. As Karen Hamilton, Unilever's global VP noted, this helped the company to distribute environmental responsibility throughout the company.

Examples of Companies Successfully Incorporating Sustainability Policies

A great example of a company that has successfully incorporated a culture of sustainability throughout their numerous workplaces is Adobe. As outlined on the well-documented sustainability commitment section of their website, Adobe recognises that their employees want to take an active role in ‘fostering a culture of conservation in the workplace’, which involves schemes such as a switch to electric cars, as well as actively including their employees in the sustainability outreach programme. Crucially, Adobe offers its employees complete transparency, outlining all of their policies, targets and achievements in their sustainability programme. The result of this is that over 95% of their workforce agree that they are proud to tell others they work there, that they see the management as honest and ethical and that they admire how the company contributes to the community.

Another great example of a company that values employee engagement with its sustainability programme is WeWork. Through appointing a sustainability and well-being officer, WeWork have very neatly demonstrated how the two values really are interrelated. Lindsay Baker, who holds this position at WeWork, has encouraged the company to focus on how their buildings can become more sustainable and produce healthy workspaces to improve both the well-being of their employees and the experience of those that use WeWork spaces. As Baker notes, achieving sustainability goals is only possible through cross-department cooperation and coordination. It requires full participation across the workforce, as everyone has something to contribute and sustainability goals can't be restricted just to the sustainability department. This approach of focusing on individual ownership and responsibility not only makes for more effective policies, but serves to make the entire workforce feel included and valued.

A final example worth touching more on is Patagonia, which stands out for its huge efforts towards environmental responsibility and employee integration. This is clear in their Featured Activism Stories campaign, where Patagonia employees use the company's platform to document the work of different activist groups fighting environmental issues. On top of this, the company offers all their workforce paid leave to undertake an internship at an environmental activist group (even offering to cover their fine should they be arrested at a peaceful protest). Their Environmental Responsibility page offers a proliferation of information, documenting not only their commitments, but also the procedures they follow alongside the results of each practice. Through a refined HR programme by which Patagonia looks specifically to hire new members who share their values, the company has an extremely low employee turnover rate of 4%, which is three times smaller than the average retail and consumer sector business. Through committing to environmental responsibility and presenting their goals to such a substantial extent, at least 95% of employees at Patagonia are really proud of where they work. This works both ways, as the company has demonstrated through its hiring process that prospective employees sharing their environmental values is crucial and leads to longer, more prosperous company-employee relations.

Ultimately, the main idea to take away is that making your business environmentally responsible does not lead to an ‘either / or’ situation in which progress, growth and profitability are jeopardized. In 2020, as across continents we see a sustained push towards environmental responsibility, the two values, rather than competing, help to sustain each other. A business is only as healthy, forward thinking and productive as its employees. Seen as investing in sustainable policies and practices helps you hire the best talent, this should serve as both an incentive and inspiration for every CEO. So start now and speak with your workforce to find out how your company could better integrate sustainability policies that allow each employee to take an active and meaningful role.

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