Sustainability must become a financial imperative

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Joanna Sullivan

In Brussels, we focus on top down policy solutions to drive sustainable development. Meanwhile armies of sustainability champions are building change from the bottom up, even within the European Commission itself, writes Joanna Sullivan.

Joanna Sullivan is author of the widely acclaimed book Creating Employee Champions through Sustainability Engagement. Joanna is also the owner and director of Conscience Consulting

With a notable few exceptions, Europe’s CEOs have been slow to adapt to the changing world and integrate sustainability in their daily modus operandi.

Sustainability has to become a financial imperative, and fit within the language of business – profit and loss. While it’s good to be green, it doesn’t always make financial sense in the short-term world that businesses inhabit with quarterly reporting pressures. While basic human rights in the supply chain are mandated by law or reputation pressures, doing good for local communities or doing the right thing are often seen as ‘nice to do’ but ‘not necessary’ by companies, large and small.

Connecting employee engagement to the sustainability agenda as a financial imperative was my breakthrough in thinking. If 2015 is remembered, beyond the Brexit brouhaha and the Grexit tragedy, it will be as a milestone in the labour market.

For the first time, the Millennial generation, people born between 1980 and 2000, will outnumber their older colleagues in the workforce. This demographic shift is changing multiple aspects of the world of work as companies grapple with how to recruit, engage and retain these young professionals.

Millennials differ from their older colleagues in their outlook on the working world. According to a Deloitte Millennial Survey published in 2014, Generation Y – as this demographic is also known – has big demands and expectations from the future workplace. This was all too clear to me at the Sustainability Engagement Training I provided to Millennial stagiaires of the European Commission earlier this week. Millennials are spearheading a broad shift amongst people seeking meaning in their jobs and working toward creating a better world.

Not just in Brussels but across the globe, Millennials want to work for organisations that foster innovation, develop their skills, and make a positive contribution to society. Millennials will shake up the work force, Deloitte says, as they grow to be nearly 75% of the global pool of workers by around 2025.

Yet currently, two-thirds of the Millennial generation are disengaged at work. The result? A growing number of employers are starting to sharpen their focus on both engagement and sustainability. Already in 2011 a McKinsey Survey revealed half of global CEOs believe company performance on sustainability is important to attracting and retaining employees.

It used to be that people who wanted impact-oriented jobs went to work in NGOs. But with the rise of B-corporations – social and environment driven companies – and more focus in businesses on the triple bottom line, people can now find purpose and impact in for-profit jobs.

That puts pressure on traditional companies to embrace sustainability, responsibility and other positive impact goals that inspire their employees. I have seen a growing understanding of the important link between companies retaining talent and pursuing the triple-bottom line.

Yet few companies have adopted an “official” employee engagement policy around sustainability. Part of the reason is that engaging a majority of employees across a large company is challenging. Initial sustainability strategies tended to focus on PR or decisions made by the sustainability team on its own or a single department.

Embracing a core sustainability goal and culture is key to a company’s long-term success. Millennials expect companies to operate on a more transparent and sustainably oriented basis. Millennials are ready to embrace and be part of businesses that make big and bold sustainability moves, even if they are controversial.

A lot of businesses are resistant to bold moves, they are cautious. But Millennials have grown up with cause marketing so companies have to take positions on vital societal issues. It’s not enough to fix their supply chains. Large companies that do not fully embrace sustainability to the core will find it harder to recruit talent.

Companies need to train everyone to achieve their goals. Sustainability engagement training is a method of open engagement with employees in which goals are determined and carried out by the group. The method enables employees to realise for themselves the meaning and value of sustainability. This innovative training allows people to connect the company values to their own personal values, and the company purpose to their own desire for social contribution.

Sustainability engagement leads to business transformation. Both inside and outside, things feel different. People feel inspired and committed, able to think with purpose, and to innovate within the framework of the company’s strategic vision. Asia Pulp & Paper, the Indonesian paper and pulp giant, undertook this type of training by gathering groups of 10-15 employees to discuss and integrate the company’s zero deforestation commitments.

Every company has a social responsibility to practice authentic sustainability as well as a financial imperative. Not just to have suppliers, customers and other stakeholders listen, but also to engage in meaningful conversation. To dialogue, ask questions, understand, believe and ultimately advocate sustainability as the path of progress.

The days of spin are over. What replaces the old green veneer is a green core around which employees become sustainability ambassadors that can make or break brand reputation. Business today is expected to walk the talk.

Sustainability is good for the planet, good for people and good for profit. This we know. What’s less obvious is how to get there. Through the parley process, just like the pirates of former times who had only one chance to find lasting solutions in a space of trust, sustainability engagement training provides the solution to a future worth having. A Europe worth championing.

To achieve truly dramatic change, organisations need every employee involved. If we can create programmes that are personal and relevant to people, and connect them to the sustainability vision, Europe will deliver the revolutionary changes that are good for business and society.

One reason we haven’t seen major leaps in corporate sustainability results thus far is that a majority of employees have been left out of the conversation. Maybe this model of engagement can be adapted for the EU vision. Haven’t the people also been left out of that conversation?

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