How Employee Ownership Can Make Sustainability Second Nature

At a Unilever factory, back in 2015, six employees talked to their manager about starting a beauty and hair care course to prepare local women for jobs and entrepreneurship while simultaneously marketing Unilever products. The green signal came; the course was established. Just a year later, over 800 women were enrolled, and another 600 were working on their own or in other beauty salons. 

Not much ink was spilled over this decision, but that was the point. Unilever’s attention to employee suggestions, and the consequent positive results, it is a fine example of employee ownership over sustainability such that the philosophy becomes an actionable part of their everyday routines1

Sustainability might be a popular enough buzzword, but it doesn’t always cop a seat with the executives at the strategy table. Change management might help it get a foot in the door. Still, the evolution from profit to purpose, diffused throughout the organization, will help sustainability finally capture the speaker’s podium.

Employee ownership is the linchpin to successfully entrenching sustainability as part of organizational culture. Employees need to be onboarded for sustainability strategies to work– but this doesn’t warrant leadership teams ‘telling’ them to do things. On the contrary, it requires that employee opinions be taken seriously and used to inform sustainability strategies.

Above all, it means embedding a sense of purpose in every individual wherever they stand in the company structure, such that sustainability becomes an everyday affair rather than yet another enforced policy.  

How to create employee ownership of sustainability

  • Treat employees as the primary stakeholders

In his book ‘Small Actions, Big Differences,’ C.B. Bhattacharya2 rightly states that employees need to be referred to as the first and primary stakeholder group when it comes to creating and enforcing sustainability strategies3. Unfortunately, many companies take the easier way out, choosing to direct employees rather than engage them. However, treating employees as primary stakeholders involves:

  1. Actively asking each individual for their opinions and feedback, 
  2. Gaining their nod of approval for proposed strategies, and 
  3. Ensuring they’re all bought in as teams and as individuals. 

This creates psychological ownership, a feeling of possession that doesn’t necessarily apply to anything physical – such as a car or a home – but inspires a similar sense of responsibility and active effort to maintain and uphold. 

A great way to approach this is to open the floor to employees across teams and hierarchical levels to pitch their thoughts and ideas about achieving sustainable goals. This could be through weekly town halls, 1-to-1 meetings, departmental discussions, and suggestion boxes. By involving employees from the very start of the conversation, companies are more likely to quickly and effectively achieve psychological ownership. Each employee has an equal say, and each of them shoulders responsibilities equally. 

  • Identify one or two priorities– and stick to them 

Sustainability is often posited as an ‘all or nothing’ effort, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. To become genuinely sustainable – without greenwashing or half-hearted checklists – is to work towards one or two key issues that relate to the organization’s offerings and industry. Energy companies, for example, could focus on becoming carbon-neutral or investing in clean energy, much like Shell’s New Energies project4. E-commerce businesses could focus on assisting afforestation to offset unsustainable packaging and shipping, and pivoting their product designs to be fully sustainable. 

Selecting these priorities needs to be a team effort and can be achieved through a materiality analysis. In this exercise, priority issues are plotted on a two-dimensional axis that equally takes employee and other stakeholder opinions into account. This process involves employees right from the planning stage, which leaves them with a stronger sense of responsibility and involvement than if they were just asked to follow a few new rules around the office. 

  • Creating a psychological need

Creating a psychological need for sustainability is easier said than done. It involves hacking base human behavior through individual appeals such that every individual resonates with the same overarching purpose, albeit in different ways.

Going by the “different strokes for different folks” principle and identifying individual preferences can be a time-intensive yet highly rewarding exercise for the company. Appeals towards creating a better future might sway employees with children. On the other hand, those living on a tight budget might be more inclined to act upon evidence of sustainability saving money and increasing returns. This is a tried and tested method– Apple’s VP of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives, Lisa Jackson, finds that the best part of her job is tailoring sustainability appeals to individual businesses such that the heart and mind work as one and buy into the sustainability agenda.

  • Implementing and moving beyond the low-hanging fruit

Sustainability is a complex, multi-step, and long-term endeavor that takes time to pay off. However, there is low-hanging fruit in every organization that make fantastic starting points and build momentum and motivation. A look at any medium- to large-sized organization will reveal many such low-hanging initiatives– plastic-free zones, recycling units, paper-free communication, and reusable cutlery and coffee mugs. Initiatives such as these can usually be accomplished with a handful of top-down directives that are standardized within three to six months. 

However, it is critical that sustainability efforts move beyond these low-hanging fruits and undertake more ambitious structural changes. The end goal must be to make sustainability an intrinsic part of every individual’s role at the company and a critical indicator of the company’s performance in front of stakeholders and investors. Cosmetic changes must give way to structural upheavals that may seem daunting and labor-intensive but, if well thought out, can increase profits and put companies leagues ahead of their competitors. 

From a bottom line to a triple bottom line

Sustainability can be achieved and diffused on a company-wide scale only when the focus shifts from a singular bottom line to a triple bottom line that equally values social, environmental, and financial performances. Some companies go so far as to institute a quadruple bottom line, to include future generations, and to emphasize the long-term thinking that sustainability constitutes. 

Sustainability is neither one department’s role nor one board committee’s responsibility. It underlines all aspects of a business, from office culture to energy consumption, supply procurement to product and service design. Fostering a “can do” attitude among employees means investing in accessible and comprehensive education about sustainability. It is also bolstered by systems and processes that make it easier – even rewarding – for employees to integrate sustainability into every decision they make, big or small.