How to increase employee engagement on sustainability

Getting employees excited about sustainability topics doesn't just happen. Here's how initiatives such as sustainability ERGs and volunteering opportunities can spark engagement.

As many companies embark on or refine their sustainability initiatives, it's possible that their employees don't know about the initiatives or haven't felt motivated to become involved. Company leaders, including HR, can try several strategies to improve employee engagement around sustainability.

Some workers, particularly younger ones, might already be on board. Many younger people want to work for an organization with a strong sustainability program, according to the "2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey" by Deloitte. Among respondents, 54% of millennials and 55% of Gen Zers said they look up a potential employer's environmental record before taking a job with that organization.

HR can work with other company leaders to engage employees around sustainability in a number of ways, including offering climate trainings and providing volunteer opportunities. Learn more about some strategies to carry out.

Embed sustainability in the corporate culture

Integrating sustainability throughout a company can help create organic employee engagement around the topic.

Companies should begin at the top, said Helle Bank Jorgensen, CEO of Competent Boards, a professional development company that focuses on environmental, social and governance and climate education, located in Toronto. The board must visibly support sustainability programs. For example, board members could share their thoughts on supporting sustainability in company newsletters.

In addition, HR staff or other groups that work on employee communications should regularly update workers about company sustainability progress such as cost savings, sustainability-focused company projects and employee involvement in sustainability initiatives, Jorgensen said.

Focusing on particular sustainability concepts could help employees feel motivated to get involved.

Commercial lighting company Signify, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands, shares quarterly themes with staff to encourage them to do their jobs more sustainably, said Maurice Loosschilder, the company's global head of sustainability. Past themes include climate action, health and safety, and the circular economy.

Host climate trainings

Sustainability topics can feel overwhelming, and some employees might want to do better but are unsure where to start. HR leaders can implement company trainings that discuss topics ranging from the science behind climate change to the company's plans to reduce its carbon footprint.

Deloitte recently launched the WorldClimate universal learning program in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, said Kathy Alsegaf, global chief sustainability officer at Deloitte, headquartered in London. The program aims to educate staff about the basics of climate change, ways to take positive climate action in their daily lives and Deloitte's own sustainability efforts.

Offer sustainability-related employee benefits

Sustainability-related employee benefits can encourage workers to take action on climate change in their personal lives. For example, organizations could offer reimbursements for taking public transportation to work or bike vouchers for commuting to the office.

Some companies give employees electric vehicle incentives, which can cover a large portion of the cost of installing home chargers, said Izzy Galicia, CEO of Incito Consulting Group, a business management consultancy located in San Francisco.

Provide opportunities for volunteerism and philanthropy

Employees might be looking for ways to get involved in their community, and sustainability-related volunteer opportunities at work could fill that need.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they wish their employer would give them more ways to feel personal purpose at work, according to "Help Your Employees Find Purpose -- or Watch Them Leave," a 2021 study by McKinsey & Company. By organizing service projects around environmental issues, companies can make a difference in employees' lives and the greater community.

While these opportunities can include ideas such as a local beach or park cleanup, or organizing a technology recycling drive in the office, companies can get more creative as well. NTT Data Services, an IT services and consulting company headquartered in Plano, Texas, sponsored a South Pole expedition in early 2023 in which Robert Swan brought attention to the need to protect Antarctica and used renewable energy technology during the journey.

"By sponsoring Robert Swan's journey, we created an emotional connection and story to build awareness around climate and renewable energy," said Corie Pierce, vice president of communications and sustainability at NTT Data.

The organization built an app so that users could follow Swan's progress, and Swan spoke with employees and their families, Pierce said.

Support sustainability ERGs

Employee resource groups are a common way to build community around a shared employee interest, such as the environment, and a sustainability ERG could help increase employee engagement around the topic. Sustainability ERG group members could chat over Slack or Yammer, or members could send out a newsletter.

One potential activity for sustainability ERGs is creating challenges around employees' personal sustainability practices.

Employee challenges at Signify have included commuting sustainably, cooking meals with a low carbon footprint and making holiday celebrations as sustainable as possible, Loosschilder said.

"Each quarter, new people get involved," he said. "They learn from each other's experiences, and they even get their families involved."

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