Need New Ideas for Sustainability? Look Towards Employees for Change

Posted on June 15, 2023 by Grace Cusack, Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern

#Corporate Citizenship #Corporate Purpose #Corporate Sustainability 

by Grace Cusack, Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern at G&A Institute

Employees are the vital life force of a company, working together as a team for a common goal. What if that common goal included sustainability? Investors and stakeholders increasingly demand improvement regarding sustainability, and for many companies, the most influential stakeholders – the employees – are a great place to start.

Teamwork – with Incentives – Makes the Dream Work

Integrating sustainability into every division of an organization creates a unifying goal that will foster teamwork and unity around a common issue. Every role in the company has the capacity to include sustainable practices.

For example, a finance department could call attention to wage gaps between employees, or a marketing department could implement a campaign to promote a new recycling program for their old products. In addition, a human resources department could provide support and resources for employees struggling with mental health.

Not every solution for sustainability is about saving the environment – keeping this in mind makes it easier for each department to apply the central goal and harness the ingenuity and diversity of all employees. Supporting the community and fellow employees is just as important when it comes to the future of our planet.

Yet, it can be difficult for employees to tackle environmental or social issues while working within the more traditional responsibilities of their jobs. According to a Harvard Business Review article, in order to facilitate initiative around sustainability, employees may need to “gain extrinsic rewards – like recognition, pay, and promotions; or intrinsic rewards, such as satisfaction and a sense of meaning.” Establishing the opportunities and incentives that reward employees for their contributions to the environment creates a workplace where sustainability is visibly valued and pursued. 

Top Down or Bottom Up?

Setting goals and incentivizing participation are important to engage employees in sustainability endeavors. But what is the best approach to putting these systems in place? The first approach is the bottom-up approach which is led by the employees. Employee-led action is a force for change. Collective action can lead to change in areas that employees are passionate about. When employees see an issue that they believe in, individuals may be motivated to participate in presenting a solution. Forbes reports in an article by Ashish Kaushal that employee-led activism has increased 40% post-pandemic, with employees putting more pressure on leadership to pursue issues that are important to them. It is essential for leadership to take these concerns seriously to retain employees.

On the other hand, leadership can play a uniquely important role in implementing sustainability across the company’s practices and culture. Executives have the platform to initiate healthy competition, showcase the benefits of change, or align corporate values with broader goals. The former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, states in a journal article about sustainable business that, “It is essential for a large company to provide the framework for people to play within, and then things happen almost by magic.”

Unilever is a leader in sustainable action in its industry. Unilever’s initiatives have not only seen financial benefits, but Polman reports that they also strengthened “employee retention, productivity, and overall engagement.” When leadership provides a framework – along with education initiatives – employees gain the space and permission to implement sustainable practices.

Battling Doom and Gloom

As reported by Tosin Thompson in a Nature article about climate anxiety, many young people joining the workforce are feeling the pressures of the climate crisis, and thus looking for meaningful work to help combat some of the realities they have grown up facing.

Witnessing coworkers and leadership take action for climate change is motivating to employees and peers. It can inspire conversation and ideas on new ways to reduce pollution, devise social benefits for the surrounding community, and organize volunteer activities. Participating in conversations about the environment and the sustainability issues that are material to the company can empower younger employees to contribute, knowing their work can have a positive impact on the environment and communities. 

The Best Approach

Engaging employees in sustainability creates mutual benefits for the employees, the employer, and the planet. This approach to change the company can demonstrate the power of collective action and the benefits that accompany investment in sustainability.

Employees can develop new and innovative ways to incorporate sustainable efforts within the workplace. Employees know their company and how it functions better than outside investors and stakeholders, which allows their collective action to be highly effective. Yet without the support and space from leadership, employees can run into roadblocks when implementing new ideas. Change might be slow and require patience, but fostering conversations and setting goals provides the opportunity for employees and leadership to work together to make a positive impact on people and the planet.


Grace CusackG&A Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern
Grace Cusack is a recent graduate of Appalachian State University with a B.A. in Sustainable Development with a concentration in Environmental Studies and a minor in Sustainable Business. With this degree, Grace developed the tools to examine the most urgent environmental, economic, and social issues and visualize creative solutions to these challenges. Grace is interested in using this knowledge to support businesses to create a more sustainable and equitable future.
Grace got her start in sustainability working at the Office of Sustainability at Appalachian State University as a Zero Waste Ambassador. In this position, she saw how small creative changes could make an impact on the amount of waste produced by a large institution. She was also a Social and Philanthropy chair on the board of the Sustainable Development Student Alliance Club where she was able to spread her passion for preserving the beautiful outdoors to other students and introduce the concept and community surrounding sustainability.