Engaging Employees with a “Higher Purpose”

Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface Carpet wrote in his 2009 book, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist about an employee who, when queried by a visiting executive stated “I come to work every day to help save the earth”.   No, this wasn’t the Environmental Manager.  He was a manufacturing fork lift driver.  Somehow, he had come to understand his role in the company’s “Mission Zero” goal;  a mission to eliminate the negative impact the company has on the environment by 2020.     He understood the connection between the act of transporting carpet rolls and the company’s waste and emissions; between the waste and emissions and the health of the earth. And he personally valued the health of the earth.  This alignment between personal values, company goals and environmental responsibility is a powerful force in the implementation of sustainability.  Yes, it is that easy and … that hard.

There is no end to the number of tips available to achieve employee “buy in” and engagement.  Wal-Mart uses Personal Sustainability Plans.  E-Bay supports its Green Teams by encouraging community engagement, and offering incentives and discounts for things like residential solar arrays.  Westport Innovation, a technology firm that produces natural gas technologies for transport trucks, hires “environmentally conscious” employees.  In reality, companies that have successfully engaged employees are not doing just one thing.  There is no quick fix.

 The recent study, Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture identified four levels of practices to energize employees:

  1. Foster Commitment –  model behaviour at  the senior management level.  Allocating resources to make things happen and supporting “sustainable” choices demonstrate commitment.
  2. Clarify Expectations –create and implement policies, procedures, practices and Codes of Conduct which integrate sustainability into the entire strategy of the corporation.
  3. Build Momentum for Change –support a culture of sustainable innovation.  Interface Carpet knew it could never achieve “Mission Zero” doing the same old thing.  Products have been dramatically redesigned and its business model turned on its head.  If Interface had its way, it wouldn’t sell another tile of carpet, instead it would lease you a lifetime of functional and gorgeous flooring.   Why?  It is the only way they can ensure that 100% of their carpet is recycled into their next flooring project.
  4. Instill Capacity for Change – become a “learning” organization.   Research says, “… sustainability cannot be achieved without innovation and innovation is best achieved in a culture that embraces learning.”

 Sustainability is a game changer.  If you want to get employees excited about sustainability and “greening” you need to link what they personally value to your company’s ultimate sustainability objective.  Then, “walk the talk” at every level.  Your company’s “higher purpose” will be met with deep personal commitment and energy if it is authentic, sustained and systematically embedded into the corporate culture.

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About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is a committed sustainability practitioner and educator moving companies toward “green” profitability and sustainable competitive advantage by unlocking human creativity and technical innovation. Over the last two years she has had the privilege to work with companies like Dupont, Zerofootprint, WWF Canada, and Partners in Project Green on sustainability issues, best practices and renewable energy. Kathryn is a graduate of York University with a Master of Education specializing on Sustainability and the Environment. She holds an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Bachelor of Science from the University of Guelph.
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