At the executive leadership level, sustainability continues to be a top priority as companies devote significant resources to making their operations and supply chains more climate-friendly. But a Brands in Motion global report from WE Communications finds that many employees don’t know what their employers are doing to create a greener world. This knowledge gap presents an important internal communications opportunity for companies, and the data from WE’s global survey, “Winning the Battle Against Green Fatigue,” provides a clear road map for using communications to enhance employee engagement on sustainability.
WE fielded a global survey with 2,000 employees across the U.S., the U.K. and Singapore to better understand their attitudes toward corporate sustainability programs — with respect to their own employers and for business in general. The findings show that as companies continue on the long road to net zero, effective employee engagement and internal communications are more important than ever.
In this piece, three global WE leaders reflect on what WE’s research insights mean for companies when it comes to employee engagement on corporate sustainability programs.
- Kemi Akindele, Director, Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose, U.K., helps tech, health and consumer clients shape brand voice to advocate for change.
- Noah Keteyian, EVP, Corporate Reputation & Brand Purpose, is a counselor to executives and organizations seeking to advance their voice with internal and external stakeholders.
- Sharmishtha Ghosh, SVP, Healthcare and Social Impact, Avian WE, guides clients in the health and development sector to lead with social good at the center.
1. In recent years, corporate sustainability programs have become a major priority for business leaders across industries. And yet, WE’s research finds a significant number of employees aren’t aware of what their employers are doing to address environmental challenges like climate change. Why do you think there is a disconnect?
KA: Lack of engagement can lead to a disconnect between employees and sustainability initiatives, resulting in reduced understanding and participation in sustainable practices. Disengaged employees may not see the relevance of sustainability to their work and feel apathetic toward it, leading to a belief that environmental challenges are not their responsibility.
NK: As sustainability has rapidly become a business imperative across industries, employee engagement is challenged to keep up with the pace of change. With only 15% saying they have responsibility for or participate in these efforts, it’s clear we need to better connect the changing business realities with employees’ direct experience.
SG: Absence of a mechanism that encourages a participatory approach — such as facilitating employees to ideate, implement or mobilize sustainability programs — is a barrier to employee awareness and engagement. Also, lack of strategic integration between sustainability and human resources teams leads to less understanding, engagement and interest among employees.
2. How can communications professionals help companies address that awareness gap? What are the opportunities?
KA: Meet people where they are. Effective communication of sustainability initiatives, employee engagement and support for sustainable practices are crucial for success. Sustainability messaging should be balanced and not overwhelming to avoid disengagement or fatigue. Providing resources and training for employees can encourage participation and make sustainability practices more accessible.
NK: Show how everyone’s job contributes to the big goals. As with any part of the business, employees need support, belief and understanding, so listen to what motivates them and keep it tangible.
SG: Humanize the impact. Communications professionals can address the awareness gap by enshrining a highly interactive communication framework that can do away with jargon, simplify vocabulary, and facilitate a better understanding of the tangible and intangible impact that the program promises to create. Also, use technology to enrich communications and make it more interactive — through community talks, peer-learning programs, two-way feedback and experience-sharing mechanisms.
3. Many of the sustainability goal deadlines that brands have committed themselves to are coming soon — 2030 is not very far away. Are companies prepared for this? What should a company do if it falls short of a sustainability goal?
KA: When setting and implementing sustainability goals, start by establishing clear targets, involving all relevant stakeholders, regularly reviewing and updating the sustainability strategy, and communicating transparently. Being proactive demonstrates commitment to sustainability, builds credibility and maintains stakeholder trust. If they haven’t already, companies must prepare for the approaching sustainability deadlines — aligning with the commitments they’ve made and taking responsibility if they fall short. They should assess progress and communicate transparently with stakeholders. They must then develop a plan to address shortcomings, which may include revising goals or investing in additional resources.
NK: Most people support their employers’ efforts to get there, and they show a realistic and optimistic attitude about sustainability goals. Don’t fear those upcoming timebound commitments from an employee perspective — 75% say they would at least understand if their company missed a sustainability target.
SG: Take a proactive approach toward assessing the developments and areas that need more attention/investment, and be authentic when sharing the company’s approach toward success and learning.
4. WE’s research found that 45% of employees suspect their employers are guilty of greenwashing, at least a little. How can employers prove to employees and other audiences that their sustainability commitments are real?
KA: Audiences are increasingly attuned to purpose-washing or greenwashing, so vague statements or loose targeting really can do more harm than good. Sustainability communicators can tend to lean upon 100% targets and other signals of perfection, keeping a narrative under wraps until goals are met. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for the twists and turns of storytelling. To prove sustainability commitments are real, be honest about not being able to deliver a perfect goal now, and share the story of the journey toward reaching a target. It’s not just about what companies do and the commitments they make, but how they do it.
NK: This finding points to the need to create real evidence of progress and talk to employees about that. Walking the talk has never been more important.
SG: Involving the employees in the decision-making process, making them the partners in change, and showcasing impact at every stage backed with data — those are enablers toward showcasing true commitment and intent.
5. What role does external communication play in employee engagement?
KA: Chances are your people are the most skeptical, so it is imperative that they recognize the truth in any campaign or initiative. If they do, chances are they will amplify it. Our research finds that seeing employers’ sustainability strategies and activities praised by outside organizations is the No. 1 factor that improves employees’ opinions of these efforts.
NK: This is where a big part of green fatigue is coming from. A majority of people we talked to are not seeing progress on climate and are feeling powerless and anxious. So both as employers and as businesses with a public profile, we can address these concerns by sharing progress, thereby building momentum.
SG: Establishing straightforward and relatable communication with internal and external stakeholders alike is the first step toward building authenticity. What employees observe and hear regarding the company and its contribution to sustainability efforts is what they believe.
6. WE’s survey reveals that 78% of employees are interested in helping their employers in sustainability endeavors, but almost two-thirds say employees have very little to no involvement when it comes to those efforts happening within their organization. How can companies help their employees understand their opportunities to contribute?
KA: To avoid dilution of the sustainability agenda, businesses must clearly communicate which aspects are most material to their operations and focus on initiatives that deliver significant improvements. It’s important to emphasize that regional and local impacts are crucial in addressing global sustainability challenges. Breaking down the agenda into clear business initiatives and KPIs for teams and individuals is crucial. Employee motivation to drive sustainability changes increases when they are empowered to co-create and co-deliver strategies.
NK: Leaders are driving significant transformation to meet climate commitments and create new products and markets. Connecting with employees hungry to contribute requires careful listening and provides big opportunities for culture-building and career-pathing.
SG: For employees to carry the organization’s sustainable practices forward, it is crucial to educate and involve — in the most meaningful way possible. The first step in creating a culture that drives employees is always leadership that walks the talk. This is followed by culturally relevant and engaging learning-and-development sessions that promote greater understanding and on-the-ground immersion programs. A robust recognition program that stimulates and invites individuals to share novel ideas with the potential to contribute to sustainability is also crucial.
7. Climate change and sustainability are really complex issues, and it’s no surprise that many companies are struggling to communicate about this effectively, both internally and externally. How should companies engage with their workforce to motivate and align them to sustainability programs?
KA: Companies should involve employees in the development and implementation of sustainability programs to make them feel valued and empowered. This can include creating cross-functional sustainability teams, encouraging feedback and suggestions, and recognizing and rewarding employee contributions. They should also make sustainability more relevant by showing how it relates to their work and the impact it has on the company and society. This can help increase engagement and motivation.
NK: Consistently connect the big commitments and business strategy to each person’s job, whether through manager connects or townhall meeting spotlights. And always listen. Employees are motivated to share and act on their own great ideas.
SG: Create an environment of innovation and collaboration, where people are valued, rewarded and celebrated for their new ideas, contribution and intent.