Leading companies understand that employee engagement is critical to achieving sustainability goals. As sustainability is increasingly integrated across all levels of the business, successful strategies require attention, ideas, and action from the entire organization. Many companies are still in the early stages, however, and have yet to move from simply informing employees about sustainability initiatives to inspiring them to participate. By connecting with employees directly, companies can increase participation in their programs, driving greater sustainability impact.

Through research conducted for Unilever, BSR identified five elements that establish these connections with employees and motivate them to contribute to sustainability goals.

  1. Meet Employees Where They Are
    Engaging through the social media platforms that employees use in their personal lives helped Levi’s raise awareness about the company’s water-conservation initiatives. The Water<Less campaign challenged Levi’s employees to wear the same pair of jeans every day for a week without washing them and to post pictures to Instagram with the hashtag #gowaterless, which collected more than 2,500 posts. Nine employee winners were given US$1,000 to donate to a water-related nonprofit. Additionally, participants were directed to the campaign site, where they could take water conservation actions, which unlocked water credits for Water.org’s microfinance program.
  2. Go Beyond the Corner Offices
    Expanding engagement from sustainability leaders to all employees helped Hyatt tie hyper-local efforts to global sustainability goals. Hyatt’s Thrive, an online platform, connects hotel associates worldwide. Employees execute on tailored local sustainability goals, such as Hyatt Liverpool’s commitment to diverting almost 100 percent of its waste from the landfill. Employees are also encouraged to nominate local nonprofits to the company’s grants program. The Hyatt Maldives provided funding to a local shelter to build homes for children. Through these efforts, Hyatt has engaged with 85,000 associates at 450 properties globally, driving global impact through positive local efforts.
  3. Ask Employees for Ideas, and Use Them
    Providing a platform for two-way communication helped Starbucks collect nearly 11,000 sustainability ideas from both consumers and employees. Participants voted or commented on ideas they wanted to see in action. Starbucks department leads then reported back on progress and how ideas were implemented. For example, after receiving numerous ideas on creating more energy efficient stores, the company’s environmental performance management team led an LED lighting replacement program in nearly all of its U.S. and Canadian locations. The ability to share ideas from outside the organization and across departments helped spur innovative sustainability solutions from outside the sustainability team.
  4. Tie Employees’ Work to Sustainability
    Linking product strategy with sustainability goals underpinned General Electric’s Ecomagination campaign, which encouraged employees to tackle environmental issues while continuing to generate revenue through new product design. Energy Star appliances, an innovation from the Ecomagination program, have been popular with consumers because they save money by conserving both energy and water and increase eligibility for utility rebate programs.
  5. Make It a Game—or an Incentive
    Using rewards and recognition programs helped Campbell’s encourage employee participation. For instance, the company integrated sustainability goals into individual annual performance reviews, which now include a question on which activities the employee has undertaken to advance company culture. Campbell’s bonus pool is tied to a sustainability scorecard, which measures environmental metrics, community engagement, and safety.

    Unilever has also used gamification, competitions, and prizes to engage employees on its Sustainable Actions Platform, which shows employees how small actions at home can contribute to Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.

Following our recommendations, Unilever applied this framework against its current portfolio of sustainability programs to identify improvements and articulate how engagement will bring value to other parts of the business. Other companies can use these five elements to assess gaps in their programs and inspire new ways of building multifaceted programs to achieve greater impact.