Retailers today are doing a great deal to engage their employees on sustainability, from hosting sustainability fairs at their headquarters to putting together employee videos, intranet sites, blogs, and volunteer days. Through these efforts, these companies have reaped many benefits: They have generated innovative ideas for running different business segments, brought new products to the shelves, and saved money.

Retailers view the collective energy of their workforce as one of their biggest assets in moving the needle on sustainability. In the United States alone, the retail industry employs more than 10 million people. And according to retailers, employees have demonstrated a strong enthusiasm for sustainability and a desire to get involved.

In an effort to look more closely at this trend, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) launched a research project with BSR and the U.S.-based National Environmental Education Foundation to see how retailers are engaging their employees in sustainably efforts. Based on an online survey of 24 retailers and in-depth interviews with seven leading companies, we looked across the whole of the enterprise, examining associate programs all the way up to senior executive engagement.

Our research is helping us answer some key questions regarding employee engagement in sustainability initiatives in the retail industry.

Who is engaging their workforce?

Almost every retailer that participated in the survey is performing some kind of employee engagement. However, most have indicated that they are in a state of “improving” their program, recognizing that there is an opportunity for even more of an impact as they enhance their programs.

Sixty-three percent of respondents reported that they are working to take their efforts to the next level and improve not only the culture of the organization but overall employee behavior. Another 21 percent said they have established advanced programs demonstrating a high level of employee awareness and engagement, and 8 percent reported that they offer “very advanced” programs that align with their companies’ values and strategy.

What are the components of a successful program?

Getting an effective engagement program off the ground requires leadership from the top. Sixty-two percent of retailers reported that CEO-level support and support from other senior executives is necessary.

More than half of the respondents reported that cross-functional teams are also critical. Internal department partners include communications/public relations teams to develop articles, speaking engagements, and an intranet site, and marketing and human resources teams to share messages with employees. Store manager involvement is crucial for helping engage associates through meetings on the sales floor. And harnessing the passion of “high-energy” employees with enthusiasm for sustainability, as well as IT, sourcing, construction, and energy managers also contribute to an effective program team.

Retailers also highlighted the need for clearly defined values or principles, an assessment of the company’s environmental and social impacts, a designated internal employee champion, the creation of an advisory committee, and a kick-off event to launch the program.

How do retailers garner the attention and participation of their employees?

Seventy-six percent of respondents identified award and recognition programs as key methods to engage employees. One retailer hosts an informal award program at its annual company forum, where they spend significant time recognizing the employees and teams that stand out.

Also, 76 percent identified the importance of using multiple communications channels to reach employees. These outlets ranged from newsletters, magazines, and books, to social media channels and videos to speaking engagements. Retailers with advanced engagement programs recognize the importance of balance between “push” communications—single-direction communications to push information and data to employees—and feedback mechanisms to open dialogue with employees. Employee feedback at all levels is an integral part of effective engagement campaigns.

Several companies also noted that they formed partnerships with nonprofits and government agencies, which adds a layer of credibility and authenticity to their programs, and taps unique resources and expertise not otherwise available to their companies. Many companies also built internal “green teams,” created competition among departments, and integrated sustainability messages into orientation training modules.

How are leading retailers communicating sustainability to their employees?

Many retailers identified the importance of communicating to their employees about sustainability—especially when it comes to reporting the companies’ successes and challenges (86 percent do this), waste reduction (81 percent), energy efficiency (71 percent), and the cost savings through sustainability practices (67 percent).

The majority of retailers reported that they target business unit managers most often, followed closely by brand managers, associates, and senior executives.

The survey underscored the idea that there is not a one-size-fits communication approach, and that different information is pertinent to different audiences and affects them in different ways. Senior executives are more interested in business and financial data, while other employees respond to employee testimonials. What is clear, however, is that every communication should deliver a call to action, with the goal of encouraging more participation.

Finally, what is the objective? Why are retailers devoting energy to employee engagement?

Eighty-five percent of respondents said they engaged employees to enhance their sustainability performance, while 60 percent said these efforts were aimed at spurring innovation.

In the end, though most retail sustainability programs have been around for only a few years, retailers know these programs will eventually be the norm. And to help them forge these uncharted waters, retailers recognize that they have a crucial partner in their employees. Those who follow their lead will surely share in the fruits of their labor while also contributing to global sustainability efforts.

For more information about RILA or this employee-engagement survey, contact Adam Siegel.