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Without purpose, sustainability is just a tick-box exercise for companies

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By Federico Garcea

· 6 min read

Over the last few years, the realities of global warming and climate change have begun to sink in. The world continues to get warmer, CO₂ emissions are rising year on year, and our forests are diminishing rapidly. Following two trying years, work life is returning to some sense of normality, and as the world is reopening once again, people have had time to reflect on what is most important to them. Living and working more sustainably is firmly back on the table and the question on every employee’s lips is; what can my business do to become more sustainable?

Employees’ opinions are loud and clear when it comes to the importance of sustainability. According to a Treedom global survey of 7,000 respondents across Europe*, 93% of employees believe companies must lead with purpose, and 67% agree that a company’s environmental policy is important when choosing an organisation to work for. A further 69% of employees won’t work for a company that doesn’t have a strong purpose.

A business’ commitment to sustainability is now a driving force behind attracting new talent and retaining it. But it’s not enough to simply set lofty goals and pledge to make a change. Savvy employees want sustainable initiatives that make a real impact on the planet and go beyond simply meeting generic sustainability targets.

Setting sustainability goals

As a company, it can be daunting to know where to start when it comes to developing purpose-driven initiatives. The United Nations list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a respected benchmark and a good place to start when looking at how a measurable difference can be made. Established in 2015, these SDGs are a collection of 17 interconnected goals covering a broad spectrum of societal and environmental issues like eliminating poverty and hunger, and fighting climate change. They are part of the UN’s 2030 agenda, designed to formulate a better and more sustainable future for everyone.

So, when setting sustainable goals, companies should aim to achieve a number of SDGs to ensure they are making a true, and positive impact. Businesses will find that they are far more likely to engage employees and customers, create and maintain a more positive brand image, and of course, heal the planet both environmentally and socially if they follow the guidance outlined by the United Nations.

Top 3 tips for creating a Company Sustainability Initiative

Tackling sustainability is a complex challenge. Getting the basics right at the start of the process is fundamental.

1. Focus on your business’ KPIs

When deciding what kind of sustainability initiative to opt for, the business goals you want to achieve should be the first thing that comes to mind. This will enable your team to make smart decisions to guide each project in the right direction. For example, if one of your main KPIs is raising monthly website traffic, then perhaps an online, customer-focused sustainability initiative is what is best for your organisation. Alternatively, if you have a focus on employee satisfaction, then creating an employee-centric, internal initiative may work better for you. By working in this way, business and sustainability goals work together in tandem.

2. Measure the impact you make

Effectively measuring sustainability performance will allow an organisation to make continuous assessments and improvements, but also enable businesses to evaluate where they lie in comparison to other organisations. Measurement will also ensure the collection of crucial data which will, as a result, help businesses make data-driven decisions. Thirty-four percent of employees want to know what their company’s sustainability policy is, and having the data to show the impact it is making will go a long way to getting buy-in from the workforce

3. Get the basics right but don’t forget…

Keeping track of more than just your business’ CO₂ emissions will give you a clearer picture of where you can make the most positive and greatest impact. While it is crucial that you also note your organisation’s energy consumption, supply chain miles should also be monitored, as we all know transportation can have drastic effects on the environment. Internally, try to also take a look at waste reduction and recycling. Finally, an organisation should also keep track of its impact on society, the environment, and how transparent and accountable it is, which is known as ESG reporting. This will help to show that they treat their business partners and suppliers fairly.

Employee engagement

Engaging with your task force is crucial to the success of any sustainable initiative. Before promoting any activities or goals externally, you need to first get support from your own team. It must be lived and breathed from the inside out, across all business functions. As mentioned above, for many employees, a company’s environmental policy is a deciding factor when choosing an organisation to work for but only 34% of employees actually know what their company’s sustainability policy is. By introducing your employees to the sustainability story you want to tell, it will spread much further and reach more people with a team behind it that is truly passionate about the cause. The simplest way to engage your employees is to make your initiative easy to understand. Overly complex and technical sustainability planning can negatively impact employee engagement. Set out clear and simple milestones you wish to hit as a business and share how your employees can be involved each step of the way.

Furthermore, an organisation must look for different ways to connect with their employees. We’ve seen great success with brands creating a dedicated hub for their sustainability cause. It became a location where employees from across the organisation could join together to share pictures, get updates, converse, and foster a passion for sustainability.

Grow a company forest

One easily attainable sustainable initiative that is possible is to grow a company forest. There are a number of organisations that provide an online space that demonstrate a genuine commitment to sustainability and opens the lines for communication and engagement amongst employees and customers alike. While all trees absorb CO₂, protect biodiversity, combat desertification, and help to overcome agroforestry systems, these companies also provide training and income opportunities to the communities where they work, secure land tenure and food security, and create new educational opportunities.

To truly fight climate change as a business, it’s crucial that you deliver on both social-economic and environmental benefits. For any sustainability initiative to be successful, it must be embedded into every aspect of the organisation.

It’s time we create initiatives that truly inspire employees while making a real impact that goes beyond simply meeting sustainability targets. Because once you captivate the hearts and minds of your people, only then can you drive real and lasting change.

*Survey conducted by Opinium, collected data from 7,000 respondents across the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, France and Italy.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Federico Garcea is the founder and CEO of Treedom, an online platform where anyone can plant trees remotely. At just 25 years old, he partnered with a rural development project in Africa, where he developed a thirst to fight deforestation and climate change.

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