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To Advance Sustainability, Go Beyond Traditional Employee Engagement Efforts

At Patagonia, employees have the opportunity to leave the company up to two months to work full-time at an environmental nonprofit, with continued salary and benefits. | Image credit: Patagonia

Imagine walking into your office one morning to find a business card on your chair  with a different title. It might just give you pause.

For 1,500 Unilever Australia employees, this actually happened. One day in 2011, every employee who came to work was given a card that read “Head of Sustainability.” Having just launched a new Sustainable Living Plan, Unilever rightfully wanted its employees to feel empowered  and what better way to do so than to give them a new title? Unilever supplemented those cards with posters depicting employees from all functions with a “Head of Sustainability” caption and provided specialized training to staff. Leadership reinforced sustainability messaging from all directions while giving employees tangible opportunities to drive change from core roles.

Unilever is just one example of a company that recognizes the power in having a motivated and engaged workforce drive forward sustainable change. Our own What Workers Want report demonstrates that employees who participate in social or environmental activities are twice as satisfied with their jobs as those who do not. 

At Net Impact, we’re privileged to work with corporate leaders who have gleaned a number of best practices on effective employee engagement programs focused on sustainability. Many of these programs are particularly popular with Millennials, or employees up to the age of 33 who prioritize making an impact on the job. Millennials are go-getters and want to solve real problems,” says Linda Qian, a Millennial employee at Intel. “But at the same time, they don’t always have the experience to execute on those wishes — they need resources and guidance.”

For those looking to make the plunge, here are three ways companies are guiding Millennials (and others) to lead sustainable change:

  1. Make it easy — and measurable. When TD Bank decided to prioritize employee engagement around its environmental program, leadership launched The Green Pledge to jumpstart the process by raising awareness of all employees and encouraging them to engage in discrete sustainability activities. To help, TD Bank stoked the spirit of friendly competition by implementing visual dashboards that let branches compare their performance and provided toolkits describing how easy it is to make an impact. It worked: Only a year after launching the program, over 12,500 employees (almost 50%) had committed to reducing their CO2 and paper usage as part of The Green Pledge. “By participating in environmental programs through their work, employees gain awareness which will spread into their personal lives and communities as well,” says Diana Glassman, head of TD Environment for the US operations of TD Bank Group.
  2. Award great employee ideas with resources. This summer, 3M held a sustainability power pitch across the company — described as a cross between Shark Tank and American Idol — that challenged employees to pitch their best idea for a sustainable product to a panel of judges and fellow employees. But unlike other fun events that might come and go, this one had teeth: the employee with the winning idea nabbed a research grant to bring the product to life. “Employees, especially younger ones, want to feel that their contributions are respected,” says 3M’s Heather Phansey. “If you show them that, you’ll be surprised by the novel ideas people are capable of.”
  3. Get employees out of their element. At Patagonia, employees have the opportunity to leave the company up to two months to work full-time at an environmental nonprofit, with continued salary and benefits. Why would a company disrupt its workforce like that? According to Patagonia’s Lisa Myers, it’s simple. “By empowering employees to take time off to contribute to an environmental issue they care about, they return more passionate, connected and committed to our company’s environmental mission.” An employee who’s had the opportunity to stretch will pay off in leaps and bounds.

These companies are just a handful of examples in this changing wave of corporate leadership. Today, the wise business knows that employee engagement should be tied to both company culture and sustainability priorities. The benefits are obvious: Hundreds (if not thousands) of sustainability advocates spread throughout the workforce. That’s a reason for celebration  whether your business card says “sustainability” or not. 


Liz Maw joined Net Impact as CEO in 2004. During her tenure, Net Impact has tripled its chapter network to more than 300, formed partnerships with over 50 global corporations, and developed multiple new programs that engage students and professionals in sustainability. Liz… [Read more about Liz Maw]


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