Liz Maw joined the nonprofit organization Net Impact as CEO in 2004 and over the last nine years, Maw has tripled the Net Impact chapter network, formed partnerships with more than 50 global businesses, developed programs that are designed to engage both students and professionals in sustainability and was named one of the 100 most influential people in business ethics by Ethisphere.  

Maw, who will be speaking at the Sustainable Brands 2013 conference next week in San Diego, California, recently participated in an email Q&A on the topic of sustainability, human resources and employee engagement.

MNN: What role will HR professionals play in supporting a company's sustainability strategy?

Liz Maw: HR professionals can play a vital role in supporting a company’s sustainability strategy. Engaging employees through sustainability efforts is essential to recruiting and retaining top talent.  

As Andy Savitz’s great new book – Talent, Transformation, and the Triple Bottom Line – lays out in detail, sustainability can be integrated into every core HR process from employer branding to recruiting to compensation. Right now, not many HR professionals are doing this – but they have the potential to push forward an innovative agenda that explores workforce needs at every level.  

There’s also incredible demand for this breed of HR professional. I speak to many people who hold sustainability roles at Fortune 500 companies, most of whom bemoan the lack of alignment between their work and HR teams. The few who have managed to form a close relationship – such as Dave Stangis at Campbell Soup Company, reap the benefits for years to come. Says Dave, “By being on the same page, we can truly execute our sustainability agenda at every level of the organization.”

Students – the next generation of employees – are eager to use their careers to improve the world.  Net Impact’s Talent Report shows that the majority of graduating students hopes and expects to make a difference on the job. And more than half (58%) would be willing to take a pay cut to work for an organization that shares their values. 

Many studies reveal that engaging employees in environmental initiatives can improve a company’s bottom line and help it to reach its sustainability goals. Towers Watson’s Global Workforce study found that engaged employees lost only 8 days in productivity per year versus 14 days from non-engaged employees. By using sustainability initiatives as the fuel for this engagement, there’s a win-win-win for the employee, the organization, and the world. 

What can employees do to not only support their employer's sustainability strategy but also help expand it?

Employees can drive social or environmental change from any position within the organization – not just from sustainability and CSR roles.  

Ryan Salow of Best Buy is a great example. Ryan is a consumer packaging engineer with a personal passion for sustainable products (and one of our 2012 Impact at Work award finalists). Tasked with creating next generation packaging for Best Buy’s private label products, Ryan drove the charge for more cost-effective and environmentally friendly packaging. To achieve this, Ryan had to engage others across the organization – from product marketing, to finance, to the CSR team – to accomplish better business and environmental outcomes. Ryan recently told us, “I had a strong personal conviction about the change we could create; Best Buy empowered me to create the job I want to have.” His initiative – even though it wasn’t explicitly in his job description – had powerful results for the business and the environment. The new design saved over 800 tons of plastic, reducing overall retail packaging volume by 50%. 

But not all employees are in Ryan’s position, where they are given an explicit mandate to make a product more sustainable. Often, employees need to take thoughtful, bold steps in pushing change forward. I’ve seen employee change agents – or “intrapreneurs” – successfully make the case for reducing disposables in the employee cafeteria, starting employee volunteer days, and coordinating a building-wide energy audit.  Net Impact provides an Impact at Work Toolkit to help lay out the steps for designing and starting an “intrapreneurship” project.

In your opinion, should sustainability goals be included in an executive's review?  

Yes! Embedding sustainability goals in executives’ reviews is a powerful way to show an organization’s commitment to sustainability efforts. In recent years, a number of companies have led the way by including sustainability in executive reviews and compensation structures. 

PG&E provides one great case study on this. As part of their comprehensive sustainability strategy, PG&E recently added a new environmental metric as part of the performance goal of all management employees. The company hopes this will create an added incentive for employees to reduce the company’s environmental footprint.

Should sustainability goals be included at all levels of a business?  

Yes. Incorporating sustainability goals at all levels of a business communicates the importance of these initiatives and facilitates alignment across the organization. Moreover, it is more often people on the front lines – the retail associates, the operations managers, or the procurement team – that make the most meaningful day to day decisions on sustainable options.

As one example, since 2008, Intel has embedded goals for environmental performance into its employee bonus structure, which applies to all employees – from the front lines to the CEO. These goals are focused on reducing the operational carbon footprint and driving the energy efficiency of the company’s products. 

What companies are trendsetters when it comes to sustainability and HR/employee engagement?

The good news is that a lot of companies are starting to get serious about sustainability and HR/employee engagement.  I can’t give a comprehensive list, but here are a few examples:

The eBay Green Team started as a grassroots employee initiative in 2007. Now it has grown into a group of more than 2,500 eBay employees in over 25 countries, all promoting sustainable business practices within eBay, volunteering in their communities, and supporting environmental legislation. 

Starbucks has gone to great lengths to integrate sustainability efforts into its employee engagement strategy. By purchasing “ethically sourced” coffee beans and donating time and resources to farmer communities around the world, employees feel a greater connection to the product and initiatives their company supports. In effect, Starbucks has aligned its company values to the values of the young workers who primarily brew coffee behind the counter.

AT&T’s Do One Thing (DOT) project is another great example of how an organizational initiative can really spur a wide-scale culture change. By challenging employees to take one simple action every day – whether it’s signing up a customer for paperless billing or powering down electronics at the end of their shift – employees are able to make an impact (and celebrate their organization’s overall wins) from any position. 

More and more companies are making similar commitments to sustainability through employee engagement.  Every day, we hear stories from our professional members driving sustainable impact at work with increasing corporate support. That’s how we know this movement is here to stay. 

Liz Maw on sustainability, human resources and employee engagement
"HR professionals can play a vital role in supporting a company’s sustainability strategy," says Net Impact CEO Liz Maw.