As more and more “green” products have gone mainstream, so too have questions about what “green” really means. Many companies today spend a good deal of time and energy marketing and positioning themselves as responsible stewards of the environment, and when done well, consumers and stakeholders respond with overwhelming support.
For example, organizations like General Electric (GE) “walk the walk” and have the return on investment to prove it. Its successful Ecoimagination campaign – a business initiative launched in 2005 and aimed at building innovative solutions to meet customer demand for more energy efficient products – has saved the company an estimated $116 million and lowered its greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent over a five year span at the end of the last decade.
On the other hand is “greenwashing,” which dilutes the credibility and value of green claims, and makes the public doubt those who truly have strong or legitimate stories to tell. Simply put, sustainability aspirations need a plan of meaningful action that will enact legitimate change, both for the environment and for business.
An authentic sustainability initiative means engaging the stakeholders to whom sustainability matters. It requires a company to invest its time, knowledge and resources as a member of its many and diverse communities.
This is important, not just for “feel-good” reasons related to making communities better, stronger, more livable – although those are important benefits for all of us. It is also important because it provides a real, quantifiable dollar return on investment. Giving back to people, communities, economies and the environment helps maintain them as strong, vital contributors to society and, therefore, to business.
Thankfully, every company or brand has built-in and powerful resources – its employees. They are found at every desk and shop floor throughout the organization. By creating opportunities for employees to give back to the communities and environments around them, organizations can go a long way towards overcoming the skepticism that can accompany green claims and aspirations.
Recent studies affirm the clear correlation between employee engagement and improvements to the bottom line. Recent reports by the HR consultancy Towers Watson have found that companies with engaged employees demonstrate significantly higher operating income, employee productivity and five-year shareholder return. Not surprisingly they also show dramatically lower costs associated with employee turnover and retraining.
By aligning the dollar and productivity value of employee passion with their sustainability goals and aspirations, companies can accomplish multiple objectives with a single ingenious strategy. They can reinforce the credibility of sustainability or “green” claims. They can accelerate business and innovation plans that are keyed to environmental benefits. They can develop an army of ambassadors and evangelists who can speak to their employers’ willingness to “walk the walk” when it comes to sustainability commitments. And they can differentiate meaningfully from competitors whose sustainability claims are not well rooted in company culture.
This approach can and should be embedded in the fiber of the organization. At Alcoa, for example, twenty percent of executive compensation is based on progress toward specific sustainability goals. We distribute an annual sustainability report to reinforce accountability. And we have created employee volunteer initiatives like Green Works, Alcoa Earthwatch Fellowships and Make an Impact with the Pew Global Climate Center which seek to mobilize all Alcoans – from the C-suite to the shop floor – to engage friends and family members and get involved in greening their communities as well as those around the world.
Forward-thinking companies are increasingly aware of the tangible, measurable ways their sustainability efforts around the world can pay dividends for both the community and for business. Senior leadership vision is essential for establishing those commitments; but employee passion is the critical success factor for making them pay off in authentic, credible ways.
Paula S. Davis is president of the Alcoa Foundation. Alcoa is absolutely committed to the idea that investing and strengthening our reputation as an environmental steward involves creating hands-on, action-oriented connections between our employees, and the stakeholders who matter most to our success as a business – connections built around priorities that matter to all of us. That’s not just a strategy for authentic sustainability; it’s the definition of it.