What Comes First: Sustainability Communications or Sustainability Culture?

Written by on April 24, 2014 in CSR, Measure Impact - No comments

Screen Shot 2012-10-08 at 12.58.01 PMBy NAEM Staff

Sustainability communications can be a powerful tool for changing how employees think about their work, their co-workers and their company. In this month’s Network News feature, we look at how NAEM members are using storytelling to engage employees and embed the principles of sustainability into the fabric of their organizations.

Sasha Bailey’s official title is Strategic Communications Manager for ThyssenKrupp Elevator Americas. But for many in the company, she will always be known as “The Green Girl”.

It all started about six years ago when she began sending out weekly sustainability tips via email. The modest communications initiative soon began to cohere, and then generate feedback from the company’s 8,000 employees in the United States.

“I know that so many people read [the email] because I would go places, even our factories and I’d say, ‘Hi, I’m Sasha.’ And they would say, ‘Sasha Bailey? You’re the one that writes the emails?’” she recalled.

Looking back, she says the communications were an important piece of the company’s sustainability journey because they connected people in the organization who would not normally interact.

“The weekly emails ended up being huge because I was the only voice that every single person, no matter their job, heard from every week, consistently,” she said. “Most of the time in a company of our size the human resources people talk to the human resources people; the office managers talk to the office managers.”

Indeed, if having a workforce that thinks and acts like a team is essential to a company’s sustainability strategy, NAEM members say that a communications program is a key to creating and reinforcing that organizational culture.

“[Communications] can either initiate engagement, it can sustain it and it can deepen it,” said Gretchen Digby, Director of Global Sustainability Programs at Ingersoll-Rand Plc.

As the head of the company’s Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability, Ms. Digby’s responsibilities include developing opportunities for employees to share their passion for sustainability at work.

“We realized that if we started with employee engagement it would create the pull for the education and the training,” she said. “It’s been an interesting shift in focus, but a very powerful one.”

To get the engagement program off the ground, she started collecting and sharing stories from the company’s 25 ‘green teams’, those who volunteered their time to advance sustainability internally.

“The communications piece is so important,” she said. “That created some momentum for us, some excitement. It’s like people came out of the woodwork and they wanted to be part of something that they cared about.”

As word got out, the number of teams quickly grew to 116 in facilities around the globe. And as the sustainability culture grew stronger, so too did the company’s employee engagement scores.

“These green teams are kind of infectious,” she said. “It’s the bystanders who see that this company actually provides that platform and that space for employees to express their passion and make a difference.”

At ThyssenKrupp, Ms. Bailey says she likewise grew her company’s culture by creating opportunities for her new audience to connect to the sustainability message.

One such way was through the ‘Better Living Rewards’ contest, in which employees competed for prizes by performing and documenting their sustainability activities. Using a website designed to promote the competition, employees could select from one of four impact areas—home, community, transportation, office—and then upload a photo of themselves doing things sucha s changing light bulbs, weatherizing their homes or biking to work.

In addition to giving employees a way to get involved, the contest also generated fodder for communications.

“We ended up with all of these pictures of our employees doing all these great things, and so those were things that I could use in other places,” she said.
One of those outlets was the company’s external sustainability site, TKearth.com. The recognition that those communications provided, she says, served as a further incentive for employees to participate.
According to Camille Aylmer, Sustainability Communications Manager at DuPont, public acknowledgment sends a strong message to bystanders, too.
Each year, DuPont uses its Sustainable Growth Excellence Awards to recognize six teams of employees, who have helped achieved significant results in one of four key areas: reducing the company’s environmental footprint, improved stakeholder engagement, served the marketplace or created next-generation products. The winners are recognized at an awards ceremony and receive $5,000 to donate to a nonprofit of their choice.
Their stories are also included in the company’s external sustainability report.
“We feature stories in our sustainability progress report because we know that that is incredibly rich compared to just progress on the goals alone,” Ms. Aylmer said. “The stories show the why and how things work on the ground that eventually get wrapped up on our performance on our goals each year.”
While big events like that can generate excitement, Ms. Aylmer points out that routine communications also provide valuable opportunities to shape culture. One way the company reinforces its values is by instructing employees to begin each meeting by sharing a tip or a news story about one of the company’s ‘core values’: safety, respect for people, high ethical behavior and environmental stewardship.
To encourage employees to share environmental tips, Ms. Aylmer’s team has assembled a bank of quick facts, current events and interesting subjects that employees can quickly access and pass along on a routine basis.
They also use the company’s dedicated Twitter account for sustainability to provide a regular touch point for employees who are interested in the topic. Of the more than 6,000 followers to the @DuPont_ability, many of them are employees of the company.
“A lot of our employees are actually engaged with what we do on a sustainability front through that forum,” she said.
The payoff for these efforts, Ms. Aylmer says is a stronger organization internally and a more appealing brand for potential hires.
“It’s an interesting time because we are at a place where we recognize that [sustainability] is pivotal to remaining competitive as an employer of choice,” Ms. Aylmer said. “New employees, by and large, tend to be more engaged with sustainability and do have higher expectations of their employer to not just pay their salaries but to be doing something to have a positive impact.”