From surveys, we know that nearly 50% of U.S. consumers want to change their consumption habits to save the environment. In fact, one environmentally-focused survey found four out of five people describe themselves as likely to choose a brand that prioritizes environmental sustainability. This desire also impacts where employees want to work, as companies that can demonstrate a commitment to sustainable and ethical practices often have a competitive advantage in the battle for talent.
The COVID-19 pandemic amplified this growing trend, as millions of people all over the world transitioned from working in the office to working remotely. Shifting to new ways of making a living, and facing new challenges, forced us to reflect upon how we have been living our lives.
Because of this consumer preference to purchase from companies that do good for the planet and work for companies that enable safe working conditions and work-life balance, companies across the world are working hard to develop and achieve sustainability goals related to environmental and safety stewardship.
Both improving a company’s environmental impact and reducing the number of workplace injuries and fatalities should be a critical focus for companies of any size. For many companies, having their products or services exhibit a strong sustainable emphasis is a significant selling point for potential customers, whether those customers are consumers or other businesses. Similarly, creating a safe and sustainable working environment for employees is completely possible and very necessary to attract talent and to allow team members to grow to their full potential and help create a better future for their company and themselves.
While non-compliance issues can arise, a company’s focus should be on developing, implementing, monitoring, and constantly improving its practices to improve compliance, manage risk and create a culture that emphasizes sustainability principles. Failure to take these steps can lead to hefty fines, loss of the best talent, or worse, loss of life.
To address this, some companies establish a safety management system that focuses on leadership engagement, proper risk mitigation, effective and meaningful employee training, competency evaluations, audits, incident reviews, corrective actions, shared learning, and of course, continuous improvements. These systems all must be built around accountability and driven by metrics utilizing leading indicators to produce results.
Creating a culture that values sustainability
No one person or one organization can have a significant impact on the environment. It takes shared values, goals and accountability to establish and maintain sustainability and safety. And in order for these values to flourish, leadership at the very top of the company must effectively manage a company’s culture with these shared values to drive the desired behavior.
Creating a company culture where employees are aligned on working toward sustainability, environmental stewardship, and safety goals requires having a clear vision, committing time and resources, and staying power, but it is incredibly worthwhile. Having open communication about how to achieve the vision and creating timely, achievable, and measurable goals is key to team members buying into that vision and believing the company authentically feels a sense of urgency on these principles. Each team member needs to understand how their actions directly translate into the achievement of these goals as well as their own professional and personal development.
The company’s environmental, health, and safety (EHS) team should work in close partnership with operational and functional teams to establish requirements, and those requirements should be applied consistently to all team members and activities. It is also critical to involve team members who are at the heart of everyday operations and will need to implement the procedures in the development of these requirements.
Developing employee incentive programs that align with ESG goals
Startups and global companies alike should offer incentives to their team members that align with their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals and attract and retain the right talent. While it is up to leadership, and largely the human resources department, team member compensation and benefits should complement the company’s commitment to promote sustainability with a focus on the following:
- Health and safety
- Equity and inclusion
- Employee engagement and development
Engagement and development of team members help them meet their own personal and professional goals as well as the goals of the company and will be what transcends a company’s sustainability and safety goals. For employees, recognizing their contributions builds morale, reduces turnover, and creates an organizational culture in which employees feel their work has meaning and is making a difference.
These incentive programs also allow teams to hold each other accountable and encourage everyone to implement and uphold the company’s environmental health and safety policies and procedures.
Organizations need to use consistent, meaningful, and motivating metrics to continually assess their competency and should improve their communication of the importance of these metrics. Some companies have incorporated an ESG modifier in the performance evaluations of top executives. For those that do, an EHS team can suggest modifying these individuals’ annual variable compensation by +/- 10% across several ESG dimensions. Tying a portion of the annual incentive compensation for top executives to ESG performance and then tracking leading indicators of the company’s progress toward its ESG goals can be a powerful demonstration of the company’s commitment to those goals.
So why are sustainability goals important? At the end of the day, people want to live and work in a healthy, quality environment: clean air, safe water, easily accessible recycling programs, and more. They also want to have a quality of life that is also driven by safety and security. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not until an accident has happened that appropriate safety precautions are put into place. It is the responsibility of leadership to drive a culture that keeps people safe by demanding the highest of safety standards before an accident happens to ensure that everyone can return home safely every day. Our people are our most valuable resource. For example, at Clean Earth we believe that it is always the right time to invest in sustainability and safety initiatives and encourage our team members to continuously share suggestions for ways we can further improve.
Above all, it is important to recognize that the actions of a business have a direct impact on the environment and the company’s stakeholders, including its employees. No matter the size or industry, each company needs to take ownership on sustainability and make deliberate choices each day to conduct operations in an ethical, safe, and environmentally friendly manner. Every year presents new challenges when it comes to sustainability and safety concerns, so having strong leadership will allow a team to do their best work and further these values. Every step an organization takes is a step toward creating a better future for the planet and for its people.
Averil Rance is the Senior Vice President of Environmental, Health & Safety at Clean Earth, one of the largest specialty waste companies in the United States providing remediation, disposal, recycling, and beneficial reuse solutions for hazardous and non-hazardous waste and contaminated materials.