GreenBiz recently released its 2014 edition of the State of Green Business, and in it we find both good and bad news for sustainability trends. One bright spot that the report highlights is the focus on employee engagement. This translates into better customer and talent retention and acquisition, improved productivity, and innovation. The not so bright spots? Progress on sustainability performance against goals, and increased spending on sustainability, especially on human resources to support sustainability programs. Environment, health and safety (EHS) and corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets are remaining essentially flat and Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) positions are on the decline, but nonetheless sustainability initiatives and goals are still being pursued, albeit sluggishly. 

The GreenBiz report indicates that corporate leadership support for sustainability has risen from 12% in 2009 to 33% in 2014, but this C-level attention appears to be directed at non-CSO positions, which have fallen to 2003 levels. Hiring of new sustainability positions in general has fallen from a high of 49% in 2011 down to 32% at present.

So who will be achieving the sustainability goals if companies are not adding sustainability staff? Enter the rise of employee engagement, or as GreenBiz contributor Grant Ricketts calls it in his recent article, Employee Engagement 2.0 (EE 2.0). EE 2.0, as Ricketts suggests, is about integrating and embedding sustainability into the fabric of the organization. This means making sustainability an integral part of everyone’s job, and aligning sustainability initiatives with standard job functions. I repeatedly heard during my MBA program at Presidio that when a company becomes truly sustainable, there will be no need for a separate “sustainability department”. While the sluggish performance against goals that many companies have reported this year indicate that there is not wide achievement of the “Sustainable Company” benchmark, firms seem to be moving ahead with implementing leaner sustainability organizations nonetheless. Case in point – in a Feb 2013 article in the MITSloan Review, Nestle’s corporate head of agriculture, Hans Johr, touts the fact that the company doesn’t have a CSO as evidence that they are achieving this integration of sustainability into the fabric of the company.

So what does it actually mean to integrate sustainability into an organization through employee engagement? How is this manifest? Contrary to what is commonly written on this subject, I don’t believe that this means encouraging employee volunteerism, or getting people to turn off their computers at the end of the day, or letting people work from home to save on office energy usage (because really, unless employees are sitting home in the dark with the heat or AC off, the energy they are using is just shifted from the company to the individual). Don’t get me wrong – all these things are great in their own right and are very important. However, as a strategy for leveraging employee engagement to further sustainability or CSR goals, they are low-hanging fruit at best.

So here are some ideas for achieving this integration: Communicate goals to employees, and them let them decide which one to support through their existing job function. Take a play from the agile project management playbook and build cross-functional teams based on employee’s strengths and areas of interest. Agile is an iterative, value-driven process. It’s about everyone on the team knowing which direction to pull, and not getting bogged down in prescriptive protocols and roles. For example, if a company has a goal to reduce water consumption by 15% over five years, a group of employees from different parts of the organization might adopt that goal as their own and apply their own skills to addressing the issue. Someone in IT might create an app or web-based tool for the intranet site for other employees to report on leaky water faucets or other office water leaks. Someone in finance might work on calculating the savings over time from reducing water usage, and then work with someone else in marketing or communications to create internal messaging for the whole company so that everyone understands the issue from a dollars-and-cents perspective. Employees in engineering or manufacturing can work on innovating ways for production processes to recycle wastewater. Enable employees to dedicate 5-10% of their time to using their skills to support one of the company’s sustainability initiatives or goals, and tie bonuses to sustainability performance for employees and executives whose jobs are directly related to key environmental and social metrics. Intel has been linking compensation to sustainability performance since 2008, and other companies can implement this same approach to accelerate meaningful change.

An agile project management approach is a novel application of implementing EE 2.0, but a new approach is necessary if meaningful progress is to be achieved. A sustainability manager or similar role will still be needed to wrangle all these disparate efforts, but an integrated project-based approach can be successful with the right management and organization.