(39) Sustainability

 What is sustainability?

Sustainability Trends for 2017


Consult on the implementation

Many of the mistakes organisations make implementing sustainability are predictable change management blunders. This is hardly surprising given that most of the people implementing sustainability have no change management training. HR professionals can be critical partners in crafting a successful implementation plan to fit their particular organisation’s circumstances. They understand the importance of involvement; they know how to respond to resistance; they are familiar with reframing techniques to enrol stakeholders; they are in control of many of the communication and educational systems, and they often coach managers in their own performance.

For example, the new executive director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon was passionate about sustainability but recognised that in her organisation, top-down directives were rarely as long-lived as bottom-up ones. So she hired us to help her develop an implementation strategy. We formed a steering committee of employees and managers whose job it was to study sustainability, catalyse a few pilot projects and, by the end of the year, recommend whether the organisation should adopt sustainability as one of its strategic goals. The steering committee developed two broad improvement goals: zero waste and climate change. A task force was formed to work on each issue and they reported their results back to the steering committee. They made reports to all-staff meetings about reducing their solid waste by 40 per cent and encouraging alternative transportation. The steering committee also set up informal lunchtime sessions where people could learn about sustainability. By the end of the year, everyone at the museum was familiar to some extent with sustainability and the steering committee gave the executive director the enthusiastic go-ahead she had hoped would come.

A second role that the HR department can play is to help individual departments map out and improve their processes. Many environmental impact analyses, especially those associated with environmental management systems, are based on a process diagram. Many HR professionals, either through their experience with organisational development or the quality management fields, are well prepared to do this.


Doppelt, Bob (2003) Leading Change toward Sustainability. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing.

Eisler, Riane (2007) The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating Caring Economics. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Natrass, Brian and Mary Altomare (2002) Dancing with the Tiger: Learning Sustainability Step by Natural Step. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. Provides an overview of the popular Natural Step framework with case studies from North America.

MonsterTRAK, in alliance with ecoAmerica, a non-profit environmental group, started GreenCareers. The site lists positions in companies that reduce their impact on the environment, making it easier for students to connect with businesses that support their environmental goals.

Align human resource systems

Human resource systems have a powerful influence on employee behaviour, so it’s important to ensure that your systems are supporting the behaviour that you want. Companies that touted teamwork and collaboration, for example, soon discovered that their individually focused performance appraisal and reward system undermined the collaboration they were trying to instil. If you don’t watch for these types of mismatches you can undermine your own implementation efforts.

Orientation. Many organisations run a blanket training programme when they begin a sustainability effort but then forget about employee turnover. Including sustainability in your new employee orientation will ensure that you don’t lose ground.

Selection and job descriptions. Eventually, sustainability becomes embedded in the jobs people do. This should be reflected in job descriptions and selection criteria. Chevron made an understanding of environmental issues a selection criterion for their CEOs.

You will also want to reach out to disadvantaged populations. While this may already be part of a strong diversity programme that you pursue other reasons, sustainability strengthens the case for engaging with this segment of society. In the US at least, sustainability still is predominately an upper-middle-class white phenomenon. As you hire people from disadvantaged or minority communities, you not only extend the concepts of sustainability to new populations, you learn more about what is important to those communities, helping you to reframe sustainability in terms that will resonate with them.

Training. Embed sustainability into your training programmes. In particular, include it in supervisory and management training, but you can also include sustainability-related examples in many other classes. Make sure all employees get some basic-level understanding of sustainability concepts and, over time, provide more in-depth training in

specialised topics as they are needed. Remember that training doesn’t just happen in classrooms. Find ways to embed sustainability into regular staff meetings and other corporate communication vehicles.

Training doesn’t always have to be job-related. Wal-Mart, for example, has been providing sustainability training to its employees and encouraging them to adopt personal sustainability projects. The programme is voluntary, but many employees are participating.

The goals include eating healthier foods, using environmentally friendly materials in their homes, and volunteering for related causes. Many organisations have found that discussion

courses are also an effective way to engage employees. Helping employees integrate their personal values into daily life at work and at home can be a powerful motivator. Reviews and rewards. Align your pay and reward systems with your sustainability policies. Often, linking a minor portion of pay to sustainability is enough to get action. Norm Thompson, a catalogue retailer, wanted their buyers to use sustainability as part of their decision-making process when they chose products for their catalogue. But just telling them this was not enough to change behaviour because their pay system didn’t reward them for the extra work. So HR told them that 10 percent of their pay would be based on improving the sustainability quotient of their purchases.

This got their attention! Instantly, the buyers wanted to know how they could tell if one product was greener than another. This led to the creation of an elaborate scoring system and associated toolkit. Certainly, you will also want to ensure that you are paying a fair, living wage. Deciding what constitutes a living wage can be a knotty problem, however. Rejuvenation, a small period lighting manufacturer in Portland, Oregon, struggled with how to determine a living wage and how to fund paying it in a world of global competition. They found a regional research study on what constituted ‘fair pay’ but learned that what is adequate for a single adult living alone is different from that for a dual-income couple or parents with three children. This led them to learn more about their employees’ households. They used this information to determine a fair wage and then did what they could afford to provide that for their entry-level employees. Part of their strategy is to accelerate pay increases for the lowest grade positions faster than higher grades to close the gap.

Most organisations link their performance review systems to pay, so find ways to embed sustainability there as well. This can take some effort since the goals are often linked to job tasks. One of the barriers associated with implementing sustainability is that people can’t imagine what they should do differently. The solid waste division of the Washington Department of Ecology found that many people said ‘I just follow the regulations’ while others had no problem envisioning how to incorporate sustainability into their everyday work life.

To solve this problem, we helped them develop a process for guiding employees so they could integrate sustainability into their jobs. The department already had Job Alike Groups (JAGs) that were composed of people from across the state who did the same job. We designed a process similar to ‘backcasting’ where the JAGs examined their work process, identified their impacts, defined the sustainable future state and then worked backwards to identify what they would have to do differently in ten years, five years and one year as well as things they could change now. We trained people to facilitate these JAG meetings. The management JAG went through a slightly different process to determine how to support these efforts. This included a process linked to their performance review system. Employees were expected to bring ideas about how to change their work practices to the performance review discussion so that these new practices could be reflected in individual performance plans.

Reward programmes. Award/reward programmes and contests can be risky because the psychological effects of rewards on human behaviour are quite complex. (We recommend Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn for more on this.) Sometimes it’s just a matter of making sure there is something in it for the employee. Luper Brothers is an auto repair shop in Lewiston, Idaho. In the office, Luper Brothers’ employees recycle aluminium, cardboard, plastics, scrap iron and polystyrene. They realised that nagging wasn’t the best way to get employees to recycle. Instead, they developed an incentive programme that enabled employees, on their own time, to recover the more valuable metals and metal parts (copper, aluminium, bearings) from waste components and earn extra income by selling them.

One of the most famous and effective reward programmes was run by Dow Chemical Company back in the 1980s to improve environmental performance. While the example is dated, there is a lot to learn from their success. In 1982, their Louisiana Division created a contest to find energy-saving projects with a high return on investment. In that first year, there were 27 winners, requiring capital investments of $1.7 million and an average return on investment (ROI) of 173 per cent. What was most surprising, violating the commonly held assumptions about diminishing returns, was that each year the employees found better and better projects yielding better ROIs. Many of these projects involved process improvements such that the productivity gains started to exceed the energy and environmental benefits. After ten years the programme was generating ideas that on average returned 300 percent! What was going on? Why didn’t they quickly exhaust the low-hanging fruit? We believe the employees got increasingly sophisticated in their ability to identify improvement opportunities.

Transportation-reduction programmes. Many HR departments operate programmes to reduce commuting impacts. These range from subsidising bus passes and coordinating car pools to encouraging telework. For service organisations, transportation may be a major source of environmental impact. For example, at SERA Architects in Portland, Oregon, their backcasting process revealed that commuting and travel were by far their biggest impacts, bigger by a factor of two over any other activity. At the time they began investigating travel issues, they were issuing each employee with the cash equivalent of a monthly bus pass.

Employees could do what they wanted with the cash, so drivers were using it for parking expenses. The firm didn’t feel that the policy really sent a strong enough message. When they crunched the numbers they discovered that 33 per cent of their staff were commuting alone in cars and that the travel subsidy the firm paid out to them came to enough to give every employee an extra two days’ paid holiday. SERA decide to revoke the payment to single occupancy commuters and gave every employee the extra two paid days of holiday. Now they ask each employee to submit a quarterly travel report. If an employee can demonstrate that he used alternative transportation to get to work at least 80 percent of the time, he is paid a quarterly bonus equal to the cost of a three-month bus pass.

Governmental agencies have also been able to justify significant incentives to encourage alternative commuting. Clark County, Washington is a suburban and rural community outside Portland, Oregon. Clark County recently adopted a sustainability policy and is embarking on several initiatives including significant incentives to encourage alternative commuting. In addition to providing employees fully subsidised bus passes and car-pool parking, Clark County offers two hours’ vacation bonus for any employee who takes at least 12 round trips via alternative transportation in a month. While some people argue that could represent a loss of work time, Pete DuBois, Sustainability Coordinator, argues that people tend to compress their work into the time available. ‘Think about the week before you go on vacation. Somehow, you get more done that week to compensate.’ The vacation bonus is available only for car-pooling, transit, walking and cycling and can be viewed as time back for sacrifices made waiting to catch the bus, meet up with your carpool partner or travelling by bike or on foot. Through a grant from Washington State Department of Transport, Clark County also offers employees the Commute Alternative to Shift Habits (CASH) which offers cash rewards to employees committing to trying a new alternative commute. Not known for transit-friendly development, Clark County is taking the lead on its commute trip reduction programme.

Reinsurance company Swiss Re is so concerned about climate change that they provide incentives for employees to reduce their personal carbon footprint at work and at home in their COYou2 Reduce and Gain programme. Until 2011, they will rebate half the cost of such measures as purchasing a hybrid car, installing solar panels or taking public transportation.

In the US you can set up a pre-tax Transportation Savings Account (similar to a health savings account) that allows employees to pay for alternative transportation expenses (eg bus passes) with pre-tax earnings. Japanese automaker Mazda is paying employees 1500 yen (about US$12.50) a month to walk to work to improve their health and help the environment. Employees must live at least two kilometres away from work and commute by foot at least 15 days a month to qualify. Yamaha has a similar programme. These programmes may pay for themselves in reduced health plan costs. Historically employers have felt that employee commuting was not their business. But take a bit of time to compute the cost of providing employee parking. What is the cost of that asphalted land? What is the cost of obesity and related health problems to your health plan when you make it easy for employees to limit their exercise.

Portland State University, sited in downtown Portland, Oregon, realised they couldn’t possibly increase their student population as their strategic plan directed if all employees needed a parking space. So they did a number of things to encourage alternative transportation. Parking lots are inconveniently located whereas public transit stops are close to the front doors. Monthly parking passes show the annual cost of parking on the receipt to emphasise the true cost of driving. The university also provides ‘Flexcar’ benefits so that professors and employees can rent a car on an hourly basis when a car really is the best way to get around.

It’s not just commuting. HR can reduce the need for business travel through technology. With sophisticated technologies like Cisco’s TelePresence (which provides a realistic meeting environment) and Second Life (which provides an unreal experience!) travelling will become less necessary. Windshield time and jet lag are productivity busters. Collaborate with your information technology department to identify and train people on

the best tools available. Then build in incentives to reduce transportation. Progressive Investment Management, a socially responsible investment manager, actually charges their employees for the climate impacts of their transportation choices. Employees track both business trips and commuting, and a fee to purchase carbon offsets is deducted from their annual bonus. Work/life balance support systems. With both parents working these days, it’s unrealistic to expect people to leave their home lives at the door. Helping employees juggle their commitments can pay off in employee retention. SAS at their Carey, NC headquarters, has on-site day care and highchairs in the cafeteria so kids can eat with their parents. Employees can take unlimited sick days and they work seven-hour days. SAS is often in the top ten of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list and has a turnover rate of only 4 percent compared with 20 percent in industry. Since it can cost the equivalent of up to 18 months’ salary to bring a new person up to speed, the investments are well worth it.


In the US, a good source of information about living-wage jobs and also green jobs is the Political Economy Research Institute, part of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, www.peri.umass.edu/

Eisler, Riane (2007) The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating Caring Economics. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Investments and retirement funds.

In many organisations, the retirement benefits are part of HR responsibility. Screening investments on social responsibility criteria can send important signals to the marketplace. The huge California public employees’ pension programme, CalPERS, has been a leader in this practice.


For training materials, see the following resources:

Galea, Chris (ed.) (2005) Teaching Business Sustainability: Volume 1 – From Theory to Practice. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing. Also see Volume 2 – Cases, Simulations and Experiential Approaches, published in 2007.

In the US, see the Northwest Earth Institute for discussion courses which can help employees get in touch with their values and learn about ecological principles, www.nwei.org.

Hitchcock, Darcy (2001) Making Sense of Sustainability: An Employee Guide. Portland, OR: AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc. This is a short primer for employees that includes a couple of simple exercises. It covers the triple bottom line and The Natural Step system conditions.

Hitchcock, Darcy (2008) The Dragonfly’s Question. Self-published at this time. This is a novella and discussion guide for business and community groups to learn about sustainability concepts and principles. Contact Darcy Hitchcock for more information: '); document.write(addy42275); document.write('<\/a>'); //-->\n This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .





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