How to activate your organisation on sustainability so that no one is left behind

Cat Hirst

Co-Founder & CEO

28 September 2022

Let’s stop blaming externalities and start nurturing our people

Last year saw more commitments from the business community on sustainability than ever before—across zero carbon, biodiversity enhancement, resource reuse, diversity and inclusion, reducing inequality, and improving social value. But with the recent IPCC report making clear that, without significant action, we are on course to cross the 1.5ºC threshold by 2040, business knows it’s now time to deliver:

  • The sustainability ambitions are bigger and bolder than ever before
  • The time frame for tangible action is tight, the window stopping irreversible damage on issues such as climate change is closing.
  • The political and economic landscape is uncertain, complex and fast-changing

BUT, there is one often overlooked resource that can help us find the solution. No it’s not the ‘silver bullet’ technologies, no it’s not ‘more regulation’, it’s any organisation’s most valuable resource – its people.

83% of the enterprise value of companies on the S&P 500 in 1975 came from physical assets. By 2018 that had flipped—84% of value was created by human capital. – Swiss Re

We know the incredible ingenuity of people, and how capable we are as a species of innovating, co-creating, learning and adapting to seize emergent opportunities, so…

How can you empower all employees to play an active role in social and environmental issues by helping them understand their part in delivering your sustainability ambitions?

Laying the foundations for engagement

The first step is to get the foundations in place for activation by connecting some important dots internally. In many businesses sustainability exists as a discrete function, a centre of technical excellence, a small team of committed change-makers.  To set up for success ensure you have opened the dialogue on sustainability with key internal people and functions across sustainability, HR, L&D, strategy, and communications to name a few. If you are going to take sustainability far and wide in the organisation, it might need to be repositioned with a handful of key decision-makers internally first, so put the time in to have some open, and frank discussions with key individuals from the earliest opportunity.

So, what are 3 things you can do to activate your whole organisation on sustainability?

1. Get in the shoes of your employees to develop a sustainability engagement strategy

It is crucial that any activation activities are developed to meet people where they are at, and for every organisation that will be different. And for this, you need to conduct an employee-focused sustainability needs analysis.

When we support businesses with this aspect we undertake in depth interviews, design thought-provoking surveys, and develop focus group materials that can be run by external facilitators, or even better – designed to be run by a non-sustainability professional in the business. Understanding the baseline of how people are currently feeling, thinking, and acting on sustainability is key, and involving them, listening to them as you develop your sustainability engagement approach is also critical. You will want to be an organisation that is collaborative in your approach and works to identify and nurture existing passions and motivations.

The next stage is using the employee-led insight you have now generated to develop a people-based strategy for sustainability engagement. This is the stage where every possible intervention for employee activation on sustainability should be considered, including but not limited to learning programmes, innovation initiatives, guided learning resources (podcasts, videos, blogs, books etc), knowledge hubs, rewards and recognition, behaviour change tools, and on-the-job support tools.

2. Develop an action-orientated employee-focused sustainability narrative

Sustainability strategies (goals, targets, roadmaps, KPIs) may have been proudly presented externally – maybe through a glossy report, a smart animation, and/or a heavily polished press release. But is this a narrative that has been developed to drive human connection, engagement and ultimately action? Has it been considered through the lens of an employee? How does the sustainability story link to the wider business purpose, culture, values, and commercial strategy?

I always say the key test for whether you’ve cracked this is, is to wonder what would happen if someone external tapped an ‘everyday employee’ on the shoulder and asked, ‘What is your company’s position on sustainability’? Would they answer confidently, listing off the areas of focus, the 2030 goals, and maybe give an example of how that is filtering down into their role, on the job decision making etc. For many companies the answer is – probably not. Their response might be something along the lines of, ‘I’m personally very interested in sustainability, but for a question about what we as a company are doing, I suggest you speak to our Head of Sustainability/ESG’.

The answer then is to craft compelling sustainability narratives, brought to life in various media for different audiences, that explore the context to the business purpose and ambitions. Bring people in from the earliest opportunity—remembering it doesn’t all have to be perfect before you start talking about your ambitions. The narratives will be authentic, blending data and emotional power, ensuring each person connects with the ambitions, thus driving individual and collective action. These concrete calls to action can be leveraged through large-scale activation events right through to micro-engagements using digital technologies for on-the-job inspiration.

Remember – people change because they are moved by compelling stories, delivered in engaging ways, supported by practical tools—not because they have read glossy reports or lengthy PowerPoints.

The ambition narrative can then by transformed into product / service / function / role specific supporting materials that ‘chunk down’ the ambitions into tools that each person in the organisation and supply chain can use to creatively solve problems as they emerge, on the job, which contribute in some way to the 2030 ambitions.

Such creative problem-solving tools (reframes, breakthrough questions, coaching interventions, design lenses etc) avoid telling people exactly how to change—which even a sustainability expert is unlikely to be able to design or predict—but instead empowers each individual to contribute to the big ambition.

3. Activate everyone in the business on sustainability

The next step is the design and delivery of an activation activity, or series of activities. This is the time that you bring everyone together through an event, communications, and/or a programme, to ensure that every employee is on the same page about the sustainability goals and has the opportunity to connect with the sustainability vision on a very human level, so that they feel a part of something special.

The design of this activity is critical. Ensuring it excites rather than overwhelms. That it engages all rather than side-lining the ‘non-experts’. That it clarifies rather than complicates. And achieving this balance is an artform in itself. But done properly, these activation activities become extremely effective ways of bringing everyone together on the importance of sustainability, channelling enthusiasm, overcoming cynicism, and ensuring everyone feels empowered to play a role.

Remember – people change because they are moved by compelling stories, delivered in engaging ways, supported by practical tools—not because they have read glossy reports or lengthy PowerPoints.

And here are just a few of the ways the activation can come to life for a business:

  • Board sustainability activation programmes – a board specific session to build the boards capacity and confidence on sustainability
  • An employee engagement & empowerment sustainability summit – a 2-hour company wide event to empower all employees on sustainability, held virtually or face to face (you can read a case study here)
  • Behaviour change tools and ‘on the job’ support materials
  • Guided learning opportunities (e.g. a digital sustainability learning hub).
Final thought

Organisations that stand to go far towards in achieving their targets will have a plan in place so that every person in the business and connect with the ambitions, thus driving individual and collective action. Make sure that your organisation is ready to make the most of its most valuable asset to ensure its role in creating a positive impact.  And that can start in a practical way with a sustainability activation summit.

Keep an eye out for a future blog, in which we’ll provide insight on how to design a sustainability champions programme that works. Subscribe to our mailing list to stay in the loop and we’ll let you know when it’s published!

In the meantime, download our one-pager on sustainability activation to find out how we support organisations just like yours on their sustainability journeys.

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