The key to creating a vibrant and sustainable company is to find ways to get all employees—from top executives to assembly line workers—personally engaged in day-to-day corporate sustainability efforts.
Inspired by Unilever’s sustainability slogan, “Small actions can make a big difference,” workers at the company’s PG tips tea factory in Trafford Park, England, had a bright idea. In Britain, most tea comes in paper tea bags. By reducing the end seals of each tea bag by 3 millimeters, 15 huge reels of paper could be saved every shift. Since its launch in 2015, this factory-floor suggestion has resulted in savings of €47,500 and 9.3 tonnes of paper (about 20,500 pounds).
Similarly, in early 2015, at the Unilever factory in Khamgaon, India, six employees approached the factory manager with the idea of starting a beauty and hair care course in their village to help local women get a job or start a business, while at the same time promoting Unilever’s personal care products. In March 2015, management gave the green light, and the training center was launched. To date, 825 women have been trained, and 610 are working in beauty parlors or have started their own business.
Were these high-profile moments in Unilever’s quest for sustainability? No. Even if you are a regular follower of sustainability news, you probably have never heard about them. That is exactly the point. What these stories show is the extent to which Unilever—along with other companies such as IBM, Marks & Spencer, and BASF—is integrating sustainability into every employee’s job and turning a sustainable business model into business as usual.
As notable as the actions of these global companies are, they are much more the exception than the norm. In our experiences (as CEO of a global company and an educator and consultant), we have been struck by the lack of personal involvement, and at times even acknowledgment, by business managers of the importance of sustainability, particularly at large, publicly held companies. The typical reaction at many of these firms is: “Yes, it’s important, but it’s someone else’s job, and I have more important things to do.”
There are, however, a handful of companies where we see significant personal engagement by employees in sustainability issues. Take the clothier Marks & Spencer, for example, which has sustainability champions in every one of its 1,380 stores to ensure that each store performs the best it possibly can on all sustainability targets. Or the financial services firm Old Mutual Group, which created a training program for its future leaders that includes sustainability as a core component. The presence of such champions goes a long way toward making sustainability relevant and palpable throughout the company.
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