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Will we meet Zero carbon emissions? It’s up to each and every business

Societies are grappling with the challenge of climate change and reorganising the economy to achieve net Zero carbon emissions, but could employers be missing a trick here? Could they do more to engage their workforces and boost their loyalty by involving them more directly in action on climate change and green issues?

Seeking employers that care about sustainability

The growing global focus on sustainability stems from rising public alarm over climate change, with employers having to take increasing account of employee and new joiners’ concerns over the state of the environment. For example, annual surveys of UK opinion on climate change in 2022 and 2021 by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) at the University of Bath and Cardiff University found that nearly half (45% and 46% respectively) of respondents were ‘very’ or ‘extremely worried’ about climate change.

And these concerns take on a more practical dimension as increasingly people want a job role with an employer that is prepared to play an active part in mitigating the effects of climate change and promoting more sustainable living. A 2023 Deloitte survey of nearly 23,000 employees in 44 countries found “55% of respondents reporting that they research brands’ environmental impact and policies before accepting a job, and more than 40% reporting that they already have, or plan to, change jobs, due to climate concerns.”

We decided to put organisations’ sustainability efforts to the test. We wanted to establish if a company can engage its people more closely by the perceived level of commitment it makes to climate change and social responsibility. We wanted to understand if employees really believe their employer’s commitment to the environment is genuine and does that belief affect their job. Are workforces likely to be more engaged in their work if an organisation makes a first-stage commitment, such as committing at a corporate level to reducing its carbon emissions? Or something that involves the workforce more directly?

We examined data from our global customer database of 6,500 companies worldwide drawing on the anonymised results of thousands of data points from engagement surveys – the largest source of workforce engagement data in the world.

While workforces like a real corporate commitment to sustainability, most organisations still aren’t testing their people’s perceptions of their green strategies. Globally, only 27% of companies’ employee engagement surveys currently ask if the organization’s social responsibility strategy is genuine. In the UK, and Germany, just 26% do so.

We found that companies in industries associated with higher-than-average carbon emissions, or are heavily impacted by it, are more likely to want to find out how employees perceive their commitment to reducing climate change.

The highest industry response levels in our study came from the construction (38%), manufacturing (36%), and logistics & transport (33%) sectors. Surprisingly, despite tech firms’ visionary and problem-solving reputation, they were the least likely of all market sectors we analysed to ask if commitment to social impact was genuine ─ just 22% did ─ and appreciably below sectors such as science & research (29%) and professional and financial services (28%).

We also found higher levels of scepticism among European workers than US ones that their employer’s social responsibility commitment and climate change was genuine. While 71% of the companies questioned agreed, rising to 73% in the US, only 64% of UK companies agreed and only just over half (56%) of German companies did.

Sustainability commitment engages your people more

A genuine and active commitment to sustainability is a much better way for organisations to engage employees than relying on ‘first stage’ tactics such as carbon reduction pledges. What stood out further was by how much organisations could boost engagement and feelings of loyalty by creating opportunities for employees to make a practical difference on the green agenda.

Examining data from the 1,078 organisations (employing nearly 396,000 people in total worldwide) who had surveyed their workforce, we found that in organisations where people felt a genuine commitment to sustainability and social impact ─ such as having sustainability plans and providing direct opportunities for employees to act on this issue ─ scored on average 16% points higher on employee engagement than those where this commitment was absent.

In contrast, companies may only achieve a modest impact on employee engagement by taking initial steps on sustainability such as publishing carbon reduction targets. In a separate study of 109 organisations – employing 243,000 people worldwide – we found companies announcing these scientific targets through the global Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) scored only 2% points higher on employee engagement.

It seems the largest impact from these policy announcements is on workforces’ commitment: employees at companies with science-based targets being 4% points more likely to see themselves working there in two years’ time.

Organisations can sometimes achieve a striking uplift in engagement by following through on a single tactic that involves their employees in social responsibility and sustainability. We looked at a smaller group of 24 companies that set up programmes giving employees a day off once every three months to volunteer. Remarkably, firms that had implemented these measures, rated on average 15% points higher on their perceived commitment to sustainability ─ from 67% beforehand to 82% afterwards.

Engaging employees through active sustainability programmes

Our studies strongly suggest there are exciting opportunities for organisations to engage and involve their employees more closely in their responses to the climate change and sustainability agenda. The starting point for many companies will be to ask their employees’ views on their organisation’s approach, since the overwhelming majority (73%) of companies we studied worldwide do not know how their corporate sustainability commitment is perceived.

While organisations have invested much time and effort on tactics such as setting science-based carbon reduction targets as a first step, our analysis shows that to engage employees and gain real momentum for climate change agenda across workforces, organisations will need to go beyond published carbon targets and establish a broader climate change strategy with opportunities to participate and affect change.

Employees could quickly become sceptical about companies’ commitment to tackling climate issues if they perceive that their organisation limits itself to merely policy targets. This could be even more acute if the company does not give individual employees practical opportunities to play a part in promoting sustainability in or out of work.

Our research data did show, however, that organisations that consider carefully how sustainability targets are set, communicated, and acted on will be well placed to achieve a clear and lasting impact on employee commitment and motivation.

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