Sustainable engagement – more than just a people plan…


Marc Sowik, our Research Consultant, tells us about his experiences going back to university, and where the worlds of Sustainable Development and employee engagement meet.

Recently I’ve been learning about corporate ‘greenwashing’ – and before this sounds too serious, take a look at this advert from the 80s to see one of the earliest (and most thoroughly lambasted) efforts:

I think even the people that produced it would agree it hasn’t aged well! The hypocrisy in this example would be too (hopefully) blatant for people in the 21st century to be duped, but the idea that projecting an image of social and environmental responsibility in order to attract people to a brand is here (it seems) to stay. In fact, it’s become a lot more sophisticated, and means we need to be ever more vigilant, both as consumers and employees.

As people become more conscious of their impact on the environment and society they are expecting the same from the organisations that provide our goods, services and jobs. A 2015 Nielsen report revealed that 66% of people are willing to pay more for something if it come from a sustainable brand, rising to 73% amongst ‘millennials’.

A further 81% expect companies to make a public commitment to good citizenship. That’s not to say 81% won’t work for a company that doesn’t – money still talks – but within that 81% I’d bet there are a great deal of highly talented, principled people that wouldn’t touch a ‘bad citizen’ with a bargepole – as a consumer or employee.

For many firms, the CSR policy is their expression of their good intentions. I decided to do some research on well-known UK companies to evaluate current efforts and trends in this space. For many, CSR used to mean partnering with a charity for which they raised money in return for using it like a badge of ‘good citizenship’ honour. Nowadays many go beyond this, with a sophisticated CSR statement covering things like ethical trading, the environment, animal welfare, modern slavery and so on. In fact, the best examples do away with the idea of a separate CSR statement, and incorporate sustainability into the fibre of their message.

One example I was impressed by was M&S. Their ‘Plan A’ strategy sits on their corporate homepage, right next to the ‘About us’ section. It’s very comprehensive, multidimensional and holds itself to account by publishing a full report on how they’re doing each year.

Employee experience is considered a part of Plan A, rather than having an engagement programme and CSR programme that run is parallel and occasionally intersect. It’s difficult to say just how much this affects engagement, retention and motivation, but I think the numbers speak for themselves: 81% of 85K staff are engaged, and unplanned turnover is 11% – really impressive for a major retailer.

That’s not the only benefit. Companies with a strong conscientious culture are more likely to attract conscientious people to work for them – which can only be a good thing. And when people’s personal values align with their employers, they’re more likely to be active advocates – it gives people something positive to connect over. Ryanair is currently experiencing just the opposite of this

So what can we take from this?

  • It’s time to take CSR (whether it’s called that or not!) seriously and understand its facets. We’re in an age of hyper-transparency, so take responsibility for defining and claiming your businesses approach. Continue to raise money for charities but look beyond that – is sustainability part of your operating model and supply chain? Are your employees supported physically, mentally and through all stages of life?


  • Listen to your employees and gauge the extent to which CSR is a part of company culture. Is it paid lip service, or do people really engage with it? I’ve worked in places where we had 2 days a year to volunteer yet no-one took them. What does that say about the leadership?


  • Take a step back and critically assess the authenticity with which your company conducts itself with regards to CSR. This may not be necessary for financial success – many companies, including the greenwashers, make money without acting responsibly – but consider the type of people this will attract, retain and the implications this could have in the near future…


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