The workplace of today is greener than ever. Not only are employers becoming more and more sustainability-driven, employees are beginning to seek new ways to prioritise environmental consciousness at work.
So, how important is an environmental mindset for the future of work?
We take a closer look at sustainability from both perspectives with ESCP Professor Olivier Delbard and Head of Growth at AXA Climate School Antoine Yeretzian.
Our ways of consuming are changing at lightning speed – and so are our values. According to a recent study by IBM, a stunning 87% of US consumers make purchase choices based on their perception of a brand’s stance on social matters, with environmental consciousness a leading driver.
Not only is capitalism shifting in response to growing pressures around sustainability, environmental issues are also beginning to impact the economy, and by extension the workplace. The rise of cooperatives, the rebirth of ‘local living’ and a growing backlash against global giants such as Amazon are beginning to change how we live and work.
As such, employees have never been more environmentally conscious – or in a better position to demand change from companies. But while over 80% of executives say their organizations are concerned about climate change, 65% of executives intend to cut back on environmental sustainability initiatives in some way due to the pandemic.
So, what will the future of environmental consciousness in the workplace look like?
Sustainability at work: key issues and trends
It goes without saying that issues surrounding sustainability and the environment are nothing new. Since the birth of the green movement in the 1970s, household names and small businesses alike have tried (and often failed) to marry growth and profitability with growing consumer pressure.
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, current global trends surrounding sustainability are beginning to impact the workplace itself, with industries from luxury to agriculture seeking to respond to consumers’ growing interest in sustainability issues.
This new approach isn’t limited to consumers: businesses both large and small are also seeking to translate their sustainability strategies in ways that appeal to prospective and current employees.
A recent study by Deloitte found that almost half of companies that implemented a strong sustainability strategy saw positive results when it came to employee retention and engagement. So, what’s at stake in years to come?
For Head of Growth at AXA Climate School and ESCP Business School alumnus Antoine Yeretzian, it’s simple – sustainability isn’t an optional extra. “No planet, no business. This is true for every sector. There’s a famous quote from Axa’s former CEO Henri de Castries: ‘A 2°C world might be insurable, a 4°C world certainly would not be.’”
From an employee standpoint, you can’t hope to position yourself as an attractive employer if I think of you as destroying my children’s future.Antoine Yeretzian
Olivier Delbard, professor and coordinator of the sustainability department at ESCP, takes a more nuanced view: “I feel that the dramatic evolution of climate change and biodiversity will necessarily have a stronger impact on companies. If companies fail to prioritise sustainability, we could see the line between work and private life becoming even more blurred.”
Sustainability: a priority for businesses
It’s safe to say, then, that businesses can’t afford to treat environmental awareness as an afterthought in today’s economy. But whether companies approach sustainability as a key brand commitment or adopt a more pragmatic approach, it’s fair to state that the drive for change is also employee-led. Let’s take a closer look at where this pressure is coming from.
In a recent consumer study, PeakOn found sustainability a major employee expectation trend, with employee-led discussions around sustainability rising an astonishing 52% between 2019 and 2020. This ties in with wider discussions surrounding work-life balance, purpose at work and social values.
Antoine doesn’t mince his words: “Young people are more and more aware that companies’ ignorance and greenwashing are paving the way to hell for them and their own children. From an employee standpoint, you can’t hope to position yourself as an attractive employer if I think of you as destroying my children’s future. I mean, that’s basic human stuff, right?”
Olivier Delbard concurs: “Sustainability is meaningful, inspiring. At its best, it can really reinforce an organisation’s collective spirit and team cohesion. The best practices clearly illustrate that sustainability brings about much more positive change than ‘just’ dealing with environmental or social issues in a vacuum.”
So, how are companies ensuring that their employees’ expectations are met when it comes to sustainability issues in the workplace? Prioritising in-house initiatives designed to encourage participation across the organisation is a key area for development.
On a practical level, this might encompass anything from green architecture to sustainability energy packages – in short, the kind of initiative that’s likely to engage employees on the ground, on a daily basis.
If companies fail to prioritise sustainability, we could see the line between work and private life becoming even more blurred.Olivier Delbard
Creating space for employees to express themselves within the organisation is another important driver for change: Deloitte found that over a third of businesses say that increased employee activism would be a major motivator when it comes to increasing their sustainability strategy.
Antoine Yeretzian explains the reasoning behind the AXA Climate School: “Axa Climate is a subsidiary of Axa dedicated to helping companies build resilience by placing climate at the heart of their strategy. We found out we couldn’t conduct this transformation with our clients without massively upskilling and engaging their employees. The result was the Axa Climate School! This program is an online learning experience, made of 150+ microlearning chapters, totally customizable, to give all employees the right skillset to align with and drive the sustainable transformation of their job and their company.“
The future of work
While employees are beginning to seek out jobs where sustainability is a priority, employers are in turn beginning to view environmental consciousness as a marketable skill. A 2010 study by BitC found that 70% of businesses agreed that skills gaps relating to sustainability and leadership were set to become a major issue facing UK businesses.
While employees are beginning to seek out jobs where sustainability is a priority, employers are in turn beginning to view environmental consciousness as a marketable skill.
A 2010 study by BitC found that 70% of businesses agreed that skills gaps relating to sustainability and leadership were set to become a major issue facing UK businesses.
For many employers, investing in a long-term sustainability strategy is likely to go hand-in-hand with recruitment and talent investment: PeakOn notes that Gen Z employees’ (aged < 25) interest in sustainability issues grew almost twice as much as their Millennial peers. This was reflected in IBM’s report, which found that the top global driver of business was promoting quality jobs and skills — including investing in the future of the workforce and delivery (76%).
Without a sustainable mindset as we head into the future, I don’t think we’ll be able to anticipate the new risks and be able to adapt to rapidly changing environmental phenomena.Olivier Delbard
With that said, the onus isn’t just on employers to prepare the workplace of tomorrow.
Olivier Delbard notes that the universities and schools of tomorrow have a responsibility to ensure that graduates rise to meet these new challenges: “This definitely comes from the new generation entering the business world, and we as business schools have a huge responsibility in this! More and more, larger companies are also facing a dramatic loss of attractiveness, often related to their failure to adapt to issues surrounding sustainability. There’s no doubt that committing to a sustainable approach also brings innovation and meaningful value to businesses.”
In conclusion, while skills and knowledge linked to sustainability are beginning to impact recruitment and talent management at work, it’s important to see the environment as part of a wider trend – purpose and fulfilment at work not the least.
As Olivier Delbard argues: “Without a sustainable mindset as we head into the future, I don’t think we’ll be able to anticipate the new risks and be able to adapt to rapidly changing environmental phenomena. More broadly speaking, this type of mindset gives meaning to work, especially when we look towards the medium and longer-term. It’s a way for people to reconnect and find meaning in their work and private life.”
For his part, Antoine Yeretzian could not be clearer: “If you are students, or investors, please know that you have the power to change things by a simple no. Companies need you more than you need them, and they won’t change if they don’t receive the signal it is time for them to do so.”