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Moving from Greenability: An HR Primer

Here’s how you can help your organization simultaneously go green, promote sustainabiliity, and promote employee engagement.
Moving from Greenability: An HR Primer

“Green” strategies that promote environmentalism have been all the rage in boardrooms worldwide as organizations have discovered that reducing, reusing, and recycling are as good for the bottom line as they are for their public image. But savvy companies have moved beyond “greenability” to a business approach based on sustainability.

What’s sustainability? In the conversation about global good stewardship, it has a specific definition that’s explored by Adam Werbach in his book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto. Werbach is a former president of the Sierra Club, a consultant to global companies such as Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble, and CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi S, which consults with companies on areas such as sustainability, citizenship, and social-good initiatives. He defines sustainability as a way that “your company will survive and thrive by following emerging trends in society, technology, and natural resources.”

It’s his view that “going green” isn’t going far enough. He remembers, for example, a time a record company asked for his help with a sustainable effort to design compact disc cases made out of bamboo. “That’s a little bit on the environmental side, but completely missed the issue, which is that all music is going digital. That’s a way to focus on one thing and ignore the others, and you can’t do that.”

They may not be charged with making greener packaging, but as the experts on “human resources,” organizational development professionals can play a huge part in a strategy for sustainability.

“So much of this is stuff HR already knows. People are not dual,” says Werbach. “They are the same person at home and work. In my experience a dialogue on sustainability allows HR leaders to bring that together. It takes the things that people really care about into the workplace,which allows them to be much more engaged in the work.”

Engagement. For HR leaders, that’s one of the biggest pay-offs of sustainability. So how, we wondered, can the stewards of talent and cultivators of motivation act on sustainability? We asked Werbach to build on the content in his book. He shared, just for GO, actionable suggestions specifically for HR:

Encourage Volunteerism. “It’s a way to connect people to things they care about outside the workplace,” Werbach says, but he offers this caution: “It only goes so far. At some point volunteering that’s not connected to the core enterprise of the business is illusory because it says, ‘You’re not doing things you care about during your 9 to 5. So we’re going to allow a little more time to do things you care about at work.’”

As for a successful model, he cites a program he heads that’s part of his own company’s culture called “DOT,” which stands for Do One Thing. “There’s an expectation that you do one thing that’s good for yourself, good for the planet, and good for the community, and share it with us.” Saatchi’s employees have instituted programs that address the same things its clients are concerned about, including recycling, nature preservation, and fair trade.

“What actually got done is not the most important part. These were employee-led initiatives that introduced employees to each other, gave people a reason to stay and talk, and, as we see it, made our work better. It made them more excited about being at work.”

Gather the Tribe. Werbach advocates setting what he calls a “North Star goal.” These goals connect a higher purpose to your core business. One manufacturer he cites has a goal for zero waste. A food retailer, meanwhile, has one to bring organic food into the mainstream. A car seat manufacturer is most concerned about keeping babies safe. It’s not hard to imagine waste-reducing, organic-promoting, or baby-safekeeping social and cultural opportunities. Werbach thinks you’ll find many others with some focused brainstorming.

“Separate hierarchy and gather people who are interested in sustainability. Discuss what a North Star goal might be,” Werbach says. “Do an inventory of challenges and opportunities.”

He thinks your organization’s volunteer opportunities should be connected to your North Star goal, too. “It allows your employees to not just volunteer for something but in their everyday jobs do something they are passionate about alongside pushing forward a better company.”

Hire “Natives.” It’s no news to HR that many traits that define people are hardwired and cannot be changed through development—so selection decisions are crucial. Tech companies, for example, often hire “digital natives”—people (often younger) who have grown up with technology and are fluent in its application.

Werbach agrees, and offers an insight into what he thinks is a successful profile for sustainability. “I tend to look for people who have a sense of purpose alongside their business acumen,” he says. “If you want to have a company that can sense and react to change—which I would say is a basic requirement for the 21st century— you need people who can sense change and react to it, too.”

Train for Engagement, not Compliance. “We’ve got an aversion to training,” said one person quoted in Strategy for Sustainability. “Training is for dogs.” Ouch! So what’s an HR leader to do? “It’s not ‘check the box’ training, it’s ‘think different’ training,” says Werbach. “Set up situations where leaders can have higher-order conversations and see the effects of the business,” he offers. Another tip: Good places for training are off-site, inspirational, and connected to nature.

Werbach’s book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto, is available in bookstores and through major online booksellers.


  • View a video testimonial of sustainability in action in HR.
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