Reversing the alarming stats around emissions and plastic usage is no longer the sole remit of environmental groups. Every organisation must now take greater responsibility for its own impact and spur its employees to change their behaviour. This critical work is not just going to help save the planet – it’s becoming a key factor in attracting and retaining talent.


8th January 2020

From Extinction Rebellion (XR) bringing parts of major cities to a standstill in recent months, to millions of people globally, including students, joining in September’s climate strikes, people are not just becoming more aware of environmental issues – they are taking a visible stand.

The impact of business and industry on the environment has been directly targeted, with XR protesting against the climate change impacts of financial institutions, the fashion industry, transport infrastructure and individual businesses.

The protests stem directly from a movement that has been growing steadily over the years, but has accelerated since the UN climate change agreement was struck in Paris in 2015. The same year, governments also signed up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, bringing all aspects of sustainability under the spotlight, including the impact of business.

Many companies have been actively reducing their environmental impact for many years, with pressure coming not just from the public and environmental campaign groups, but also investors, who want to know that companies they invest in are preparing themselves and their products for a future with more droughts and floods and scarcities of raw materials.

Increasing legislation, regulation and sector-specific environmental programmes have also shifted the impetus for action from major industrial polluters, such as oil and gas companies, to all types of business.

Footprints left everywhere
It is not just about carbon emissions. For example, the food sector is under fire to reduce food and packaging waste, the fashion industry is criticised for its huge water and chemicals usage, while the financial sector is being heavily scrutinised for its choice of investment. Even service-based companies such as insurance providers, law firms and consultancies can have hefty footprints from their offices and staff travel.

In June, the government signed off a new legally binding climate change target of “net zero” by 2050 – meaning that any emissions would be balanced by schemes to offset an equivalent amount of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, such as planting trees or using technology like carbon capture and storage.

Many companies have had carbon reduction targets for some years. Indeed, some 46 per cent of companies are planning to completely eliminate their carbon emissions by becoming net carbon neutral at some point in the next 10 years, according to a You Gov poll published in October.

Encouraging wide action
Now that many companies are signing up to ever more robust targets to reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts, it is imperative that all staff are involved in the effort. Reducing impact is no longer just about strategic decisions on energy management and procurement taken by a small number of people.

Everything from how employees travel to work, meetings and events and how they design the company’s products and services, to what they eat for lunch and how they dispose of the packaging will affect a company’s environmental impact. It is all coming under increasing scrutiny from customers and investors, as well as campaigners and activists.

“Our internal communications aim to inspire behaviour change, not simply raise awareness or post information,” says Max Puller, employee and change communications director at catering and facilities management company Sodexo, which has targets to reduce single-use plastics and food waste, both of which depend on staff playing their part.

“We can’t have a positive impact on the world if we don’t practise what we preach, and we can’t do that if our employees don’t understand or believe in it, and aren’t delivering that change,” says Max.

Building a conscientious workforce
Informing, involving and motivating employees around company plans to reduce environmental impact can have much wider benefits than merely hitting targets. Increasingly, staff want to know more about their employer’s environmental credentials, and how the company is reducing any damage it causes. Being vocal about your responsibilities attracts and retains responsible people.

A survey in September 2019, by non-profit organisation the Climate Group – which works with businesses on climate change issues – found that nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of 16-24-year olds in the US want to work for employers committed to tackling climate change. In the UK, a 2019 survey by Kin&Co found 60 per cent of the public believe CEOs should be at the forefront of the fight against climate change, and 30 per cent said they would respect their CEO more if they led on this agenda.

“This is about recruitment and retention,” says Amanda Powell-Smith, chief executive at agency Forster Communications, which specialises in driving social change through communication. “People want to know that they are not the cause of these environmental changes – or, if they are, they want to know what’s being done about it.”

Lauren Rowe, communications strategist at consultancy Home, agrees that society’s expectations of companies regarding the environment have changed.

“Employees are looking to their own companies and asking the question: what are we doing and how can we help? They want a commitment from the business; tangible, ambitious and relevant sustainability goals; an action plan for how the business intends to get there, and ways for them to play a part in it.

“They have to feel this commitment in their day-to-day experience at work too. It is no longer enough to have a sustainability strategy uploaded to an intranet page somewhere.”

Keep on talking
Environmental issues have not yet become a mainstream part of many companies’ internal communication strategies, according to Amanda.

“What we see a lot is sustainability still sitting in the corporate social responsibility team. Internal communicators need to integrate it into the organisation as a whole. It needs to be treated as a key message and supported with information on what to do,” she says.

Effective communication on environmental issues can bring multiple benefits for staff. These include engendering pride that they work for an organisation that is doing the right thing; improving engagement by enabling them to feel  connected to an organisation and its purpose; and boosting innovation by creating space for new ideas to come through.

Talking about environmental issues presents a significant opportunity for businesses to build trust and engagement with staff, according to independent IC practitioner Roland Burton, who has also worked in-house at M&S, BT and Sainsbury’s.

“People are losing trust in institutions like government and the media, and looking to other places, including employers,” he says.

Not engaging with employees about what your organisation is doing to support climate change goals or offset a negative environmental footprint puts you at risk.

“If your people can give an informed view – whether that’s to customers, or down the pub with friends – they are a huge asset. But if they don’t know what your company is doing or, even worse, they don’t trust it, that damages the company’s reputation,” Roland says.

Gathering insight
For internal communicators who want to kick-start more proactive communication with staff on environmental issues, the first thing to do is talk to experts internally. These include sustainability and environmental compliance professionals, but also facilities management colleagues, who know about energy and waste management at individual sites; and travel planners and car fleet managers who will know how the company’s transport policy relates to environmental impact.

“The technical knowledge should come from the in-house teams,” Amanda suggests. “The communications job is about storytelling. For example, if you’re trying to get people to reduce their waste, you could take a sample of people out with the contractor that collects the rubbish to see what happens to it. Then they can come back with a video of the recycling facility.”

Another key source of inspiration about which issues to talk about is employees themselves. Internal communicators are well placed to bridge the gap between what the business is focusing on environmentally, and what employees care about.

Roland says that asking what is important to employees, and using the insights to influence business decisions, is a great way to build trust and tell powerful stories. He used this approach to help an organisation whose social programme was shaped by employees.

“Employees felt much more emotionally invested with the wider corporate social responsibility agenda, and took part in more volunteering opportunities, because they saw themselves as part of it,” he reports.

To send a powerful message and grab employees’ attention, communication needs to clearly inform how actions to improve the environment support business strategy. One way of doing this could be to use the views of customers and other stakeholders, says Lauren.

“See if you can get commentary on your business specifically from someone outside of the organisation. Find out statistics and stories about what they expect,” she says. “In a previous role at student accommodation provider Unite Students, I invited students to present to the organisation about why environmental issues were important to them.”

Sharing stories about success
Nick Cavanagh, global communications manager at Unilever, points out that it is important to engage employees when making major external announcements. In October, the firm received widespread media coverage of an announcement to halve the 700,000 tonnes of plastic it uses each year. But it also had employee communications around the move.

“We had events, talks during the day, social media and internal competitions. It’s so important for us to make sure that internal colleagues are engaged and motivated on what we are doing on plastics,” he says.

Companies who already communicate with staff about environmental issues use a variety of formats and channels. These are company-specific, depending on the nature of the business and its employees. At Sodexo, for example, only 12,000 out of its

36,000 employees in the UK and Ireland have company email addresses, and access to the company’s intranet and other digital channels.

This means that it uses a lot of more traditional methods to communicate, such as posters and flyers. It also focuses on engaging site managers and provides them with resources featuring key messages for them to include in staff meetings. But, in order to hit the message home, it also has specific initiatives to recognise and celebrate leading sites and employees.

For example, its annual WasteLESS Week promotes the company’s targets to phase out most single-use plastics by 2020, and cut food waste. Teams can enter a competition to find the best initiatives to meet these targets, with the winning team’s story told online to showcase peer-to-peer role models.

“Storytelling has to be at the absolute heart of this,” says Max Puller of Sodexo. “We’ve switched our approach from simply talking about big numbers and targets to talking about the cause behind the campaign, often sharing the stories of what our own people have done.”

Similarly, mining and minerals group Imerys has had an annual competition called the Sustainable Development Challenge for the past 15 years. Employees from its 230 sites worldwide submit their environmental and CSR initiatives to an internal panel to judge and celebrate. This well-established contest has seen entries increase each year, says Philippa McLean, head of employee and leadership communications at the company.

In 2018, Imerys launched a new CSR programme called SustainAgility, based around action the company takes on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. One of its pillars is Caring for our planet, which looks at the company’s environmental stewardship and efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. All internal content Imerys produces around its environmental achievements links back to SustainAgility, reinforcing its objectives and priorities for all employees to relate to.

This content includes animations that explain the programme’s reach and end-goals and Imerys’ collaboration with external environmental experts.

“These were created so that employees understand that the programme sits in a broader, global context – that we’re not doing it on our own,” says Philippa. “We’ve received a lot of feedback saying that employees understand why this
work is so important.”

Talking frankly about issues
Companies who have fostered a culture of open communication could well find the investment in time and resources worth it if something goes wrong.

Philippa says: “If you have never spoken about your company’s commitment to sustainability, when a crisis arises you have to start building a narrative from scratch. At Imerys, we have started building a narrative which has made it easier to develop messaging around our products’ sustainability and safety – both of which are major concerns for our employees and our customers.”

Adopting an open communications culture could be an investment that pays back if the company does face accusations of environmental damage, says Roland Burton.

“If you’ve already created a culture where people can talk about it and say what they believe, or what they disagree with, you won’t look like you’re on the defence,” he says. “The way to do that is to regularly encourage discussions, give employees some facts but then allow them to talk about it, and what matters to them.”

Polls by IoIC, 2019

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