Corporate sustainability is a business approach that creates
long-term value by embracing opportunities and managing risks
derived from economic, environmental, and social developments.
Specifically, environmental sustainability refers to maintaining
the quality and longevity of environmental resources used by the
business. This can include energy, water, waste management,
emissions, and so forth. If a business puts back 100 percent of the
natural resources it consumes, it is considered an environmentally
Economic sustainability is tied closely to an organization's
environmental sustainability, and includes the overall financial
model and productivity of a company. In a "green" context, it
refers to evaluating the products and services customers purchase
to determine if they are more or less sustainable. For example,
purchasing energy-saving compact florescent lights (CFLs) is
considered a "more sustainable" choice.
Social responsibility is a goal of sustainability. It refers to the
social impact of a business. It includes factors such as ethical
principles, giving back to society, health and safety, respect for
human rights, equal opportunities, fair compensation, and ensuring
a high quality of life.
The sustainability of natural resources is emerging as a core
business issue in the corporate world. Green businesses promise to
operate in ways that solve, rather than cause, both environmental
and social problems. In practical terms, being a green business
means changing the way a business purchases, develops, produces,
and provides products and services so it has a positive impact on
the environment. In broad terms, green businesses must adopt
principles, policies, and practices that improve the quality of
life for their customers, employees, communities, and the
environment. But what are organizations really doing in their move
According to the 2008 SHRM Green Workplace Survey by the Society
for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 50 percent of surveyed
organizations have a formal or informal environmental
responsibility policy, but 43 percent have no such policy and no
plans to implement one within the next 12 months.
"The findings revealed a surprising paradox," says Susan R.
Meisinger, president and CEO of SHRM. "The study shows that
companies really do benefit from environmentally friendly
practices, and yet a large portion of firms have no plans to go
The report also finds that the companies that implement
environmental responsibility programs report considerable benefits,
such as improved employee morale (44 percent) and employee loyalty
(16 percent), a stronger public image for the company (42 percent),
and increased consumer or customer confidence and choice (20
percent). However, respondents admit that it's not easy for them to
become and remain environmentally friendly.
Not surprising, the most common barrier to creating an
environmental program is implementation cost (85 percent) followed
by maintenance cost (74 percent). Other barriers include lack of
management support (43 percent), lack of employee support (25
percent), and concern for workplace inefficiency (20 percent).
Still, nearly three out of four employees from companies without
environmental programs say they want their employers to "go green."
Seventy-three (73) percent of surveyed employees in companies
without an environmental responsibility policy thought it was very
or somewhat important that their organization develop an
environmental responsibility policy.
HR professionals in the SHRM study ranked encouraging employees to
work in a more environmentally friendly way as the number 1
environmentally responsible practice. This requires a major culture
change in most organizations. To succeed, businesses need to move
beyond simply encouraging employees to educating them.
Unfortunately, many organizations find informing employees about
the greening process to be arduous and slow. Organizations can
start by connecting their overall business strategy to their
sustainability initiatives. In fact, many business schools are
integrating sustainability into their strategy and leadership
coursework. For example, all programs at Bainbridge Graduate
Institute in Washington specialize in sustainable business. Instead
of teaching separate classes on business strategy and
sustainability, professors at BGI teach that sustainability is a
necessary piece of strategy.
For instance, sustainability leader DuPont has developed a vision
to be the "world's most dynamic science company, creating
sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer and healthier
life for people everywhere." Its strategy for achieving that vision
is to "design products and processes that pass rigorous criteria
for the use of renewable resources, energy, water, and materials."
Learning executives can help their organizations make the
sustainability-strategy connection by assisting in the development
of "green" mission, vision, and values statements. Be sure to state
the company's sustainability beliefs, detail new behavior, outline
core priorities and purpose for going green, and explain how the
organization plans to rise above others by implementing
Once an organization has a carefully crafted strategic mission and
vision statement, there will likely still be a large knowledge and
behavior gap. Even in environmental organizations whose mission
already revolves around sustainability, training employees to work
in greener ways can be challenging.
Companies typically address this gap by developing training
programs that explain how employees should reduce, reuse, and
recycle - the green business mantra. These programs review such
steps as turning off lights in rooms that aren't being used and
recycling paper, cans, and bottles. In addition, they cover proper
equipment use, such as power-saving settings on computers, copiers,
For example, DuPont has in place several training programs to
encourage and support its more than 60,000 employees to implement
the company's energy efficiency goals to reduce its greenhouse gas
emissions. DuPont's Energy Center of Competency has a series of
tools to help business units implement sustainability practices. In
addition to training, the center provides best practices
documentation and an energy efficiency analyzer and other tools.
Sustainability leaders take educating employees to a personal
level. In 2004, Wal-Mart launched the company-wide, long-term
Personal Sustainability Project (PSP), which is a voluntary program
focused on helping associates integrate sustainability into their
own lives by making small changes to everyday habits.
At each Wal-Mart store and Sam's Club in the United States, as well
as headquarters, "PSP captains" hold meetings to educate associates
on the PSP project. Associates who choose to participate select a
personal sustainability goal to improve their own health and
wellness or the health of the planet. In-store training and tips
throughout the project help reinforce the associate's commitment.
By September 2007, more than 40,000 associate captains - about 10
per store - were trained advocates for sustainability in their
stores and communities, including two market-level captains and one
member of management in each Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. Over time,
Wal-Mart hopes to expand the program internationally.
Corporate responsibility and citizenship is another piece of the
sustainability puzzle. The concept is that organizations should
consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the
impact of their activities on customers, employees, shareholders,
communities, and the environment in all aspects of their
operations. In essence, it simply means striving to do what's right
and give back to the community.
At IBM, achieving corporate social responsibility requires
innovation that runs deep, such as new workforce models, new
management systems, and new curricula. In 2007, the company
announced the IBM Global Citizen's Portfolio, a new way to empower
employees to chart their own future career paths. One program under
this framework is Enhanced Transition Services, which expands on
IBM's successful Transition to Teaching program that launched in
2005. The enhanced program draws on many IBMers' strong math and
science backgrounds to help meet critical shortages in U.S.
schools. IBM reimburses transition services participants up to
$15,000 for tuition and stipends, and provides up to a four-month
leave of absence while they student teach.
Piloted in the United States, this innovative program has since
expanded and is poised to launch in Australia and the United
Kingdom. Enhanced Transition Services will bring to bear the same
approach in addressing the needs of governments, not-for-profits,
and educational and economic development agencies. Work is
currently underway to target needed skills, to create
collaborations, and to support employees as they transition to
their new careers.
In addition, IBM employees and retirees around the world volunteer
their time, skills, and expertise at schools and not-for-profit
organizations. IBM's On Demand Community program, now in its fifth
year, supports community efforts in multiple ways, including an
online repository of nearly 200 presentations, documents, and
educational modules that volunteers can adapt to share their
knowledge of technology planning, project management, and more.
Other resources make it easy for technical professionals to visit
schools and promote science and technology careers, or to help
teachers use technology in their classrooms. Many are available in
up to 10 languages, with new resources and translations added every
According to David Eisner, CEO of the Corporation for National and
Community Service, "With more than 100,000 registrants and more
than 6 million total hours of volunteer time, the On Demand
Community is an extraordinary example of corporate philanthropy.
Even more than the massive numbers, it is notable for leveraging
the core strengths of IBM - its technology and the vast skills of
its employees - to make a global difference."
Other IBM volunteer initiatives include MentorPlace, through which
6,000 IBM employees mentor students in 37 countries. MentorPlace is
a structured program that includes mandatory training, safety and
security procedures, weekly communication, evaluation, and
face-to-face opportunities. IBM works with teachers to determine
what online activities they would like their students to work on
with their mentors. Activities cover all core academic areas,
including science and math. Traditional mentoring conversations
also take place.
Similarly, consumer products company Proctor & Gamble (P&G)
inspires and engages employees to build sustainability thinking and
practices into their daily work. To achieve this goal, P&G uses
career discussions, informal network support groups, and mentoring
programs to provide informal support and guidance, in addition to
coaching and training provided by each direct manager.
P&G employees experience a bonus benefit from the company's
social responsibility programs. Employees volunteering for the
Live, Learn, and Thrive program, which helps build schools in
disadvantaged areas and ensures that life skills are taught to
disabled children, find that they're building their personal
individual and team skills while making a difference for the
children they help.
For example, one team from the Cincinnati headquarters regularly
stocks shelves and creates some learning tools for preschool
classrooms at Crayons to Computers, a store that provides free
school supplies to teachers of more than 75,000 children. "It is
great to spend our time helping children in need throughout our
community," says one team member.
The need for truly sustainable options for 21st century life
remains one of the most critical challenges facing the global
community. Sustainability growth initiatives strive to demonstrate
how business and economic growth are compatible with strong
commitments to society and the environment. But how do
sustainability projects affect a company's bottom line?
According to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, corporate
sustainability leaders achieve long-term shareholder value by
gearing their strategies and management to harness the market's
potential for sustainability products and services while at the
same time successfully reducing and avoiding sustainability costs
An extensive survey of 1,254 international executives (half from
the C-suite; 26 percent of them chief executive officers) by the
Economist Intelligence Unit on corporate responsibility finds that
companies that pay the most attention to so-called sustainability
issues, such as climate change or treatment of workers in
developing nations, far outperform those that do not. The study
"Doing Good: Business and the Sustainability Challenge," which was
sponsored by several blue-chip companies, including Bank of
America, A.T. Kearney, and SAP, reports that leading-edge companies
saw profits rise 16 percent in 2007 and enjoyed price growth of 45
percent. Companies that rated their own sustainability practices
poorly registered only 7 percent profit growth and 12 percent price
While not necessarily proving that it pays to be good, says Gareth
Lofthouse, the EIU director who supervised the survey, "it scotches
the idea of skeptics who say that if you adopt corporate social
responsibility practices you will become uncompetitive."
Embracing corporate sustainability may have an even more valuable -
but less quantifiable - impact on the organization's bottom line
than profit and price growth. The SHRM study reports that human
resource professionals cite improved employee morale (44 percent)
and a stronger public image for the company (42 percent) as top
benefits. It also reports increased consumer-customer confidence
(20 percent) as a result of the organization's environmental
responsible program, as well as increased employee loyalty (16
These findings indicate that sustainability initiatives can be a
selling point to attract potential employees, particularly among
younger workers. "These employees check the background of
organizations and talk with employees to find out for themselves if
the corporate social responsibility messaging delivers on its
promise," says Gerlinde Herrmann, president of the Herrmann Group
and a member of SHRM's Corporate Social Responsibility Expertise
Indeed, few people can question that it's good business for
businesses to embrace strategies and projects that improve the
environment, promote social responsibility, and grow the economy -
now and for future generations.