The 2014 Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego gathered some of the most influential companies, organizations and thought leaders in the sustainability space. During the event, one unexpected theme arose over and over: employee engagement and its role in corporate sustainability.
A recent PwC study found that more than half of recent college graduates are seeking a company that has corporate social responsibility (CSR) values that align with their own, and 56 percent would consider leaving a company that didn't have the values they expected. As Andy Savitz, author of "Talent, Transformation and the Triple Bottom Line," put it in a panel discussion on Tuesday: "They're looking for purpose, not just a paycheck."
While some business leaders may have a first-instinct shrug when it comes to employee engagement, it offers scores of benefits for companies. In a 2012 report that compiled 263 research studies across 192 companies, Gallup found that companies in the top quartile for engaged employees, compared with the bottom quartile, had 22 percent higher profitability, 10 percent higher customer ratings, 28 percent less theft and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.
In a panel discussion on Tuesday, Desso CEO Alexander Collog d'Escury called employees a company's "most important resource," while Savitz identified employee engagement as "the human thread between sustainability, the triple bottom line and business results."
In the past, the best 'business cases' for sustainability focused on cost savings. It makes sense: When a company reduces environmental impact, it ups efficiency, reduces waste and reaps the financial benefits. But in recent years employee attraction, engagement and retention has caught up to -- if not surpassed -- cost savings as the driving factor influencing companies to embrace sustainability goals.
"I hear this a lot in companies: The ability to attract and retain really good people partly depends now on how you're managing [the world's] mega challenges," Andrew Winston, environmental strategy consultant and author of "The Big Pivot," told Triple Pundit in a recent interview. "Companies are hearing this in recruiting, even from the millennials who are desperate for jobs."
While brand values are surely important to millennials entering the job market, it's worth noting that those PwC figures are down from a much more substantial 88 percent in 2008. (The drop may be thanks to a job market that hasn't been too kind to recent grads; more than 25 percent are unemployed or underemployed, compared to just over 10 percent in 2000.)
In its report, PwC noted that the importance of corporate responsibility in attracting and retaining young talent is "waning" in raw numbers alone. But in an exclusive interview with Triple Pundit, Clinton Moloney and Amy Longsworth of PwC championed employee engagement as crucial to a company's success -- and said in no uncertain terms that corporate responsibility will only become more important in achieving it.
"Wherever you are in an enterprise, everybody wants to be part of something positive," Longsworth told Triple Pundit. Moloney agreed, pointing to PwC's emphasis on sustainability and social responsibility in its own recruiting.
"This is a critical part of the strategy for our own firm," Moloney said. "We're the No. 1 on-campus recruiter in the United States. So, if you're trying to hire the best and the brightest all over the country, [one of] the distinguishing factors that set us apart from our competitors is that we not only do the sustainability work with our clients, but we do a great deal of it for ourselves."
In its most recent move to bolster employee engagement around sustainability while doing social good, PwC made a $150 million commitment over five years to drive up volunteerism in the company. The program, called Earn Your Future, allows PwC employees to increase financial literacy in children and teens by creating lesson plans for students of all ages.
"What we've seen is the leaders of our 20-something offices compete on how many hours they can get volunteered to deliver the Earn Your Future program, so it's actually a core success metric for our most senior partners," Moloney said. "The advantage is: Next time there's an economic downturn, we're not going to defund this because it's seen as critical to our long-term success. So if you can get all these things in alignment, that's what I think true sustainability is."
A program like Earn Your Future makes sense for PwC, but Longsworth noted that it's important for companies to find programs that resonate with their own core values and those of their employees. As Savitz put it bluntly in his discussion: If a company isn't allowing its talent to engage in sustainability at the workplace, "someone else will."
As I listened to Moloney and Longsworth speak about the Earn Your Future program, it was easy to see that both were happier employees as a result of the company's commitment -- a testament to the benefits such programs can have on employees.
"I love telling this story because it's exactly the kind of stuff we would love our clients to adopt, and I'm very proud to be in a workplace where I feel we can lead by example," Moloney said. How's that for an engaged employee?
Stay tuned for more coverage of the 2014 Sustainable Brands conference all week on Triple Pundit!
Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is a senior editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Earth911 and the Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.