3 Ways to Turn Sustainable Talk into Action

Céline Fiorucci September 19, 2017
Setting environmental targets is great, but the president’s commitment alone is insufficient to achieve them. New research from the French management journal Revue Gestion (“Management Review”) reveals three tactics companies can use to engage employees, customers, suppliers and residents in their sustainable development activities – turning sustainable talk into action.

Angèle Renaud of the University of Burgundy analyzed the sustainable development reports of 10 French companies, large and small, that had successfully achieved ISO 14001 certification. She also interviewed the sustainable development managers and executives at those organizations. Renaud found three factors determined whether internal and external stakeholders participated in a company’s sustainable development projects: 1) regular top-down and bottom-up communications inside the organization; 2) formal connections between the company’s different departments and geographical sites; and 3) participation vehicles for external stakeholders. 

  1. Establish regular top-down and bottom-up communications across the organization. Renaud found companies that created opportunities for executives and employees to meet, such as environmental working groups and panel discussions, had more employees participating in sustainable goals. Communication vehicles that encouraged feedback and input from all employees across the organization included online discussion forums as well as conventional suggestion boxes. Some companies also celebrated employees’ leading environmental practices and top performance with financial rewards or psychological incentives, such as displaying employee performance on billboards or information screens.
  2. Create connections between the company’s departments and geographical sites. Renaud found creating a “green network” that spanned departments and physical sites enabled staff to coordinate their sustainable development activities. Environmental managers met to discuss changing legislation, to share best practices in environmental management, and to review and improve the company’s environmental strategy. The “green networks” included not just environmental managers but also teams of experts such as specialists in environmental law and engineers with expertise in air, water, soil, and noise pollution or disposal of hazardous waste. The networks also included employees from elsewhere in the organization who were not necessarily experts on environmental issues. Through such an interactive network, every employee — whether an expert in environmental issues or a newcomer to the field — can discuss shared problems, learn best practices, and identify areas for continuous improvement in sustainable development.
  3. Encourage the participation of external stakeholders. External stakeholders often demand to participate in the company’s decision-making processes. Companies in the study created consultative committees and working groups or organized open houses for customers, residents, suppliers and local authorities. In order to ensure greater participation from these external groups, some companies also integrated them into their environmental audit teams or had them participate in the companies’ environmental management assessments.Future research on this topic could examine stakeholder participation in sustainable development initiatives of a larger sample of companies, focusing on how that participation varies in different countries. 

Q&A with Luc Bélair, Environment and Production Coordinator, Insertech Angus

NBS Director of Content Development Anthea Rowe asked Luc Bélair for his reaction to the research and its relevance to his organization.

NBS: Your organization creates jobs for young adults and new immigrants by refurbishing and reselling computers and electronics. How does Insertech connect senior staff and front-line employees around the topic of sustainability?

LB: Four years ago we created a “Green Committee” focused on improving the company’s environmental performance. At the end of 2011, we extended its mandate to include social issues such as improving working conditions and organizing social activities for employees. So far, we’ve introduced “cinema-lunches” where we project movies for employees to watch during lunch time, board games for employees to play during lunch, our staff Christmas party, our National Day party, happy hour for regular employees and more. The Green Committee is composed of full-time employees responsible for environmental management as well as interns and employees in training.
NBS: Has Insertech created a “green network” to connect employees responsible for environmental management in different departments or at different facilities? What does it look like?

LB: Insertech is a small company. We have only one site and the offices are located right beside the workshop. Employees literally see each other all day long. You could say, though, that our Green Committee addresses this point.

We did place a suggestion box near the cafeteria to invite employee feedback, but the employees usually come directly to me when they have a suggestion.

NBS: Does Insertech invite external stakeholders to visit their operations or participate in their environmental audits?

LB: Yes and No. We rent our space, so the owners of the building audit our facility once a year to assess us for GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) progress. They are the only stakeholders, though, who visit our facility to assess environmental performance. We have many requests from associations, non-governmental organizations and international groups that want to see a social enterprise up close. We’ve received visitors from the Ivory Coast, Argentina, Guatemala, Haiti, Cameroon and beyond. These visitors want to develop social inclusion programs in their countries, and they either look to Insertech as a model or want us to serve as consultant to their project.

We won a prize last year from the city of Montreal for social inclusion work: the “Social Economy” prize in the International Standing category.

NBS: Is this research study helpful? What more would you like to know from the researcher?

LB: Yes. I’d love to know which external stakeholders our company should invite to participate in our sustainable development projects – and on which topics.
Renaud, A. (2011) Promouvoir un management environnemental participatif. Revue Gestion, 36(3), 80-89.

This Research Insight is based on an academic article published in a French management journal. Identified and summarized by NBS’s French office in Montreal, this RI presents the unique perspective of French-speaking sustainability researchers and delivers business insights previously unavailable to the English-speaking community.