One benefit of sustainability which is not so often discussed is that it can give the organisation a sense of purpose. We can have all the goals and strategies in place, but it is a strong sense that there is a reason for existing beyond making money which often separates good from exceptional companies.

This was one of the observations of James Collins and Jerry Porras in their seminal book Built To Last. The authors, in distilling the key elements which distinguish great companies from good ones, found that one of the biggest factors was a core ideology. This includes a set of values and a sense of purpose which guide and inspire staff over a long period of time.

Contributing to a more sustainable society is one such core ideology that can provide a sense of purpose to an organisation. The oft-quoted sustainability legend Ray Anderson stated in Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, that “a strong environmental ethic has no equal for attracting and motivating good people, galvanising them around a shared higher purpose, and giving them a powerful reason to join and stay”.

There is also a growing body of research which demonstrates that employees in organisations with a commitment to sustainability are happier and more productive.
One such study found that employee perception of the firm’s environmental performance had a bigger influence on their satisfaction than its financial success. This significant finding led the authors to suggest that organisations increase their efforts to report and communicate their corporate responsibility credentials as a key human resources strategy.

Similar effects were observed by Ante Glavas and Sandy Piverit in a study which found that “employees who perceive higher levels of corporate citizenship will report higher levels of engagement, high-quality connections and creative involvement”. An interesting interview with Ante Glavas about this topic, especially as it relates to farmers, can be found here.

Productivity can also be increased by embracing green principles, according to a study into over 5000 French organisations. This study found that labour productivity was significantly higher in firms which have adopted high environmental standards.

The mechanism by which sustainability leads to better employee outcomes is interesting to consider. One theory is that embracing sustainability reflects a company ethos which is also likely to translate to a commitment to being a good employer. A company which cares about the planet is also likely to care more about its people.

Another possible reason why people are motivated and engaged in a company with a purpose is that it activates their intrinsic values. There is plenty of evidence that doing good makes us feel good, and that one of the keys to happiness is to be of service to others. Working for an organisation that pays well and provides good perks is important for satisfying our extrinsic values.

However, an organisation with a strong sense of purpose makes us feel like we are part if something bigger than ourselves, addressing deeper intrinsic values such as community contribution and service to society. Activating and satisfying these values is instrumental in creating a deeper satisfaction with work and life.

This is an extract from an article in the February 2013 newsletter from Awake. Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info.