From  Beyond volunteering By Ellen R Delisio

Timberland, Patagonia, Intel, GE and Fossil Group are showing how US companies can engage employees in their core missions

Corporate social responsibility in the US has traditionally been about philanthropy, with employees encouraged to do volunteering on company time to “give something back” to local communities.

But the approach of engaging employees to promote a company’s corporate sustainability strategy is starting to gain ground as US companies see the benefits of tapping into a valuable and under-used resource. The improvement has been from a low base.

Ceres, a non-profit group that promotes sustainability leadership, surveyed 613 of the largest publicly traded US companies on the issue in 2014 and found that only 40% of them (248), involved employees in sustainability issues, up from 30% in 2012. Of these, only 37 companies, or 6%, are systematically embedding sustainability in company-wide employee engagement, including those at the executive level.

“Engaging employees in a corporate sustainability mission is essential for success, but employees are often an under-utilised resource in a company’s development and implementation of sustainability programs and strategies,” notes the report. “It is often employees on the shop floor, loading dock, laboratory or store front who see first-hand the immediate impacts a company’s operations can have on the environment and community — whether it’s trucks idling for hours or customers asking questions about the sustainability attributes of the product they are buying.”

The Ceres report says educating and inspiring employees to look for ways to improve operations, and providing them with the tools and opportunities to communicate their observations and ideas to management, is an essential first step.

Social media can be one of the most effective ways to generate employee engagement, according to a study by WeSpire, a technology company dedicated to employee engagement with sustainability. WeSpire worked with 30 companies over two years to discover how employee engagement spreads. By utilising social networks inside a company to spread sustainability messages, instead of the “death by Powerpoint lecture” approach, WeSpire discovered that employee engagement could grow exponentially.

Corporate social responsibility also complements another hot concept: purpose-driven work, which often ties into professional fulfillment for workers. Susan Hunt Stevens, founder of WeSpire, says employees increasingly want jobs that have purpose and meaning. “They expect their employers to have sustainability programmes, and they expect their company to make the world a better place.” So which are leading US companies in employee engagement?


The founders of Patagonia, the 30-year-old manufacturer and seller of outdoor equipment and clothing (and lately food), found that by making safeguarding the environment a core goal, employee engagement was seamlessly embedded into the company’s fibre and embraced by employees. This is helped by the fact that Patagonia’s mission statement (build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis) attracts workers who are already committed to sustainable practices before they join the company, says Rick Ridgeway, vice-president of public engagement.

Patagonia has made safeguarding the environment a core goal “We live and breathe that mission,” says Ridgeway. “People here use that mission to guide them in making short- and long-term decisions. So when employees come in, they are mission-aligned and deeply and fully engaged.” Patagonia supports more than 800 NGOs around the world and employees are permitted to take up to two months’ paid leave to volunteer with them.

The company also donates 1% of its annual sales to support environmental organisations. Its recent expansion into food, under the brand extension Patagonia Provisions, offers products not just produced sustainably, but also regeneratively, meaning the farms practice ways to build soil health. Patagonia plans to continue to grow each year in “a very organic way”, says Ridgeway, and as it grows and its influence increases, it expects to continue to look for new ways to implement its mission.


Timberland has found success by putting each department in charge of its sustainability goals. “The key way [to embedding sustainability into corporate culture] is having different business units accountable for CSR goals,” says Atlanta McIlwraith, senior manager of community engagement. “We’ve been challenged by our president to map CSR to key business objectives. That has shifted my role from being an influencer to an adviser; when business units own goals, they are accountable for them.” When recruiting workers, applicants frequently ask about Timberland’s Path of Service programme, which allows employees to participate in a community project for up to 40 paid hours a year, adds McIlwaith. This allows them to engage in whatever issues they feel most passionate about.

“We reward and recognize people who are champions of sustainability, people who introduce new ideas, saved energy and reward people who used all 40 volunteer hours,” she adds. “The Path of Service is a key way to empower them to make a difference; it definitely inspires them to find more ways to get engaged …. I think of all of the things we do as a company, the interest of people in doing meaningful work is having an impact.” ‘

One early challenge was increasing global participation in sustainability from head office. “We had a team in New Hampshire responsible for influencing all over the world,” McIlwaith says. Now the company has appointed global stewards to drive service and CSR programmes wherever they are located and make the projects local. Intel Software giant Intel has a comprehensive employee engagement programme that focuses on three “buckets”: learn, act, share.

The company provides resources to employees to help them integrate sustainability into business decision-making and links employee compensation to sustainability performance benchmarks. Through the Sustainability in Action Programme, employees who have proposals for worthy projects can apply for funding, says Suzanne Fallender, director of corporate responsibility.

In 2015 SIA projects included installing a solar-powered water pump at a national park in Sri Lanka and developing engineering kits to teach kids in Arizona about alternative energy. Intel also presents environmental excellence awards to employees who help reduce the company’s environmental impact. Last year Intel saved about $43m from these projects, Fallender notes.

Intel also helps employees learn firsthand how its technology can be applied to solve environmental problems. “We send teams overseas to install technology, to see it has positive social and environmental impact.” She says this also helps them get a better understanding of their company. “We’re excited that we’re going through a big transformation, calling it a virtuous cycle of growth,” notes Fallender. “We’re working with employees to INTEL Staff from Intel install a weather station in Arizona.


General Electric (GE) has started incorporating employee sustainability-related training into situations relevant to people’s jobs. Training is offered on effectively integrating volunteerism into the employee experience, but other sessions focus on sustainability-related skills for specific sectors and work areas, a spokesman said. Among the hands-on experiences offered are “eco-treasure hunts”, where environmental, health and safety teams work with employees from other parts of GE to find energy- and water-efficiency opportunities at the company itself and at customer sites.

Ecomagination, GE’s business strategy to improve economic and environmental outcomes for customers and corporate operations, stresses brain-storming and innovation from employees while GE’s EcoAwards scheme recognises efforts that significantly reduce energy use, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use and materials consumption.

In 2015, GE opened up nominations for the EcoAwards program to functions across its value chain. From among 90-plus nominations, 18 teams were recognised and last year’s top winner was a digital industrialization initiative at a site in Greenville, South Carolina, where monitoring and controls on the heating and cooling system has generated more than $1 million in savings since 2013, according to the company.

Fossil Group

Fossil Group, which manufactures and sells watches, leather goods, connected devices and other accessories, is consolidating existing volunteer programmes into its comprehensive sustainability programme. In 2015, the company worked with BSR, a sustainability consultant, to align its strategy with the Global Reporting Index and identify its most relevant sustainability issues. “We are new to developing a formal sustainability programme. We are in the midst of putting together our 2020 goals and employee engagement is primary.“

Folks have to see sustainability is applicable to their jobs and they can make a major difference’ one of the core topics,” says Robert ter Kuile, vice president, global head of sustainability, for Fossil Group. The company plans to complete the goals by the end of this year or early 2017. “Formalising what the goals look like is a huge piece in developing the roadmap, aligning it with our initiatives and engaging with all of our employees,” Ter Kuile adds. “We’ve been successful at the retail marketing level, so this will be an important next step to broaden our efforts. Also, we are trying to remain flexible, which is one of the challenges when you have goals; they can inherently limit you.

“We’ll be talking about what it looks like in terms of employee engagement and impact. We do have numerous programmes now, involving local green teams with recycling champions.” Members of green teams are volunteers with common interests who are helping employees adopt more sustainable lifestyles. Employees at Fossil stores in the US central region competed recently to see who could collect the most plastic bottles for recycling, venturing into communities to engage schools and community groups. Almost 70,000 plastic bottles were retrieved, says Ter Kuile. “We have a bag made from recycled plastic bottles that is sold in our outlet stores.”

Part of engaging employees is making the company’s operations more sustainable. Fossil’s product development team is working on ways to manufacture and ship products more efficiently, and the company has been able to increase the density of products per pallet and package by 40-50%, reducing the number of containers coming from China. “We’re equipping them with tools and resources so they can apply it to the way they do things,” notes Ter Kuile. “We’re helping people to be more efficient and impactful in their jobs and be more successful. It also just happens to be sustainable.”

The next step is to show Fossil employees how they can contribute, no matter what department they are in. “We’re going to speak their language and meet them where they are and make sustainability goals applicable to their business,” explains Ter Kuile. “Whatever they are doing is material. Folks have to see it is applicable to their jobs and they can make a major difference, not just on the business, but have a positive impact. Just because you are not part of the sustainability team, doesn’t mean you can’t be sustainable and have a positive impact.”