Climate change sparks attitude shift

Sudden interest in green can translate into loyalty, engagement for employers
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/23/2007

Fresh from his training in Nashville to present the same slideshow on global warming that was at the centre of Al Gore’s movie,

An Inconvenient Truth

, Dave Mowat needed an audience for a practice run.

He decided to offer a practice presentation for staff at Vancity Savings Credit Union, the Vancouver credit union where he’s CEO. It was scheduled earlier than most employees’ start time — at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. Still, so many people were interested in attending that tickets had to be given out on a lottery system.

For Maureen Cureton, who teaches sustainable management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, that was as compelling a sign as any that sustainability issues are on top of people’s agendas. But here’s another. Shortly after the presentation, a Vancity account manager was so excited about what she heard that she quickly contacted Cureton with ideas on how to help customers buy energy efficient light bulbs.

“She was so inspired that not only did she want to set up a campaign for employees to do something very concrete, but she wanted to work with customers to help them be more environmentally responsible,” said Cureton, who’s also on staff at Vancity to help business clients make their facilities and operations more energy efficient. It’s not the kind of position one tends to find in a credit union, but that’s the kind of thing that makes Vancity special as an employer, said Cureton, who joined the credit union seven months ago.

“We were named the number one business to work for last year, and I witness at orientation people saying, ‘I’ve come to work here because your company is different.’ We have a reputation for caring for the community.”

Environmental concerns are suddenly emerging as an issue for people and employers would be well-advised to pay attention to sustainability issues and the way these resonate with employees, said Ron Dembo, CEO of Zerofootprint, a Toronto-based consultancy focusing on sustainable commerce.

“Two years ago, if you went to a company’s corporate responsibility person, you would have found that environmental issues did not rank high,” said Dembo.

The cultural change has been so sudden that a lot of corporations haven’t caught up to the fact that this issue can have an impact on employee morale, loyalty and engagement, he said.

He pointed to statistics such as that found in

The Sustainability Advantage

, a 2002 book by Bob Willard, a Whitby, Ont.-based expert on corporate sustainability issues. According to Willard, 20 per cent of employees said they would not leave the employer if they were attracted to the company’s sustainability initiative. And according to a 1997 survey of graduating MBA students, 75 per cent said a company should consider its impact on society in such areas as the environment. As many as one in two said they would take a salary cut to work for a socially responsible company. And that was well before the current wave of eco-mania.

There’s increasing evidence that interest in environmental issues is motivating people’s behaviour as consumers, employees and jobseekers. According to a poll of 1,000 Canadians conducted in February, two in three said they’re likely to switch their spending to companies that have demonstrated a commitment to green policies.

The poll, conducted by Environics Research Group, found 75 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they’re likely to change their shopping habits to buy more environmentally friendly goods and services, even if it means paying a premium. What’s more, though women were more likely than men to change their habits, income levels played no part in how people responded.

Michael Adams, president of the Environics group of research and communications consulting companies in Toronto, said he sees people increasingly concerned about whether they work for environmentally responsible companies.

“They don’t want to go home and have to apologize to their children about where they work and what they do. They want to feel proud of what they do,” said Adams. Companies that get that are out ahead, he said, pointing to Wal-Mart Canada’s decision last year to buy 39,000 megawatt-hours of green electricity from Bullfrog Power over a three-year period.

“I believe they’re doing this to communicate to customers and employees that they want to be a great company — not just great in terms of the selection of their products, the quality of their products and their bottom line, but also in terms of sustainable prosperity,” said Adams.

But he cautioned companies should not attempt empty gestures in the hope of making a quick buck on consumer and employee goodwill.

“We live in an era of both idealism and cynicism. Our kids are brought up watching Homer Simpson,

The Family Guy

and

South Park

. They are much more aware that authority figures can be wrong, whether it’s the church, the state or Dad,” he said.

“So when companies ostentatiously display idealism, they are going to be watching for whether or not they carry through. It’s almost better not to say that you’re going to do something good than to say you’re going to do something good and be found to fall short.”

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