5 minute read 06 April 2023

In a competitive labor market for retail workers, sustainability programs could give employers an edge

Research from Deloitte’s Consumer Industry Center shows that retail sustainability leaders may have a distinct advantage in recruiting, engaging, and retaining a values-driven workforce

Elizabeth Payes

Elizabeth Payes

United States

In today’s competitive labor market, when companies are struggling to find the help they need, a strong commitment to corporate sustainability may be giving some retailers an edge in employee engagement, retention, and even recruitment, according to research by the Deloitte Consumer Industry Center.1

The survey of 750 employees from US-based retail companies revealed that 72% of employees who work for retail organizations with “leading” sustainability programs2 say they rarely think about looking for another job, and 79% plan to stay in their roles for the next couple of years. In comparison, just 40% of surveyed employees from retailers with “lagging” sustainability programs are as committed to their current positions.

The research shows that employees at leading companies may be more engaged and satisfied, too: 85% of respondents who work for retail sustainability leaders say that their work “gives them a sense of accomplishment,” while 84% say they’re “inspired by the company’s vison and values.” Companies with lagging programs, on the other hand, rated lower on these measures, according to surveyed employees: just 57% and 22% respectively.

Cathy Gutierrez, a leader in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s workforce transformation and human capital practice, says having a sense of personal fulfillment can be crucial to an employee’s workplace experience, an important differentiator for companies vying for talent at a time of record turnover.

“It’s this desire, from a worker perspective, for purpose and meaning in their job. And when you’re able to tie the purpose and the meaning of their job to something bigger like sustainability, that helps them want to stay,” she says.

Retail sustainability leaders seem to appeal to purpose-driven employees

This strong employee engagement among retail sustainability leaders may, in part, be driven by the composition of their workforce, according to Lupine Skelly, US retail industry research leader for the Deloitte Consumer Industry Center.

While 80% of all retail workers surveyed said they are “concerned about environmental issues and want to see companies do more to address them,” those who work for retail sustainability leaders tend to be more personally invested in this issue (86%). They are also more likely to lead an environmentally sustainable lifestyle (82%) when compared with those employed by retailers with lagging sustainability programs (41%), according to respondents.

People who work for retail sustainability leaders are almost twice as likely to refer friends and family for open positions, too. “People who worked for organizations that were seen as leaders say they are ambassadors who pitch the organizations to friends and family,” Skelly says. “That’s huge to have someone out there saying: ‘Hey, this is a great company. Come work for us.’”

Authenticity matters to employees, so they expect to see action

Employees can be powerful brand ambassadors, but corporate values should be consistently demonstrated to be credible, and there can be a disconnect between board-level commitments and the on-the-ground experience for those on the front lines, Gutierrez says.

Deloitte’s research seems to point to precisely such a gap between how employees experience—and perceive—their company’s sustainability programs based on where they sit within their organization.

While 86% of senior managers from across all respondent organizations say they understood their organization’s sustainability goals and the practices adopted to achieve them, only 59% of those in nonsupervisory roles report having the same level of understanding.

This could simply be the result of organizations struggling to communicate their sustainability priorities to all team members, getting that message to trickle down from the C-suite to the front line, Skelly says.

The reality is that fully integrating sustainability into the workplace culture can be a common challenge for companies that are still building their programs, according to James Cascone, a consumer industry advisory leader for Deloitte’s sustainability, climate, and equity.

“Are employees further away from the home office or working remotely truly living those behaviors? Do employees on the customer-facing front lines truly understand the purpose, and does it manifest in how they behave?”

At the senior management levels, the survey data shows that retail employees are more likely to believe in their organization’s sincerity than are those in middle management or nonsupervisory positions.

A lack of alignment between organizational silos, insufficient training, or a disconnect at the store management level can all contribute to a gap in how employees perceive the authenticity of a company’s stated goals, according to Cascone.

“Those behaviors really need to be driven by and exhibited by the store management team,” he says. “That’s very important because when you have high turnover, and employees aren’t present enough to truly appreciate it or to see how that manifests in their day-to-day actions as they execute their work.”

To build sustainability culture on all levels, 79% of retail sustainability leaders deliver targeted training to ensure employees know how to act sustainably at work (compared to 18% of retail sustainability laggards that do so), according to the analysis. They also clearly communicate sustainability policy goals and explain how the employees’ work contributes to the corporate goals. These strategies can translate into a stronger perception of making environmental progress relative to peer companies.

Sparking action beyond the workplace

And these training programs seem to be having an impact in employees’ personal time, too. Eighty-two percent of respondents from companies with leading programs say they adopted some more sustainable behaviors in the last 12 months (vs. 42% of those working for laggards), a shift that was strongly influenced by their employer, according to the survey.

Taken together, the research demonstrates that corporate sustainability program investments can create strong benefits for organizational culture by attracting and engaging a workforce that wants to contribute to companies that may be making a difference. It also points to the enormous opportunity for retailers to create sustainability ambassadors from within their workplace who can share the message with customers and beyond.

  1. Deloitte, Retail Employee Sustainability survey, April 2022.

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  2. The leaders and laggards analysis is an approach to understand the traits of retailers who are perceived most or least favorably by their employees according to several environmental sustainability parameters. Each respondent was scored based on their responses to those parameters: The average score of “leaders” (n = 137) fall in the top quartile, while that of “laggards” (n = 225) fall in the bottom quartile.

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The author would like to thank Lupine Skelly, retail research leader; James Cascone, consumer industry advisory leader for Deloitte’s sustainability, climate, and equity practice; and Cathy Gutierrez, from the workforce transformation and human capital practice for their contributions to this article.

Cover image by: Valerie Chiang

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Jennifer Steinmann

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