But leaders can shift this thinking by understanding that to make material change, they should make tactical and tangible decisions to weave sustainability into the cultural fabric of the organization and take control of sustainability outcomes. This involves aligning around and telling the narrative of sustainability as a core part of the organization’s corporate purpose, putting a supporting organizational structure and operating model in place, and hardwiring the sustainability strategy into business and workforce practices and the work itself. This can be accomplished by aligning incentives, rewards, and performance management to sustainability outcomes.
Plan strategically for sustainable skills needs. Achieving sustainability outcomes may require the cultivation of new skills, capabilities, and experience within the workforce. An increasing number of organizations seem to be taking note. For example, LinkedIn observed among organizations represented on their platform, significant double-digit growth in organizational demand for skills, such as pollution prevention, environmental policy, and environmental auditing between 2016 and 2022 (57%, 58%, and 67% growth, respectively).4 The Deloitte Economics Institute predicts that there will be an increase in 300 million jobs globally by 2050 in order to transition to net-zero.5 But sustainability skills are both technical and human in nature. Organizations will need more than specialized experts with skills in waste reduction or decarbonization. To truly embed sustainability into their way of being, organizations will need to conduct workforce planning in the context of all skills and capabilities needed to operate in a sustainability-forward culture and future. In addition to the “green” capabilities required, this will involve considering how to instill enduring human capabilities, such as empathy and conceptual thinking, and develop new skills, such as scenario-based decision-making, among workers in the broader ecosystem.
Make work better for humans. In 2021, we wrote about the potential for organizations to design “good jobs” in which job quality is high, workers have a voice, and the organization offers training and skill development.6 Within the context of sustainability, “good jobs” look more like a holistic approach to work, where the health, safety, and well-being of the worker is prioritized and where work output contributes to sustainability outcomes. For example, sustainable fashion company Everlane regularly evaluates labor conditions, wages, training, and the environmental impact of the factories within its supply chain to ensure worker conditions meet their social responsibility standards.7 In 2021, the organization reframed its mission statement to adopt a people-first focus on environmental sustainability, promoting both safe environmental practices and safe work environments.
Design for human sustainability. Many organizations have begun to value not only environmental stewardship, but also human sustainability, or the creation of value for current and future workers and, more broadly, human beings and society. These organizations unleash individuals’ potential and help them become healthier, more skilled, and more connected to a sense of purpose and belonging. Human sustainability differs from political activism or worker engagement in that the intent is to positively impact the humans and communities who touch an organization, rather than the organization itself. In a global survey conducted by Deloitte in 2022, 64% of workers stated they would be more attracted to and remain at an organization that creates value not just for shareholders, but for workers as human beings and greater society as well. Human sustainability has also moved up steadily higher on the corporate agenda. Seventy-nine percent of business leaders agree that the organization has a responsibility to create value for workers as human beings and society in general.8
Our understanding of what it means to create and sustain value is shifting, to the benefit of humans from the board room to the surrounding communities.
Current experiments: What leading organizations are exploring
- Hilton. The hospitality company offers one example of how organizations are pursuing both human and organizational sustainability. In response to talent shortages resulting from the pandemic and increased worker agency, Hilton looked for new talent within communities in need of work. The company hired survivors of human trafficking, refugees, and formerly incarcerated individuals, which created value for the workers and society, and simultaneously, the business.9
- Interface Carpet Company. The global commercial flooring company’s journey to carbon neutrality began in the mid-1990s, when Interface leaders put environment sustainability at the company’s core by incorporating it into their design philosophy, performance measures, and culture.10 The organization’s core mission, as stated, is to “restore the health of the planet.” This mission has been incorporated into determining what products they design and how, workers’ performance evaluations, and the interactions that drive daily work. The organization has already achieved its goal of carbon neutrality and aspires to become carbon negative by 2040.
- Apple. In 2021, the global technology company added a modifier to its bonus structure, which could increase bonuses for executives by 10% should they achieve pre-defined sustainability goals.11 The move came after an activist shareholder failed to push through an initial proposal in 2020 but continued to work with Apple executives to implement the change.
- United States Agency for International Development. Through its Green Cities program, the organization collaborates with local governments to increase access to inclusive green jobs, reduce pollution, advance equity, and create net-zero systems in a multitude of communities across the developing world.12
- American International Group (AIG). The global financial services and the insurance company have committed to radical transparency through its sustainability reporting, which accounts for the broader ecosystem.13 Published annually, AIG’s sustainability report includes information on third-party emissions as well as data on the composition of its full workforce. The organization has also created a sustainability-focused framework for underwriting which incorporates its sustainability values into the largest body of daily work.
- Anheuser-Busch InBev. The organization has adopted an ecosystem approach to its sustainability efforts, taking action to help clean the water they source to produce beer, supporting the financial well-being of farmers whose crops are sourced, and helping make safe beer with indigenous crops for consumption in local communities.14 The organization’s aim is to operate within its ecosystem in a symbiotic manner, growing together with its suppliers, consumers, and communities.