Why employee engagement is vital in developing sustainable retail brands

Following the recent Responsible Retail event, Harvey Laud, CEO of Helistrat, sustainability management consultancy, discusses how improving stakeholder engagement can help UK retailers realise their sustainability ambitions.

Why employee engagement is vital in developing sustainable retail brands

Whilst there is little doubting the advances that retailers have made in improving their environmental performance, the fact remains that there is a long tail of major brands who are some way behind the curve when it comes to fully embedding sustainability into their brands.

One of the major reasons for this gap is overemphasising the importance of service delivery and a failure to address the all-important issue of hearts and minds when seeking to deliver real change.  We have to recognise that simply changing the containers we use to collect waste or altering the collection frequency does little more than scratch the surface of what is possible. 

Changing an organisation’s mind set when it comes to sustainability is, without doubt, a difficult thing to do.  One simple action that can be taken is to start to change the language we use.  By getting people to think, not about waste, but about this material as a resource that has both a commercial and environmental value can be a small but effective first step.  

Attending the recent edie Responsible Retail event, I became aware how the demographic of the room had changed and widened since the previous year. The audience was no longer limited to ‘Heads of Sustainability’ but now included a range of senior delegates from a broad spectrum of responsibility, including business development, account management and supply chain. This means there is a far broader group of stakeholders with whom we must engage and consult in order to bring about change.  Don’t get me wrong however, this challenge is far outweighed by the fact that there is now a wider audience who recognise the commercial and environmental opportunity and understand that sustainability is indeed a cross-functional responsibility.

So how do we go about changing such a diverse and interrelated set of opinions and attitudes?  I think the first thing we must do is recognise that people inherently want to do the right thing and generally people nowadays are more aware of the consequences of their actions when it comes to environmental impact.  With a few notable, high profile, exceptions that is! One of the major challenges however, is that short term goals hinder our ability to influence mid to long term change and output.  We need to find ways to circumvent ‘business as usual’ and empower people to think longer term and indeed find ways to measure and evaluate performance over longer periods of time. 

We must also find ways to address the dangers of silo working, where functional teams regard sustainability as the responsibility of the sustainability team and as a result absolve themselves of the need to change their behaviour or processes.  It is important to get people out of function mode and include some broader objectives into their job role which will hopefully result in a more commercially and environmentally efficient business. 

When it comes to embedding a broader sustainability focus and ensuring consistency throughout an organisation, our experience tells us that procurement is often a highly effective place to start.  Procurement is naturally a very digital discipline, focusing (quite rightly), on pounds and pence.  This is especially the case when it comes to waste or resources.  Historically, when the time does come for change, the process ultimately ends up being a cost saving exercise based on a like-for-like service.  The resultant focus on price per lift and collection frequency makes it hard to implement any of the company’s sustainability objectives, no matter how well defined or documented, into the process.  Almost without fail, the retailers that we have been able to support in bringing about the biggest change, are the ones who are prepared to tear up what has gone before and start by defining what they want to achieve.  This enables the creation of a more flexible, creative and efficient service, which is aligned to the corporate objectives and the needs of the various business functions.  It’s a well-worn phrase but the reality is that real sustainable value comes from working smarter – not harder.

My final recommendation for retailers or any organisation wanting to really embed sustainability into their brand, is to be open and transparent about their intention.  This means publishing a meaningful statement with targets and timescales, not just a vague positioning statement designed to satisfy shareholders.  Businesses should not be scared to publish their goals, that is, after all, what they are.  If they cannot be met, be honest about why. If there were external factors that could have enabled these goals to be reached or that impeded progress, use this as a way to raise awareness and to try and bring about change.  This can ultimately result in a more favourable environmental and commercial landscape in the future.

In summary, the retailers who are prepared to re-think their goals, adopt a more holistic approach and recognise the importance of changing attitudes, are the ones most likely to be successful in leveraging the commercial and environmental opportunities that exist.  We all need to realise that, despite short-term pressures, the benefits of developing a more resource-efficient business and a stronger more responsible brand will add significant value to any business in the mid to long term.

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