3P Sustainability: Talking People, Planet, and Profits with Workr Beeing

3P Sustainability: Talking People, Planet, and Profits with Workr Beeing


Dr. Jennifer Kuklenski from 3P Insights spoke with Dr. Katina Sawyer and Dr. Patricia Grabarek on the Workr Beeing podcast about the “3P” sustainability framework.

The podcast episode aired on May 13, 2021. Katina, Patricia, and Jennifer talked about the challenges organizations face when implementing sustainability initiatives, as well as the benefits enjoyed by those that do!

Here is a snapshot of the conversation… (Listen to the full podcast episode here!)

Katina: What are the greatest challenges that activists and others who care deeply about sustainability have to overcome in convincing companies to pay attention to these issues?

Jennifer: That’s a really great question. I think the biggest challenge, especially for small and medium size organizations, is simply a lack of resources to implement sustainability initiatives, whether that’s monetary resources or time resources. Sustainability is also incredibly complex though, even for organizations that do have the resources to make big changes. There’s actually a great Ted Talk by Olivia Tyler called “The complex path to sustainability,” which discusses why organizations have such a difficult time addressing unsustainable aspects of their supply chains.

The complexity of supply chains is actually one of the 3 significant challenges identified in a 2019 report published by the United Nations Global Compact and the Business Consultancy Accenture. The primary hurdle here is lack of transparency. It can be very difficult to get accurate information about our resources and supplies used to produce our final goods and services. Consumers have a hard time with this, but businesses do too.

I work with organizations to implement more sustainable practices and up front, I explain to them what it takes to become a truly sustainable organization. It’s not just about recycling in the office or reducing our waste. It’s about looking at our entire value chain, from the paper and pens we purchase, to the emissions produced by our web pages, to the everyday actions and practices of employees. We need to not only look at what we’re doing directly in our workplace, but also whether we’re being complicit in say, human rights abuses through our purchasing behaviors and procurement decisions.

For example, if we’re operating a hotel or a bed and breakfast, where do our towels come from? Where are they made and are people paid fairly to produce them? Is slave or child labor being used to produce them? Are the factories they’re produced in safe? Sometimes it’s hard to answer these questions because the information is simply not available. However, transparency on these issues has increased a lot over the past decade or so and generally if the company says nothing about how or where their products are made, we can probably assume they aren’t sustainable.

More often than not, I see organizations simply decide that this is too much for them to handle. The truth is, it would be if trying to tackle it all at once, which is why I tell organizations to start somewhere and have annual goals addressing each of the three pillars of sustainability. When the first set of goals are met, establish some new ones and just keep working at it. So I’d say that’s the first major challenge – the complexity of sustainability. 

The 2019 global compact report that I mentioned earlier also found that competition is a significant challenge that is frustrating business efforts toward sustainability. While one company may decide to go all-in for sustainability, their competitors may not choose to make that commitment. As a result of this, the company moving toward sustainability begins to lag, at least in the short term, because right now, many sustainably produced goods cost a bit more. If consumers aren’t fully committed to sustainability, then they’ll just buy from the company that’s cheaper.

This relates to the 3rd significant challenge that the global compact report found, which is public rhetoric. Studies find that close to 70% of consumers say they want to purchase more sustainably produced goods; however, their attitudes don’t often match their behavior in the check-out line. The 2019 report found that business leaders believe the public is excellent when it comes to talking about change, but they are unwilling, for the most part, to pay higher prices for goods and services as a result of those changes.

I have been able to confirm this with some of my doctoral research. When examining sustainable consumption for a study that looked at sustainable water consumption, I did find that consumer attitudes about sustainability often didn’t match their behavior. My research found that the two largest deterrents of sustainable behavior at the individual level are higher prices and lack of convenience. If a company’s more sustainable option is higher priced but more convenient, then consumers may make the switch. However, if it is less convenient and higher in price, then the company faces an uphill battle as consumers will look to their competitors to fill that void.

Patricia: In terms of those challenges, what do you see as ways get companies on board and move past them?

Jennifer: In terms of getting companies on board, demonstrating the benefits of sustainability initiatives is really important. For example, one of the important monetary benefits of sustainability is the fact that in the long run, sustainable practices can help organizations increase revenues and reduce costs. In terms of increasing revenues, improvements in a firm’s environmental or social reputation can help them capture a growing market niche consisting of environmentally and socially conscious consumers.

Global research published by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) in 2015, for example, found that 78% of customers were more likely to purchase goods and services from firms that have signed up for the SDGs. Like I mentioned before though, if those goods come at a significantly higher price or less convenience, then the number of consumers willing to make those purchases does drop quite a bit and isn’t as close to that 78% mark as those of us in the sustainability field would like to see. With that said, consumers do tend to trust companies that act sustainably.

Another important benefit of sustainability has to do with workers because sustainability initiatives can also lead to better work environments and happier employees, even helping organizations attract and retain talent. Recent surveys show that people prefer to work for organizations that perform well socially and are more likely to stay with organizations that have a strong plan for sustainability. Truly sustainable organizations treat people as an essential and valuable resource, so they tend to offer better benefits and wellness programs, as well as promote diversity and inclusion. In such workplaces, people tend to be happier and the organizational culture tends to be one that empowers employees to fully contribute to organizational success.

Allowing employees to contribute to sustainability initiatives is also really important. For example, according to an article published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review about how to engage employees to create sustainable business, employees at a Unilever tea factory in England saved the company nearly 50,000 euros and reduced the waste of 9.3 tons of paper by suggesting the company change the size of paper tea bags. Because these employees were working with the product directly, they knew exactly what could be improved. Also, since the company actually implemented their suggestions, they felt more engaged and empowered to not only contribute to and uphold other sustainability practices, but to continue offering suggestions in the future. This type of employee engagement with sustainability has been shown to improve productivity and motivation.

Changes to the physical environment can lead to higher productivity too. For example, installing skylights or large windows in the office can help save on energy costs, but exposure to natural light during the day is also strongly linked to energy, mood, sleep and overall quality of life. The presence of natural light is especially important in the workplace.

According to researchers at Northwestern University’s neuroscience program, an abundance of natural light boosts morale, improves motivation and workplace performance and promotes feelings of peace and calm. On the other hand, harsh, artificial light triggers headaches and tends to make people feel nervous, uneasy or fatigued. Lack of natural light has been linked to insomnia, distraction, and even depression. In some cases, researchers found that absence of natural light triggered such extreme feelings of exhaustion, that individuals were unable to maintain a normal working schedule. So, you can see how the desire to reduce energy consumption, which saves in terms of energy costs, can also help with employee wellness, motivation, and productivity.

Healthier workplaces also produce happier and more productive employees. For example, if a company has a cafeteria, offering healthier options like salad bars and veggie options can lead to higher levels of energy among employees. Healthier diets have also been linked to stronger brain activity and better mood. Research cited by Harvard’s health blog found that diets high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, and seafood, with only modest amounts of dairy and meats, such as the Mediterranean diet, may reduce the risk of depression by 25% to 35%.

Aside from the wellness piece of sustainability, healthier diets are also better for the planet! A recent study published by Springer showed that diets high in calories, saturated fats, added sugars, processed foods, and red meats are less environmentally sustainable than plant-based diets, which are associated with less greenhouse gas emissions and lower land and water use. Plant-based diets are of course more ethical in terms of animal treatment as well.

So, supporting healthy eating habits in our workplace cafes or cafeterias supports both our social and environmental sustainability goals. Even if we don’t have a café or cafeteria in our workplace, many organizations often have working lunches or pot-lucks. I often see organizations around my area having cookouts. If we’re offering only burgers or hot dogs at these cookouts, which is often what I see, we’re not being very inclusive of people who don’t eat beef or pork due to personal, dietary, or religious reasons, and we’re also feeding people food that may make them feel even more tired when they go back to work, especially if we’re serving those items on white bread or buns and with chips on the side.

Want to learn more? Listen to the full podcast episode here!

3P INSIGHTS is a consulting firm that offers training, speaking and support services to help organizations attract and retain diverse talent, create inclusive workplaces, become better environmental stewards, and improve their overall social, environmental, and economic impact.

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