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Companies embrace employee sustainability education to tackle climate emergency

April 11, 2022, 3:00 PM UTC
Piet Vandendriessche, CEO of Deloitte Belgium, plants a tree along with other Deloitte volunteers in Zaventem, March 2022.
Hatim Kaghat—Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images

Since the launch of Deloitte’s new digital climate course last August, employees in its offices all over the world have been carving out time—about 45 minutes in a given workday—to get up to speed on the latest climate science, understand how it is impacting communities worldwide, and learn about what the company they work for is doing to address the global crisis. 

As of mid-March, 269,000 workers out of 330,000 had completed the course, created in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. The remaining 61,000 are estimated to follow suit by June 1, and new hires will now take the course as part of their onboarding, making it an embedded component of working at Deloitte. According to an internal company survey, 95% of employees said that they understood Deloitte’s commitment to addressing climate change better after taking the course and were committed to taking action to reduce their individual environmental impact.

That data points to why, as pressure to address the climate crisis intensifies, many companies across varied industries are introducing new education initiatives both in-house as well as expanding support for educational opportunities outside the workplace. 

The aim is to engage employees around how to make meaningful contributions to corporate climate goals and live with a lighter environmental footprint. At the same time, leading business schools are creating new sustainability programs to give professionals a leg up in a job market that increasingly values sustainability and climate literacy.

A ‘huge spike’ in sustainability education

At WeSpire, an employee engagement platform, founder and CEO Susan Hunt Stevens said she has seen a “huge spike” recently in the number of companies looking to implement workforce sustainability education programs, which she partially attributes to the fact that more people are experiencing the impact of climate change in real time. 

Stevens notes the trend is also likely fueled by the SEC’s recent proposal to require climate risk disclosures and by more than a decade of data showing that businesses that prioritize climate goals are more successful.     

“It is just absolutely clear that companies that embrace ESG and embrace it well perform better than the companies that don’t, across industry sectors,” she says. And a company can’t do it well without engaging its workforce, because, “ultimately, every system is created or improved or ruined by people.”

It’s why many of the programs are targeting the C-suite, where strategies to meet bold goals—such as a 50% reduction in greenhouse emissions across the value chain by 2030 and net zero by 2040 at HP—are being hammered out and climate know-how is increasingly necessary, not a nice-to-have. 

“Every member of our executive leadership team, including our CEO, has to set a sustainable impact management objective that they are then compensated on,” says HP chief sustainability and social impact officer Ellen Jackowski.

But HP is not just letting the knowledge and action trickle down. In 2020 it began encouraging all employees to set sustainable impact goals that relate directly to their job function. For a marketing team, for example, it might be a goal around communicating energy efficiency gains more effectively. While the engineering department might be swapping out virgin plastic for more recycled materials. 

“This is literally: What are you responsible for? How are your decisions impacting our sustainability metrics?” Jackowski explains. One way her team helps guide those goals is by providing educational opportunities: HP offers 19 different internal trainings on sustainability and gives all employees passes to GreenBiz Verge, a conference that features the latest thinking on topics like renewable procurement and carbon removal.

While it’s difficult to measure exactly how much employee engagement efforts are contributing to the company’s overall climate goals, Jackowski is convinced they’re crucial. “There is no way we will achieve these things without the full power of HP and this full culture shift,” she says. “It all adds up.”

WeSpire’s sustainability education programs engage the broader workforce using interactive campaigns during which employees “learn by doing,” Stevens says. A decade ago, it courted small-company clients that were early adopters of sustainability initiatives, like Seventh Generation and Organic Valley. But over the past 10 years, that’s changed: Bank of America, Disney, and MGM Resorts are among the 100 companies that have utilized the platform. 

In 2021 Salesforce hit its net-zero target across its full value chain and achieved 100% renewable energy powering its operations. And “education and mobilization” is one of six priorities within the company’s ongoing Climate Action Plan

“It’s something that the company is really focused on as a key lever,” says Sunya Norman, vice president of ESG strategy and engagement, noting that 7,000 employees in 40 offices participate in employee-led Earthforce groups. 

The company also started adding more sustainability content to its online learning platform Trailhead. One “trail,” Norman explains, provides basic science to frame the climate emergency and then shares details on how Salesforce envisions a sustainable future, with businesses at the forefront of engagement. 

In addition to employees, “that’s something that our entire ecosystem—customers, partners, the average person who wants to create a Trailhead account—could access,” she says.

‘A strong business case’

Whether sustainability education is focused on executives, employees at every level, or the broader public, advocates for the approach say there’s abundant evidence that it’s worth the investment.

One white paper produced by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) in 2010 found that employee education initiatives at companies including Lockheed Martin, Stonyfield, and Intel resulted in energy savings that both reduced emissions significantly and saved the companies up to millions of dollars annually. 

“When you look at why you want to engage your employees on sustainability, there’s a really strong business case for doing it,” says WeSpire’s Stevens, noting that companies’ alignment with climate targets can lead to potential financial savings. “It’s also part of a culture strategy, and particularly in this time of the Great Resignation we see very tangibly across clients that these programs are key to retention and performance.”

Opportunities for professional sustainability education outside the workplace are also on the rise. 

In February, Deloitte competitor EY announced it would pay for any of its 312,000 global employees to complete an online master’s degree in sustainability, in partnership with Hult International Business School. Other top business schools are creating their own programs that companies can tap into to educate their executives. Columbia Business School, for example, recently launched a seven-week online program in ESG investing for financial professionals. 

The MIT Sloan School of Management designed a three-day program in collaboration with Russell Reynolds Associates, while the MIT Professional Education division offers an eight-week sustainability certificate program for business leaders.  

Stanford University is going a step further by establishing an entirely new school focused on climate and sustainability that will encompass research, engineering, and many other disciplines and will include programs on “sustainable business.”

“[Last] week’s IPCC report showed that we have no time to waste if we are going to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5℃, which is intensifying the demand for renewable energy, carbon capture technologies, and an accelerated energy transition. All of this is driving the unrelenting levels of demand for sustainable leadership,” says Kurt Harrison, cohead of global sustainability at Russell Reynolds.

In other words, the increasing number of educational programs focused on sustainability suggests that more executives are now thinking about climate and company goals as inextricable. As the understanding that no business will be fully protected from the impacts of the climate crisis sinks in, anything teams can do to mobilize employees to take action at work or at home will help contribute to a more livable—and therefore more workable—world.

At Deloitte, nearly 90% of employees who completed the course on climate science reported that they planned to share their learnings with friends and family.

“This isn’t something that one company, one individual, or even one sector can solve,” Norman of Salesforce says. “We need everyone to have an all-hands-on-deck approach, and education for employees is a key piece of that. We have employees all around the world who have their own networks and can have their own influence in their communities.”

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.