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3 Barriers to Implementing Sustainable Practices (and How to Overcome Them)

by May 28, 2021Employee engagement, SDG Strategy, Sustainability0 comments

Establishing a sustainable strategy

Incorporating sustainable strategies has become a priority for organisations since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted. Yet only 0.2% of the companies within MSCI’s All Country World Index were strongly aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. Many companies struggle to overcome common barriers to implementing sustainable practices in their workplace. This puts them at risk of failing to meet corporate goals, losing consumer trust, and missing out on new investors and talent. 

Maintaining customers

Consumers are more aware than ever of the importance of adopting sustainable practices, and they are expecting companies to deliver. IBM’s 2020 consumer report showed 77% of those surveyed felt it was at least moderately important that brands “are sustainable and/or environmentally responsible.” These numbers are similar when it comes to consumer interest in companies offering products that are “clean,” have health and wellness benefits, and use organic ingredients.

Enticing investors

Establishing sustainable practices is critical when considering investor interest too. Morningstar’s report showed “the number of sustainability-focused index funds, and their assets, have doubled over the past three years.” During that same period in the US, “assets in sustainable index funds have quadrupled” and make up “20% of the total” (Stevens). This trend is expected to continue, particularly with the impending transfer of wealth from baby boomers to their millennial and Gen X children, generations that prioritise incorporating sustainability in multiple areas of their lives. 

Attracting talent

As workforce compositions shift to younger generations, companies must also consider how a culture of sustainability plays a role in attracting and retaining new talent. IBM’s Institute for Business Value found that over 70 percent of surveyed employees and job seekers believe “environmentally sustainable companies are more attractive employers.” And, almost half of those surveyed reported a willingness to take a pay cut to gain employment at these organisations.

So how can your company avoid missing out? Let’s take a closer look at three common barriers to implementing sustainable practices that organisations face, then we’ll address how to overcome them.

Creating a culture of sustainability within a company.
Companies often struggle to incorporate sustainability within their organisational culture.

Barriers to implementing sustainable practices

Barrier 1: Lack of knowledge

Despite the growing public interest in sustainability, misconceptions and knowledge gaps still exist. This has led to a recent increase in related educational resources. Search for “sustainability,” and you’ll find 175+ offerings on Coursera and over 900 results on LinkedIn Learning. Many of these resources specifically target teaching employees about the SDGs. Clearly, both the need for understanding these concepts and the difficulty of attaining this mastery have been identified as challenges

But establishing a culture of sustainability requires more than assigning another training employees won’t find relevant or remember. If the goal is to create a learning environment that leads to long-term retention, companies must move beyond basic coursework. It is crucial that employers engage personnel in authentic, meaningful experiences.

How to effectively address the knowledge gap

  1. Understand your audience. Before tackling the lack of knowledge or misconceptions among your employees, you must first learn what those are. Collecting information on what your workforce knows (or doesn’t) is essential to understanding where your efforts should be directed. It is also crucial to determine where their interests lie⁠. What do your employees want to learn about sustainability, why, and how can the company help?
  1. Capture their attention. Once you’ve identified the basic topics your content should cover, focus on drawing your employees in. Use vivid imagery, engaging narratives, and collaborative experiences to pique their interest. Personalize information, so the members of your organisation understand the impact certain actions will have on their community. 
  1. Improve communication. Throughout the learning process, continue to ask your employees for input, and use this to inform future educational opportunities. Share how your company as a whole is addressing sustainability issues. Then, highlight the concrete, empowering steps individuals can take to contribute. Ensure a system of accountability as well. Provide feedback to employees, and help them see the strides they are making when it comes to sustainability know-how. 
Employees gaining knowledge by working on collaborative activities.
Create opportunities for employees to share interests, collaborate, and receive feedback.

Barrier 2: Lack of motivation

Employers strive to keep the members of their organisation motivated, and for good reason. Motivation “accounts for 40% of the success of team projects” and can increase employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention (Clark and Saxberg). However, Gallup found only 15% of full-time adult workers in 2017 identified as being engaged at work.

This lack of involvement in and enthusiasm for one’s work and workplace presents an incredible challenge to organisations. Imagine, then, how difficult it can be for a company to gain employee buy-in for actions not tied to performance indicators, such as taking part in sustainability initiatives. Employers successful at engaging their workforce understand the need to establish a culture within which motivating personnel is routine. This should be a key focus for any organisation looking to increase employee engagement in sustainability. 

How to inspire motivation in the workplace

  1. Focus on commitment. You can’t expect employees to become sustainability ambassadors just from hearing some facts about waste management or circular economy. Start with small initial requests. Use the spark of interest generated from their learning experiences to inspire commitment to easily attainable goals. Circulate a sustainability pledge for employees to sign, or offer pins representing a promise to work toward a particular SDG. Celebrate relevant successes, then build on this momentum to make larger requests.
  1. Make behaviors more visible. In a literature review exploring the connection between social norms, behavior change, and sustainability, the authors discovered that “the power of social norms in behavioral change does not come only from the natural inclination to imitate others or from the necessity to know what is appropriate to do in a given situation.” They found “it is also rooted in the human desire to belong to one’s community” (Yamin et al). If, within one’s work community, trusted coworkers can be observed engaging in sustainable behaviors, employees will be more apt to follow suit. Commitments are more powerful when they are public, and norms are developed and internalized through direct contact between people. With that in mind, try increasing the visibility of sustainable behaviors in action. 
  1. Incentivize appropriately. If motivation is low, consider how you can pair sustainable behavior with appropriate rewards. Consider clean commute incentives, such as allowing employees to periodically work from home or subsidizing public transportation costs. Promote green habits while increasing brand awareness by providing customized reusable water bottles, coffee cups, and tote bags. Don’t discount verbal and written recognition of sustainable behaviors either. According to Gallup, “recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention” (Mann and Dvorak). Just be careful not to replace existing intrinsic motivations with extrinsic ones!
Motivated employees with high levels of commitment and engagement.
Recognize commitments to sustainability to increase engagement and motivation.

Barrier 3: Lack of experience

Another barrier to implementing sustainable practices companies face is that many people lack the experience and confidence necessary to act as champions of sustainable practices. Educating and engaging employees are necessary first steps. However, “research studies increasingly indicate that in order to motivate such engagement, people need to become personally involved with sustainability at a psychological and emotional level” (Barrett).

To encourage this involvement, organisations can ensure opportunities exist for employees to observe and practice sustainable behaviors, build confidence in their abilities, and take ownership. In a study exploring chronic disease self-management among a workforce, researchers found “programs designed to increase self-efficacy while reinforcing healthy behaviors could yield significant promise in fostering a supportive workplace.” This was attained “by using peers as lay leaders and capitalizing on existing workplace natural supports” (Schopp et al). It stands to reason that a similar increase in self-efficacy regarding sustainable practices could be fostered in employees if appropriate workplace supports are established. 

How to empower the inexperienced to act

  1. Use modeling. Parents, educators, psychologists, doctors, and more often use behavior modeling to teach new skills. Companies can do the same when it comes to sustainability training through the use of instructional videos and demonstrations. Show employees how to engage in sustainable practices and highlight the benefits of doing so. To increase understanding and confidence, provide examples of both positive and negative behaviors. Then allow employees to create and act out their own practice scenarios
  1. Establish local experts. Identify the members of your organisation who are passionate about your company’s environmental and social goals. Then encourage conversations between these employees and those who are less knowledgeable about sustainability. Just as businesses work to establish brand ambassadors, you can create sustainability ambassadors. Perpetuate your desired norms by tapping into a network of individuals already invested in sustainable practices. Provide opportunities for them to confidently deliver your message to other employees.
  1. Allow for experimentation. Your workforce needs the opportunity to fully engage with sustainability topics, such as through activities requiring teams to solve hypothetical dilemmas. Allowing for simulations “provides the opportunity for repeated practice, the opportunity to test limits safely, and can provide immediate feedback” (Martin et al). Getting comfortable with these ideas and actions in a structured space will empower employees to continue the work, spread the word, and become experts themselves. 
Employees gaining experience with sustainability through demonstrations and experimentation.
Give employees the chance to fully immerse themselves in the topic of sustainability.

Establish a culture of sustainability

Combat the lack of knowledge, motivation, and experience regarding sustainability that your workforce may be characterized by. By using the tips above, you can begin to overcome these common barriers to implementing sustainable practices. As more companies seek to teach employees about sustainability, there will be no shortage of resources to provide help along the way. But it’s important to remember that selecting the right type of training is essential if true behavior change is your goal.

Seek employee-centric training that prioritizes engagement, critical thinking, and collaboration. Want to accomplish this with a gamified experience that provides valuable insight through a personalised report? Book a free demo to learn more about what 2030 Builders can do for you.

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