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Putting sustainability into practice can be tough

Jordan Ekers, partner and vice-president of business development at the Toronto-based Nudge Rewards to photographed outside his Toronto office on October 8, 2015.

jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

Most forward-thinking companies have made sustainability part of their operating mantra. But putting that concept into practice is easier said than done. It can be a real challenge for large organizations to engage their employees in environmental, wellness and community-focused programs.

Smaller ventures are homing in on that niche, helping bigger companies sustain sustainability by rewarding their employees for doing good.

The Canadian company Nudge Rewards has developed engagement and analytics software to reward environmental, wellness and community actions through mobile engagement. The Embedding Project, meanwhile, is a research-based initiative that grew out of the Network for Business Sustainability at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School. Its leaders have devised a portfolio of business practices that include recognition and rewards to help companies implement sustainability.

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Both work with organizations around the globe that are committed to making the world a better place while benefiting their bottom line.

Here is what is fuelling the demand for their services: While most companies say sustainability is "the way we do business" or "part of our DNA," most business leaders simply don't know how to systematically incorporate it into their organizational culture.

A 2010 Accenture global survey of more than 700 CEOs found that 93 per cent see sustainability as important to their company's future success, yet few have a clear framework to build sustainability into their day-to-day operations.

And while 95 per cent of the world's largest companies are reporting on corporate sustainability, according to KPMG's 2011 review of the global state of CSR, only 10 per cent to 14 per cent of employees are actively engaged in these programs on average, according to a 2010 survey by sustainability software company Brighter Planet.

"People have their own definition of what sustainability is," says Stephanie Bertels, founder of the Embedding Project and associate professor at the Beedie School of Business at Burnaby, B.C.'s Simon Fraser University. "Some people see it just as greening, and then others see it as more broad, more encompassing, an overarching term that includes environmental governance and social factors."

Consider a company with thousands of employees across the country that wants to reduce energy consumption. What typically happens is the head office sends an e-mail to local managers, who are to convey that message to front-line staff. This does not necessarily happen.

By working with Nudge, which uses a Web analytics management system to monitor, analyze and report on the positive effects of employee engagement, companies such as Telus Corp., Rogers Communications Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are turning to mobile technology to get their employees involved.

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Staff members use a smartphone app that alerts them to campaigns or initiatives in real time and asks for their direct feedback on how to make them successful. Employees get points for participating in CSR projects, and, very much like credit-card reward programs, those points can be redeemed for items such as gift cards, donations to a charity of the employee's choice, or even lunch with a senior executive. Some companies tie participation into bonus structures.

Whatever the rewards, they help align employees' goals with those of the organization.

"Our programs are always attached to tangible outcomes," says Jordan Ekers, partner and vice-president of business development at Toronto-based Nudge, a 10-member organization with partners in Britain and New Zealand that was founded in 2011 by Dessy Daskalov and Lindsey Goodchild.

"When you can engage employees in a way that's meaningful for them and relevant to them, you can drive some pretty amazing results," Mr. Ekers says.

"If you look at corporate Canada, there is an amazing reach of individuals," he says. "A company like Telus has 28,000 people, and if you can inspire those 28,000 to do really small things to change their daily behaviours, it can have a profound impact on the bottom line of a company, on the environment, and on their lives."

For instance, rewarding employees for taking part in wellness programs isn't just good for individual health but also yields reduced absenteeism and improved productivity.

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And linking CSR performance to compensation has been proven to work.

Take GlaxoSmithKline and its targets for energy consumption as an example. According to Embedding Sustainability in Organizational Culture, a 2010 report by the Network for Business Sustainability and Canadian Business for Social Responsibility, people at the company were pessimistic at the outset. But once a 5-per-cent reduction was linked to bonuses, the company reached its target. In 2009, the organization reduced energy consumption by 11 per cent.

Run by a team of seven, the Embedding Project has about three dozen multinational member companies, including Suncor Energy Inc., Teck Resources Ltd. and Toronto-Dominion Bank. The researchers help business leaders assess, prioritize and measure sustainable practices and also link companies together for peer-to-peer support, allowing them to learn from each other on a confidential basis.

Rewards are just one part of a bigger approach to embedding sustainability into a business's operations and culture, Dr. Bertels says. Structural changes, metrics and modelling ("walking the walk") all need to be in place as well. And it is not a process that happens quickly.

"It comes down to integrating environmental and social factors with the core strategy, as opposed to having a corporate strategy and a separate strategy for sustainability," Dr. Bertels explains. "That's where leading companies are moving: having one overall strategy.

"The conditions are dictating that companies need to consider doing this in order to be healthy," she adds. "It's not a question of whether to do it, but how, and how to do it well."

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