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Two Ways Human Beliefs Affect LCA

PART TWO: Employee Engagement

By John Rooks, Senior Research and Culture Advisor

Quality life cycle assessment (LCA) necessitates access to quality data. It’s math and science. There are formulas to follow and accepted models that expose risks and opportunities to mitigate negative impacts. The data and decisions of the process are seemingly fairly predictable, requiring a comparison of one process or material or supplier with others, and then weighing those impacts against cost, effort, impact and feature benefits. Hardly simple, I admit, but to a large degree knowable with degrees of uncertainty. Still, LCA does require a creative approach to yield the greatest insights; that creative approach is what sets EarthShift Global apart.

Adding human beliefs into the LCA equation can make the process and the reliability of the data more complicated, but also more valuable. When measuring the impact of transportation for mangos, for example, we don’t concern ourselves with the beliefs of the driver. But doing so where appropriate presents (at least) two strategies to remove enormous environmental impact from your products and organizations.  In Part One of this series, we explored the importance of use phase research and interventions.  Here, in Part Two, we explore employee engagement.

men working in textile factory
#2 Employee Engagement

The following statement is true for companies who are just embarking on a sustainability journey as well as for those who have built a reputation or competitive advantage on it: employees are big bags of ideas walking around your factory floor.

During an Organizational LCA (O-LCA), we want to channel our inner Peter Drucker and pay significant attention to corporate culture via Employee Engagement. Drucker famously quipped (it is likely business folklore that Drucker actually said this, but let’s not allow facts get in the way of accuracy or a good story) that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So, it stands to reason that a corporate sustainability strategy that does not consider culture is bound to end up creating undo corporate friction.

Case in point: I was working with Interface Global on an 18-month employee engagement project designed to “better understand where our employees are in regards to our corporate Mission Zero objective to achieve no negative environmental impact” (Note: Interface has progressed well beyond that goal due in large part to their cultural efforts.) We were on-site at one of their production facilities interviewing a seasoned plant manager who reminded us – “if you’re looking for more efficiency out of a machine, you might want to talk to the person whose been operating it for 20 years.” It was a great reminder that corporate sustainability is best when it listens.

The project included interviews and understanding/ideation workshops with hundreds of employees across five countries and seven factories. We videoed the interactions and were producing mini-documentary films for each facility to be shared across the organization These were “warts and all” documentaries which intentionally did not filter out shortcomings, employee dissent, and confusion with the sustainability.

The importance of the engagement project changed drastically when visionary Interface founder Ray Anderson sadly passed during our work. There was a palpable sense of confusion as many employees wondered who the next voice of sustainability would be. Quickly, we reviewed our tapes and edited together a montage of employees – from sales associates to human resources to 3rd shift tufting machine operators claiming proudly “I am Mission Zero.

Ray Anderson left several legacies, but a notable one for us was a few thousand employees who felt personally responsible and empowered to be part of (and carry on) the mission.

The point here is to create or identify your champions, then spread sustainability like a virus throughout your organization. Here is a typical stepped process we may use to help build a culture of sustainability.

  1. Culture Mapping. This is not another employee survey. It’s deeper than that. It does include some aspect of quantitative data collection, but it also sets out to understand the corporate sustainability zeitgeist. It maps the areas of your operation are most apt and/or resistant to change when it comes to sustainability. This sets up the foundation for education curricula and facilitation discussed in number 3 below.
  2. Articulate a vision. This is different than setting goals. Goals help realize the vision but are not the vision. This can be accomplished by senior management working with the marketing department to create the vision and some smart graphics to rally around. Or, it can be done better by engaging a broad group of internal stakeholders who will bring new perspective. Often, this is done in multiple small group workshops with prescribed feedback loops. Then we take it to marketing.
  3. Education. Develop curricula for each employee type. Not all employees need to know what an LCA is or how it is important. But, I argue, they all need the ability to articulate WHY the vision is important to the company, their community and themselves – maybe in reverse order, but that would be better understood in number 1 above.
  4. Now Goals. Introduce the vision and the goals that will support it – make it real – to the entire organization and welcome feedback and encourage (even reward) ideas.
  5. Communication. Early and often determine the cadence and channels most appropriate and authentic for your organization and employee levels. Factory floors - literally, the floor - is great real estate to communicate a mission, as are corporate sustainability dashboards in breakrooms. For others a private CEO podcast may be relevant. Number 1, again, supports this decision making.
  6. Feedback Systems. Mostly engagement is listening, but you need to design the right feedback loops and incentive systems for your employees to respond to what is happening on the organizational level. Sometimes this is disguised as a participatory modern “suggestion box” for ideation with a culturally relevant reward system for engagement with the sustainability vision set forth in number 2 above.

Back to fictionalized Drucker: Culture can be used to remove or create friction with corporate strategy. If you are considering completing an O-LCA on your company, keep an open mind to also think about ways to measure the culture of the organization and ways employee at all levels can be empowered to help reduce the footprint, not just changing the light bulbs or riding their bikes to work.

Humans are weird. We vote against our best interests. We convince ourselves we are unique. And we get stuck doing things based on beliefs we never knew we had. Earthshift Global is expanding our perception as we think about areas that we can be most impactful for our clients to mitigate unnecessary impact. Human behavior understanding and intervention is the latest, but not final service we are proud to lead on.

To brainstorm how this approach could help you, please contact John Rooks by completing our Contact form.