Initiatives aimed at involving employees in sustainability aims are now commonplace in progressive food companies, and for good reason. Ben Cooper examines employee engagement in the food industry and explains how food manufacturers are reaping the multiple benefits of enthusing employees around food sustainability objectives.

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” Confucius wrote.

Whether that would be the thrust of a motivational workshop today may be open to question but the principle behind the assertion remains true.

People who love their work will be more motivated and very likely more productive, with obvious benefits for the employer. Finding a sense of purpose and meaning at work is key but that’s easier for a brain surgeon than a packer in a poultry plant.

In that context, the increased focus being given to sustainability is a significant boon, representing an opportunity for companies to instil, or for employees across a business to discover, a sense of purpose, bolstering morale and employee motivation and enhancing both employee retention and talent recruitment. A feeling of participation in a company’s ethical aspirations and shared ownership of its values helps further sustainability aims which in turn bring business benefits. Employee engagement in sustainability can therefore legitimately be viewed as a win-win-win.

The question for the food industry is therefore no longer “why engage employees in sustainability”. The case for doing so appears incontrovertible. But, rather, but how can this be done to best effect, and are food companies taking full advantage of this motivational dividend the boost to employee motivation that workforce engagement can bring.

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By GlobalData

In a recent article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, CB Bhattacharya, the Pietro Ferrero Chair in Sustainability at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin, and Unilever CEO Paul Polman identified eight ways to engage employees on sustainability: define the company’s long-term purpose; spell out the economic case for sustainability; create sustainability knowledge and competence; make every employee a sustainability champion; co-create sustainable practices with employees; encourage competition among employees around sustainability; make sustainability visible inside and outside the company; and showcase higher purpose by creating transformational change.

Defining purpose

Asked to narrow this down to one sine qua non, Prof. Bhattacharya says defining the company’s purpose has to come first. “Only then can the other steps we’ve outlined click in,” he tells just-food. “So, I would say that’s the nub of the issue.”

A food company should define itself not simply as producing food to grow sales and make money but the CEO has to define the “social purpose” of those food products, such as giving nutrition or giving energy, Prof. Bhattacharya explains. “That’s something that any regular person, with a family, with children, can relate to and can latch on to that.”

Slipping into platitude is a constant risk in the sustainability field. Presenting an idealised, “too good to be true” picture of a company’s values brings risks, not least in hardening the sceptic’s search for a double standard. But, perhaps with employee engagement a company has a little more licence to talk from the heart. They are not speaking in this instance to a sceptical activist or a hardened investment analyst. This is an audience that wants to believe in the message, that wants to feel what they’re doing is worthwhile.

It is no surprise therefore that, in articulating why employee engagement in sustainability is important to Kellogg, chief sustainability officer Diane Holdorf speaks of the company’s purpose, and how that gives it common cause with its employees, in just the way Prof. Bhattacharya suggests. 

“We care about nourishing people with our foods, feeding those in need, nurturing our planet and living our founder’s values,” Holdorf says. “At the same time, our stakeholders – including employees – are motivated to buy from, and work for, companies and brands that share their values.”

Multiple motivations

However, for all the emphasis on values and ethos, it is notable that discussion around employee engagement has focused extensively on resource efficiency. Making the economic case is one of the Polman/Bhattacharya eight principles and the first example they quote in their Stanford Review article is an employee-led initiative at a Unilever tea plant in the UK, which is defined both in resource-saving and cost-saving terms. Indeed, companies tend often to highlight instances of staff engagement where employees have contributed resource efficiency ideas leading to both environmental and financial savings.

Prof. Bhattacharya says companies should not “shy away from the fact that this is not just about values and purpose”. While a company’s ethos is “extremely important” so is economic sustainability. “If you think about the triple bottom line which underlies all of this, it is people, planet, profit, so if we can’t show that a company can make money by caring for people and the planet then ultimately we have no case.”

Indeed, encouraging employees to help maximise efficiencies is hardly new, and in that sense, the intrinsic link between resource and cost efficiency makes this an area of sustainability in the food industry that employees can perhaps relate to readily.

As some employees will be motivated to engage in sustainability programmes on cost-saving and efficiency-related grounds while others may be more inspired by values, industry leaders need to “pull multiple wires”, Prof. Bhattacharya says. “In some cases, the appeal to values and humanity might well be more effective than the appeal to efficiency. It’s important not to undermine one or the other. You have this arsenal and the ability to use both of these to maximise impact on your employees.”

However, Geraldine Gilbert, principal sustainability advisor in the food team at UK-based sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future, says food companies should seek to engage employees on a wide range of sustainability issues, including climate change and sustainable nutrition. “Resource efficiency is only one small aspect to an organisation’s wider sustainability approach,” Gilbert says. “They [food companies] need to move beyond simply focusing on resource efficiency, to engage their employees on climate change and environmental issues, as well as on health and nutrition.”

The work canteen is “a great place” for a food company to demonstrate its commitment to sustainable food, bringing its values and ethos around healthy and sustainable nutrition to life for its employees, Gilbert says, “by improving the menu to be healthier and more sustainable, and by communicating effectively on the why and how behind these changes”. Another way to foster “broader values-led engagement” is to align the company’s philanthropy and community activities with key sustainability challenges, Gilbert adds.

Engaging on food waste

While food waste could be approached either on ethical or efficiency grounds, Prof. Bhattacharya sees this as an issue that lends itself to a values-led appeal. “Of course reducing food waste makes the company more efficient and saves them money but when it comes to something like food waste, if that’s announced as a cost-cutting exercise it hardly enthuses people because they’ve heard about cost-cutting all their lives.” Food companies can, instead, “turn it around and say ‘Isn’t it our responsibility to make sure we don’t waste food in a world where a billion people are going hungry?'”

Food waste has become a key priority for food companies and is an issue that can resonate strongly with employees.

Meghan Stasz, senior director, sustainability, at the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), which represents US food producers, stresses the important role employee engagement plays in the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), an initiative the GMA coordinates jointly with grocery retail trade body the Food Marketing Institute and the National Restaurant Association

“The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) has two Best Practices Guides that highlight company case studies on engaging employees in food waste reduction and with food donation programmes,” says Stasz.

As an example, Stasz cites how staff at ConAgra Foods’ Marie Callender’s potpie facility found a way to position the pie dough on the shell to reduce the amount of excess dough that needed to be trimmed off. This employee-led change saved the company over 300 tons of pie dough in a single year, a concrete example as to how food sustainability and employee engagement affects the bottom line.

The GMA’s role in spreading best practice extends beyond food waste to all areas of sustainability, Stasz explains. “GMA works to share best practices in sustainability, including employee engagement, throughout the membership. At the annual GMA-FMI Sustainability Summit, the sessions on how to engage employees in sustainability programmes are always among the best attended of the conference.”

A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers operating in the UK, says it has sought “to make it easy for businesses to effectively communicate their environmental priorities to employees”. As part of its Every Last Drop water initiative, the FDF created a presentation that can be delivered to employees across the business to raise awareness of the importance of water efficiency both in the home and at work.

Co-creation and harmonising values

While in many cases trade bodies will facilitate SMEs in adopting more sustainable business practices, on employee engagement smaller companies may not need that much help, Prof. Bhattacharya suggests. “It’s perhaps easier to do for an SME than for a really large corporation with hundreds of thousands of employees, complicated supply chains and so on,” he says. The co- creation process can be initiated through a “town-hall meeting” or an ideas contest, which need “very, very little resource,” he continues, but will “open up the sluice gate of ideas”.

At Forum for the Future, Gilbert adds: “We certainly think it’s important for all organisations within the food sector, big and small, to engage employees on sustainability. There is no one-size-fits-all programme or approach, as each business is different, regardless of size. What is key is to embed sustainability at the heart of an organisational strategy, instead of being on the fringe in an enclosed team.”

Arguably, the smaller the company the more chance for sustainability to be an ever-present concern, felt throughout the workforce, and that is the ideal any company, large or small, whether in the food industry or not, aspires to. Employees are the people who put ideas and ethos into practice but they are also what gives a company heart and soul. In an era where distrust of corporations is worryingly high, anything which might reconcile corporate and personal values is a worthwhile endeavour.

Staff engagement in sustainability is about far more than bringing employees “on-message” regarding ethical issues. It helps the company embed its ethos, but ideally, the two-way process should mean the company comes to reflect the values of its people, and by extension the public at large. It would not be fanciful therefore to characterise this as an organic process that can support the creation of a truly sustainable and socially acceptable business model.