Respecting the Planet, Workers and All
When Sustainability Ignores the Human Element
Recently I read in the Financial Times about the dismay and discontent of restaurant workers who feel burned by management practices that address environmental concerns without taking into account the one environment their employers do have control over: the workplace.
I was surprised that the restaurants profiled were not in New York, the Bay Area or London but in a progressive Nordic city known for its equitable practices and quality of life: Copenhagen.
The fierce focus in Denmark on sustainability extends famously to food, which in high-end establishments is often foraged in woods and gathered at the shore. Restaurant owners have created global brands based upon locally harvested, low-emission meals and customers rave about the results. Yet as the article made clear, the focus on sustainability at every point in the supply chain does not extend to the workers who actually cook and serve these environmentally conscious meals.
This reminded me of an experience I had a few years back at a leadership conference in the Pacific Northwest. The lead presenter was the Chief Sustainability Officer for one of the sponsoring companies, a behemoth in the tech industry. He spent quite a bit of time talking up the company’s green supply chain and their efforts to hold suppliers and partners accountable for their sustainability practices. It was an impressive, and at the time innovative, talk
However, I’d done a fair amount of work in the company and knew first hand what their employees experienced. So during the Q&A period, I asked the presenter to talk a bit about how the company extended its concerns to employees. Did management think in terms of work and jobs being sustainable?
I didn’t make the public point, but my impression had been that their work culture was not remotely sustainable. They seemed to hire super-smart people and then work them until they burned out, on the theory that they could always go out and hire a new crop of A-plus talent. To me, this was the very definition of an unsustainable human environment- turnover, churn, uncertainty, exhaustion and reluctant farewells followed by an influx of hopeful new prodigies who five or ten years later would repeat the cycle.
The Chief Sustainability Officer looked surprised and took a moment to reply. He then noted that the company’s focus did not extend to HR–– by which he seemed to mean people. Their efforts were aimed at the supply chain.
Fair enough, and good was clearly being done. But leaving employees out of the equation seemed to undercut the company’s efforts. I wondered how the CSO imagined he could build sustainability into the company’s culture by ignoring the human element. After all, culture is vested in people.
Of course, there is greater awareness of this necessity today, given the increasing recognition that unhappy workers tend to be less productive, and certainly far less engaged. Yet many companies have continued to pile unceasing demands upon their people, demands that became unsustainable during the pandemic. The result? Many employees began to feel as if their energy were being stripmined and to view themselves as an exploited resource. This played a key role in the Great Resignation and is without doubt a chief reason for our present–– and apparently ongoing–– labor shortage.
Viewing employment practices through the lens of sustainability is, I believe, a powerful and useful route through this present crisis. What’s good for the planet also needs to be good for the people who inhabit it. We are all part of the great green chain.