Sustainability in Corporate Culture As Seen by Employees and Employers

While sustainability and environmental protection is not just a matter of individual responsibility, it is typically the different communities that can deliver effective and visible results, even a workplace community. Rarely are the interests of employers and employees so closely aligned, or is it not that simple? We discuss the relationship between sustainability and corporate operations with Szabolcs Kovács, CEO of GreenSense and Gábor Lévai, CEO of Green Brands Hungary.

First of all, let's introduce your companies to give our readers a better idea! On the GreenSense website, for example, you say that you provide basic green skills to employees and that you conduct employee surveys for companies. As you say, "that's why we developed the Greenstorm program, which gives employees a playful way to learn about sustainability, the causes of environmental impacts on the planet and what they can do about it".

How are today's domestic workers doing in this respect?

Szabolcs Kovács: Mixed picture. Luckily, more people are interested in the topic. They're coming with concerns and wanting solutions, and it's almost a curiosity when one or two climate deniers show up, but between the two we see a wide range of attitudes. Of course, we welcome this as it allows for dialogue and argumentation, but it is clear that we have moved beyond this and are working to solve our problems.

Do employees volunteer for these training courses?

One very important condition is that it should not be compulsory, because from then on, like when you read a compulsory book, you turn the pages of that particular book in a completely different way. So in our case, joining the program is 100% the employee's decision.

So that’s why some climate deniers still make it into the team... Do they get into heated or intense debates?

Yes, they come out of a kind of curiosity. We certainly listen to their opinions, most of the team obviously smiles or expresses their disagreement, but we are mainly happy to have a dialogue, to talk about the issue. 

Perhaps the least workable solution for us is when people are neutral on sustainability issues, or we are met with indifference, but

if there is dialogue, I think we have a winning case.

In terms of workers, we see that women are overrepresented in the community. Whilst studies have shown that climate change and the environment are major concerns for today's youth, our observations show that this is not always reflected in the participation. This means that people of all ages, even the elderly, are actively participating and inquiring.

"The Green Brands certification and mark is awarded to brands, companies, products, services, foods and personalities that make a significant contribution to protecting nature and the environment," you say on your website, where you can also find the full award process.

I am surprised, while it is understandable and logical, that you only award the Green Brands award for two years...

Gábor Lévai: be precise, every two years the operation has to be audited again if a company wants to continue using the trademark. 

We are working with a German-Austrian trademark system, which we franchise in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Our experience is that companies that either understand the importance of this because of their international ownership background, or that start this certification process as smaller, typically domestic, emerging companies, tend to meet the otherwise relatively strict requirements.

The challenge for us is that most people don't even understand what it's for! For this reason, we are now much more involved in training professionals and getting information to decision-makers, in addition to our core business.

What should we know about your training?

In addition to running this trademark audit scheme, we offer a six-month hybrid training course for companies to train sustainability managers, and we find that it has much more tangible, faster results. We don't want to take more than 60 students per semester, and so we've launched our fourth course with 60 students. The first two courses had 30 students each. In agreement with Szabolcs, I would say that in this case, too, such training is more likely to be made available to middle management. We also note that those who attend such training at least once tend to be highly motivated and dedicated. A training program that lasts six months requires a significant time commitment.

We are optimistic that there is a chance to change the mindset of the employees.

You mentioned that companies typically pass the audit. Have there been any failures before?

Yes, there were. This is why it's crucial that the audit isn't open to anybody who wants to participate; rather, we use a professional jury that operates independently in each country, and it's only thanks to their advice and the recommendations of our partners that we can even begin the process. Often, the businesses that receive these experts' highest recommendations are those who already appear to be doing more than average for the environment.

"Our first service is GreenStorm, a community building, business development and education challenge program. Every 30 days, your employees will be immersed in a topic related to everyday life, at an individual or team level."Source: GreenSense

Does GreenSense follow up with employees after the programs, ask for feedback?

Szabolcs Kovács: Our programme consists of a 90-day training, divided into three one-month sessions, and then we measure the impact three months after the training in the form of a questionnaire.

For instance, we ask what immediately comes to mind when you think about GreenStorm, and then we follow up by inquiring what, if any, of the practices we engaged in during our time together have stuck with you. Finally, we're interested in learning whether you've adopted any green behaviors since you began to see the world through a greener lens that we didn't cover. This is encouraging to us since we think that ninety days is a good amount of time to take a fresh look at things.

And because we don't want to convert meat lovers to vegetarianism from Sunday to Monday, but want to make the change in small steps, there is a better chance of these changes sticking, because it is easier to adapt. In other words, we see a positive return on training, and 

it is not perceived as a sacrifice by the employees, but rather as a positive process.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I suspect that sustainability managers trained by Green Brands may even partner with GreenSense in internal corporate operations...

Gábor Lévai: Yes, we are trying to train decision makers so that when they are actually in a decision situation, they choose the greener option and go further, understand what are the areas in a company's overall process system where they can intervene. It's a very tangible, mindset-shaping tool that, when put into practice, helps to embed everyday habits, so the two are totally complementary. Perhaps not excluding the fact that there are also leaders at GreenSense whose turnaround is key to the sustainability process. But we are primarily looking to help companies make these decisions.

At the same time, it is also very much a goal, and it is generally seen to be so, that if a growing proportion of employees are thinking green and sustainable, then the company is more likely to move in that direction. Because

the employee is also a stakeholder in a company.

Szabolcs Kovács: Yes, it works both ways, if the manager believes in it, he is more likely to order the service because he thinks it is important, because his colleagues want it too, they see the world in a greener way.

Having said that, I think

a responsible, intelligent leader today cannot ignore a grassroots initiative,

that advocates tree planting, recruits colleagues to pick up trash, or wants to improve the collection of selective waste. And if a leader says, "Sorry, I don't have time for this, leave this nonsense alone", I think he is missing out on a great opportunity.

Greenwashing and Employee Pressure

Szabolcs, you offered a specific example at the People Platform workshop of how your "Less Meat!" program was won by a major meat-eater coworker who, although not giving up meat totally, is now practically more conscious of this lifestyle shift.

What is your experience, can commitments like this be incorporated into everyday life? For example, are these campaigns repeated, even at the community workplace level?

We always promote gradualism, whatever the challenge. You mentioned eating meat as an example, but we don't aim for staff to be vegan! I eat meat myself from time to time, but I make sure that the meat is really high quality.

To continue with the example, we saw that a coworker who previously could not fathom going a day without eating meat for every meal lowered his meat intake by 14% simply by committing to being meat-free for at least one day a week, which is a great achievement.

Going back to the specific company whose employee was at the event, they still have meat-free days to this day.

I think these are the habits that, as well as being good for the environment, have a community-building effect within the company.

For us, this is just as crucial, so that communities and teams that were shaken up by COVID can rebuild their bonds, whether through a lighthearted approach like ours or by the shared experiences they'll have had as a result of participating in our program.

We recently spoke to Péter Oszkó about the relationship between ESG and firm value. Are you guys seeing a shift in this, could it really become more and more important for domestic businesses?

Gábor Lévai: ESG was originally developed as a risk management tool for investors and lenders, looking at the risks that social and environmental processes may pose to a company's operations. In that sense, if you look at the system from the top down, it's sort of a top-down constraint from large companies to smaller ones, and the same is true for supplier systems. 

In Germany, by the way, much more stringent requirements have been formulated for large companies and their suppliers, while around 20% of Hungarian industry is in some way linked to German industry, so this process will also come to us. I do not see any SME in Hungary today starting to engage in ESG unless the manager has some kind of personal commitment in this direction.

The reason I ask is that if there is pressure from above, there may also be employee pressure from below for change...

Kovács Szabolcs: There are regulatory pressures, as Gábor talked about, but staff can play an important role in ensuring that management not only does the bare minimum, but can play a greater role in protecting our micro and wider environment.

We are a bit more pragmatic about this, because even if it is important for the management of a company to commission a GreenStorm program from only a PR point of view, to post it on social media and thus appear a bit greener, we see it as an opportunity to reach 40 or 100 or even 500 people and setting an example of sustainability ideas and actions. Whatever the motivation is for a company management to commission a service like this, I regard it as a net positive for the planet, because more and more people are seeing the right direction.

So then, from the workers' point of view, there is no greenwashing, just opportunities that can still break through walls…

Szabolcs Kovács: Yeah, I think so.

Gábor Lévai: I disagree with this because I think there may well be a process of greenwashing towards employees. I have seen several corporate communication efforts that spend more on the communication itself than the actual activity.

Szabolcs Kovács: In our training we have an anonymous employee survey, in which we ask, among other things, whether there is a difference between the employer's communication to the outside world and the actual internal processes. We have repeatedly encountered that there is a gap between what the colleague sees internally and what the company communicates externally. From this material we produce an executive summary which is given to the management of the company and they are free to use it. We trust that they see it as an opportunity for improvement, not a bad feeling.

My strong opinion is that this is an honest and valuable insight from people who know the company best, and it can be a motivation to make a change.

"The best weapon against greenwashing is a credible audit, certification and the presence of a qualified sustainability professional within the company or on behalf of the company" - Gábor Lévai, Managing Director of GREEN BRANDS Hungary, during the Certified Sustainability Manager training (Photo: Green Brands, Facebook)

Value choice, climate anxiety, employer branding

What do you think about how an in-house sustainability project can be organically linked to corporate culture or even employer branding?

What is your experience?

Szabolcs Kovács: I'll give you an example from my previous job: I was still working at Mastercard, and at the very beginning of Covid, our director indicated that this would not last a few weeks, but could go on for many months. He asked us to start exploring areas that we were really interested in, which led to the creation of an education team, a data team, a culture team and a green team, which I was leading at the time. These grassroots partnerships have been running ever since, with very enthusiastic colleagues.

I later left because I wanted to do more in this area, not as a hobby but full time. So I think that if you have a subject that people are really interested in or enthusiastic about to even invest their free time, you can release enormous energy.

So it is important to support these initiatives with money and time, with words of encouragement. I see green communities in more and more companies, which can build the company brand, but more importantly, they can strengthen cohesion, build communities and therefore help to retain staff.

It's not necessarily about the brand, but the fact that it is a fun place to work at due to their interesting programs; that alone makes it worthwhile in my opinion.

Gábor Lévai: I think that value choice is becoming more important when we are looking for a job, and as the future becomes more and more threatening, it becomes more and more important for ourselves and our children to preserve as much as possible of our natural environment as it is. And in this context, I see it more as a question of credibility, of how a company in its own industry, alongside its own core business, deals with sustainability, the environmental and social side, because the two are interlinked. It is also important within that what freedom and what resources employees have to do what they want to do to achieve those goals.

I admit that in the former, we really need a change of model, so we need to be able to intervene at business model level, whether it is, say, in a cement industry or in aviation, in agriculture, which is a very serious investment. However, it is also a fundamental question of whether all this is aligned with what the employees perceive and what they have the opportunity to change in small steps, because that will be the company's value proposition and can be linked to it or rejected. In this sense, I think that the branding issue is absolutely important, but not in the sense of dealing with only one side of the issue, it needs to be done with both sides.

You said that resources and opportunities can be given to managers and employees to run activities and projects, to keep them within a framework. However, it seems to me that this can be achieved mainly at the level of large companies. I have in front of me an SME manager and owner who is in the midst of an economic crisis and who says, of course, I agree with these objectives, but I have to think about human resources and other costs. What message can we send them to start down this road?

Szabolcs Kovács: Referring to the anxious CEO, several studies have now shown that climate change anxiety is a public health problem, perhaps third on the list after cardiovascular disease and stroke. And let's underline, someone who is "climate anxious" cannot use the capacity of his workforce because his mind is racing and he can easily lose productivity.

So if you haven't had answers or opportunities for action within the company before, maybe a program like this will help you. Sitting in my armchair and moping to myself that the end of the world is coming is probably the worst thing that can happen, because we don't act. Taking action triggers or helps to overcome anxiety about the issue, and when we do take action we usually do good, plant a tree, build a community, green our home, pick up trash on the street, plant plants…

…or don’t use our cars as much.

There are a thousand things we can do, but without a doubt the worst is just to sit at home and feel anxious.

Gábor Lévai: We are now in contact with around 200 students in this six-month course, 40 percent of whom come from large companies, 30 percent from small and medium-sized enterprises and 30 percent from private individuals, career changers. For example, there are also people who want to go in this direction, so from that point of view it is of moderate interest whether they work for a large company or a small company. 

On the other hand, if we talk about change, there are two things to look at. One is that you have to achieve change at the individual, organizational and institutional level, so you have to work at all three levels.

Change starts by getting some information, which is incorporated into knowledge, which then becomes a skill, and then turns into a change in behavior.

What we both do is knowledge and information transfer, which can help at the level of behavior change and have an impact at the level of individuals and organizations. I think it's essential that we engage with individuals in a corporate environment and in some way feed back to the company. And I don't think it's dependent on the size of the organization, so an SME of 30 people might as well decide to change its model and transform its operations based on that.

Listen up then: no worrying, only taking action!

Szabolcs Kovács: Wellbeing is becoming more and more popular in Hungary, and to give just a few banal examples: massage chairs, foosball tables, or organized community outings. These build teams, educate for a good cause and help to introduce good habits.

Gábor Lévai: If you look at it that way, we are both working on reducing anxiety, just by different means, but action and change are still the most important!

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