The term “retail sustainability” could seem like an oxy-moron. How can anything that is focused on selling more stuff to more people every year be sustainable? Yet, the nation’s largest retailers are putting a lot of time and money into reducing their negative environmental impacts and becoming better corporate citizens.
Every year, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) gathers sustainability professionals from the nation’s largest retailers (think Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Costco) for almost a full week of discussion at the Retail Sustainability Conference. I attended on behalf of ChargePoint this year to learn more about how electric vehicle (EV) charging can help retailers achieve their sustainability goals.
Content-wise, two things struck me. First, the high ROI retailers can obtain by investing in energy efficiency projects like switching out halogen lights for LEDs, sub-metering and using energy management systems. Companies boasted 80-90% ROI on these types of energy-saving projects with payback periods just over a year. Who could say no to that?
Second, almost every speaker mentioned the importance of employee and customer engagement. Most sustainability teams are small while a retailer’s environmental footprint is big. Sustainability managers can’t do it all themselves. They have to integrate themselves into the larger organization and work cross-functionally to achieve results finding champions in finance, human resources, and operations to carry forward the projects they initiate. They have to celebrate their people’s small successes to keep motivation high.
One of my favorite presentations of the week was by Christy Consler, CEO of Sustainable Leadership Advisors. It was called Creating Raving Fans: How to Build a Workplace People Can’t Wait to Join and Employees Don’t Want to Leave.” She gave three steps:
The first one is my favorite. Sustainability is really about people anyway. It’s about protecting the conditions on earth that make life enjoyable for humans.
More than other generations, millennials are aware that it is our own future quality of life, and the quality of life of our children that is at stake. (Yes, admittedly a millennial writing here). So, speaking from my own experience, I agree with Christy that this affects our career and shopping choices. We want to work and shop at companies that we feel have a shared sense of purpose.
Thinking of sustainability as core to people strategy means using it to attract top talent, retain that talent so it can be developed for leadership roles, and using that leadership for broader customer and employee engagement on sustainability and social issues. This kind of engagement feels good for employees, and reinforces their sense of purpose.
After the session I asked Christy if she thought EV charging has a role to play in linking a company’s sustainability and people strategy. She said, “I think EV charging is an important symbol of a company’s commitment to the environment for customers and employees. It is a clear way for companies to engage people in action that supports sustainability.”
In the extremely competitive talent marketplace of Silicon Valley, tech companies are finding that employees are demanding EV charging and that providing it as an amenity helps attract talent. EV drivers form informal communities around charging and build relationships across departments and levels that they would not have built otherwise. More than just the cost benefit of money saved on fuel and the environmental benefit of GHG emissions avoided, these kinds of relationships can make employees more effective, more engaged and more satisfied at work.
EV charging also gets people thinking and talking about sustainability. For EV drivers, the act of plugging in is a daily handshake with their commitment to sustainability. Charging stations are often very visible at the front of parking lots so even people who don’t drive an EV themselves may notice it and start a conversation with a fellow shopper or co-worker. When people see EV charging on their way into a building it can trigger thinking about the environment throughout the shopping experience or the workday. Whether or not someone plugs in themself, EV charging stations can serve as a reminder of environmental and social goals. Shoppers may be primed to make more sustainable purchasing decisions and employees may be more likely to keep sustainability in mind in work-related decisions.
The RILA Sustainability Conference balanced inspiration, useful content and community building across companies. It was great to meet the people working behind the scenes to make a difference at stores I love to shop at. Sustainability managers at every retailer should be taking advantage of the cost-cutting investments in energy efficiency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from facilities. At the same time, they could be increasing the top-line by investing in EV charging to attract and engage valuable customers and employees.