How sustainability has become an advantage in the talent war, but candidates aren’t fooled by ‘greenwashing,’ say experts

The meeting in early November of officials from approximately 120 countries at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), in a desperate bid to improve the planet’s health, highlights the critical importance of environmental issues.

But it’s not just world leaders who need to boost their sustainability credentials: so do businesses, or they risk defeat in the raging war for talent.

Indeed, new research from global recruitment firm Robert Walters indicates 34% of U.K. office workers would refuse a job offer if a company’s environmental, sustainability or climate control values do not align with their own. In the U.S., the figure is even higher: 41%. France and Chile (both on 53%) top the list, closely followed by Switzerland (52%).

It’s a “new era of recruiting,” according to Chris Poole, managing director of Robert Walters U.K. “While all the normal questions still get asked around pay, benefits, training and career paths, increasingly we get asked: ‘What does X company stand for?’” he said.  

Before accepting a job offer, people now carefully consider their prospective employer’s social media output, check the “about us” pages on its website and Google the latest news articles about the company to see if its actions match its words.

“Employers failing to improve on their sustainability credentials should expect to see a knock-on impact to their hiring,” said Poole. “With there being so many avenues to being environmentally conscious as an employer, there simply isn’t much room to ignore the matter.” Moreover, he added: “As a workforce strategy, ESG [environmental, social and governance] has become a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent.”

However, while a commitment to improving sustainability is attractive to employees, the opposite is true if businesses offer token gestures. Younger workers are especially attuned to this, according to Gordon Wilson, CEO of Advanced, a U.K.-based software company. His business’ recent trends report found 56% of 18 to 24-year olds “are accusing their employer of ‘greenwashing’, meaning that they overstate and gloss over their sustainable business efforts for business gain,” he said. 

“We cannot afford to ignore the voice of this generation, which has much greater personal awareness of their values and the impact they want to have on the world than previous generations. These are the voices of future leaders, and they’re joining the business world with an inherent distrust.”

Young people want to align themselves with companies that are doing the right thing for the planet and society, and are working towards positive change. “They want more than just a job,” added Wilson.

This insight chimes with the experience of Andrew Hunter, co-founder and economist at job-search engine Adzuna. “Having a strong ESG strategy can be a big talent draw for a brand, though people are becoming increasingly aware of greenwashing and are judging employers based on their actions, rather than their opinions,” he said. 

“It’s part of a wider trend where company culture and beliefs are becoming more important to job seekers, financial reimbursements alone are taking a bit more of a back seat, and work-life balance and well-being are instead coming to the fore.”

Hunter points out the social element of ESG is also about sustainability.

He notes that many of the businesses leading the way in this area are B Corp certified, including Homeboy Recycling in California, which provides on-the-job training and employment opportunities for ex-offenders. “Rubicon Bakers is another B Corp focusing on creating opportunities for marginalized sectors of the workforce,” he said. “In the U.K., The Body Shop has a focus on providing employment for people experiencing homelessness or with lower levels of education. Making sure these jobseeker segments don’t slip through the cracks is an important aspect of ESG efforts that we forsee growing.”

Rita Trehan, founder of DARE Worldwide, a global transformation consultancy, believes that a well-known Swedish teenager, who has been in Glasgow at COP26, is spearheading the drive for younger workers demanding greater sustainability. “Greta Thunberg’s ‘Blah, blah blah’ message has resonated with people,” she said. “The conversation today is more scrupulous, more cynical, better at challenging businesses and governments on the gap between policy and impact.”

Trehan pointed to statistics that show a vital distinction to make for businesses looking to dial up their sustainability credentials: nearly three-quarters of employees believe all workers are responsible for upholding a sustainability policy. It needs to be baked into the company culture, she added.

And yet, businesses that want to do so will need to tread carefully if they’re to avoid being accused of greenwashing, according to James Hand, a data scientist and co-founder of Giki—which stands for Get Informed Know your Impact—a social enterprise in London that helps people live sustainably. “There aren’t any ‘quick wins’ that don’t end up looking like greenwashing,” he said.

Instead, companies need to include all stakeholders and map the carbon impact of their operations to inform their sustainability policy, said Hand. “When they have measured their operational footprint, having a net-zero plan and building a staff engagement program can really help bolster their credentials and, more importantly, actually have an impact. Some 70% of emissions come from individuals, but organizations can bring those individuals together to make sure we halve emissions this decade,” he added.

Taylor Francis, co-founder of Watershed, a climate-action startup based in San Francisco, agreed and stressed that companies who improve their sustainability credentials have higher employee retention — 40% higher according to a 2020 Deloitte report.

“Employees are putting pressure on their current employers to introduce more accurate methods for carbon accounting, and more actionable and aggressive plans to reach true net zero,” he added.

Clearly, what’s been discussed at COP26 is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

This article was originally published by Digiday in November 2021

U.K.’s gas panic-buying nightmare pushes more employers to adopt hybrid working and commuting setups

The fuel crisis in the U.K., which has sparked hours-long lines at gas stations, has put a damper on some people’s return to the office. But it’s also persuaded hybrid-working skeptics to embrace more flexible models so as to avoid any future disruption.

If the amber light was flashing for hybrid working, for many it’s now showing red for a return to the office. And for those whose professions are not conducive to home working, or for whom public transport is not a viable commuting option, the increased weight of gas problems is tipping the balance in favor of electric vehicles.

Spice Kitchen — a Liverpool-based artisanal spice and tea company — has firmed up its operational plans in response to employee commuting struggles, said Ann Lowe, Spice Kitchen’s head of community. “While the impact [of the fuel crisis] on business has been minimal, it has shifted our thinking in terms of sustainability and resilience,” she said.

While Spice Kitchen’s headquarter office is close to public transport links and staff have been granted public transport expenses if their petrol tanks were empty in the last fortnight, the situation has inspired other long-term changes. “We’ve encouraged car sharing more as a policy, and we are offering flexible hours to accommodate this so that staff can get to and from work together,” added Lowe. “Finally, now we have set up everyone to work from home if needed, so in a way, the fuel shortage has pushed us closer to a hybrid working culture.”

Nick McQuire, chief of enterprise research at specialist technology market intelligence and advisory firm CCS Insight, is not surprised the crisis has prompted more adoption of hybrid-working models. “The fuel crisis has reinforced the need for companies to have resiliency baked into their workplace practices and processes and accelerated the shift to hybrid working,” he said. “But there is not a universal approach, because some leaders still want to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic,” he added.

On October 5, Slack’s quarterly global pulse survey showed that of those currently working remotely, executives are almost three-times more likely to want to head back to the office full-time compared with non-exec workers. The research indicates that now is a critical moment, with 86% of organizations close to finalizing their post-pandemic workforce plans in countries including the U.K., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. — which is also experiencing gas price hikes.

Move to electric?

Not everyone has the luxury of working from home, though, or even having an office with decent public transport links. The fuel crisis has been especially frustrating for Mark Clayton, a southeast London-based chief lighting technician for TV shows and movies including Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. 

“We often have to reach rural locations at unsociable times, and recently I’ve been working at a studio that is impractical to get to via public transport,” he said, adding that he hasn’t been able to fill his diesel-powered van for 11 days and been forced to foot the bill for hotel accommodation close to the studio for fear of running dry.

“My crew has had to carpool, raising concerns about COVID-19 — but it’s that, or just don’t come to work. As freelancers, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Our whole production runs on fuel: minibusses to get the crew to and from the car park, equipment trucks, action cars, food deliveries and generators. All have been affected. One crew member waited four hours on a forecourt for a tanker to arrive so that he could guarantee getting filled up.”

Meanwhile, others still — particularly those who transport people or things around — wonder if it’s the end of the road for their current careers. “I’ve been a black-cab driver for over 30 years, and now has been the hardest I’ve known the job – and I drove when the Gulf War limited fuel,” said southeast-London taxi driver Lee Poole. “People have been panic buying fuel, and it’s been a nightmare for me professionally. I’ve had to visit up to eight garages to find one that has diesel and then had to queue for an hour or more.”

The ongoing fuel issues have ignited thoughts of a vehicle upgrade for Clayton. “There are a few — rightly — smug colleagues with electric cars, and this crisis has made me think that an electric van is a way forward,” he said. “Once charging stations are more plentiful, and electric van driving ranges have increased slightly, I will be investing in a fully electric or hybrid vehicle.”

Lisa Conibear, U.K. and European director of Zoomo, which provides high-quality LEVs (light electric vehicles) in London and Liverpool and in the U.S. and Australia, noted that Google search data highlighted online searches for “electric cars” rocketed 1,600% in September, prompted by the fuel crisis.  

So how will it change people’s opinions about the daily commute? The average petrol car on the road in the U.K. produces the equivalent of 180g of CO2 per kilometer, while a diesel car produces 173g of CO2 every kilometer, according to research cited by Conibear. And in the U.S. the average passenger vehicle on the road releases 650g of CO2 every kilometer.

“The attitude to commuting is a tricky sentiment to nail down definitively, but what the research and data tell us is that there is a significant opportunity to cut down emissions if we better recognize our commuting habits and fully consider the alternatives available to us,” she added.

This article was originally published on Digiday (which uses American English) in October 2021

Box cleverer: how to cut waste in ecommerce packaging

The pandemic-driven boom in online shopping has highlighted the challenge facing etailers and brands in finding packaging solutions that are sustainable and accessible, yet also cost-effective and secure

A meme on social media showing a tearful woman with a caption that reads “I get more Amazon boxes in a week than I can fit in my recycle bin” sums up the problem with packaging in 2021. 

The growth of ecommerce since the start of the Covid crisis – online sales in the UK during the first quarter of this year were 54% higher than the total for Q1 2020, according to research by Adobe – has heightened concerns about packaging waste. 

On the one hand, online shoppers complain about excessive packaging. On the other, a purchase that arrives damaged, needing to be returned and replaced, will have a far bigger environmental impact. 

While consumers are becoming increasingly eco-conscious and mindful of waste in packaging, etailers must consider several other factors, including cost, security and accessibility (23% of online shoppers in the US have damaged at least one purchase during the unboxing process, according to packaging firm DS Smith).

In December 2020, the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) warned that the growth in ecommerce was the main reason why 85% of the UK consumers it polled thought that etailers were using too much packaging. Amazon was singled out as the worst offender by far, but other big companies attracting criticism included Asos and supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda.

“We know the lockdowns have changed buying behaviour and there has been a considerable increase in online purchasing, which means more home deliveries,” says the CIM’s marketing director, Gemma Butler. “Even where companies have improved their packaging, the increased volume of purchases will naturally push up the amount of packaging in circulation.”

Innovation needed: recycling is not enough

Stressing the need for innovative packaging solutions, Butler calls for an update of the popular ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ maxim. 

“Recycling cannot be seen as the answer,” she argues. “It should be considered only after reducing and reusing. Our recycling infrastructure cannot support the volume and variety of packaging in circulation, so most of the material still ends up in landfills. Organisations must rethink not only the materials they use in their packaging, but also the lifecycle of that packaging.”

A pan-European survey conducted by DS Smith in March supports her view. Nearly half (46%) of the consumers it polled said they wanted to see more cardboard or paper-based packaging, rather than plastic, while 58% wanted an overall reduction in the volume of packaging. Most notably, almost a third reported that they had stopped buying certain brands because they considered that their packaging was not sufficiently sustainable.

Organisations must rethink not only the materials they use in their packaging, but also the lifecycle of that packaging

Another finding – that 22% of UK respondents don’t always have room in their recycling bins for all the packaging they receive – is one that’s “disturbing” to DS Smith’s sales, marketing and innovation director, Marc Chiron. “Some boxes are being put to good use – people are reusing them for storage, for instance – but many aren’t finding their way back into recycling streams,” he reports.

Awareness about packaging that’s “fit for the circular economy and ecommerce age” is growing steadily, according to Chiron. “Companies can contribute by choosing solutions that eliminate waste and keep materials in use. But this goes beyond material choices, as supply chains need to be optimised to avoid the unnecessary use of transport too. That would be the win-win outcome for business and environment.”

Win-win: sustainable and branded packaging

Chiron adds that high-quality branding that explains an etailer’s approach to sustainability in packaging has become a key marketing tool. 

“Storytelling is a growing trend in the retail sector. It can elevate on-package branding to the next level,” he says. “Innovative businesses are using packaging that conveys their craftsmanship and passion. This enables a company to connect with customers in new ways, eliciting emotional responses and making it easier for them to identify with the business and its products.”

Jonathan Dixon, senior vice-president of sales at Arla Foods UK, agrees that it is crucial for “brands to get their packaging right”. He notes that ecommerce sales in the grocery sector are 70% higher than they were at the start of the pandemic – and that consumers spend only 15 minutes doing their weekly grocery shop online on average, compared with 43 minutes in a supermarket. 

“For new brands, packaging is their main marketing tool when selling online,” Dixon says. “It must therefore stand out to prevent shoppers from scrolling past.”

Companies that have created sustainable packaging solutions in recent times include Italian pasta brand Barilla. It adopted 100% paper-based containers in May 2020, taking out the plastic front windows that had made the packs less easy for consumers to recycle. Its move followed that of rival brand Napolina, which in September 2019 had switched the packaging of some lines from plastic to cardboard. Napolina estimates that this change has taken 16 tonnes of plastic out of the waste stream each year in the UK alone. The company is has started to extend plastic-free packaging to its core range in a bid to push the total up to 200 tonnes.

Wilkinson Sword recently switched to plastic-free packaging when it relaunched its Hydro shaving razor range. The change has removed 88 tonnes of PET and 35 tonnes of virgin paper from its supply chain every year, achieving a significant cost reduction in the process.

Wayne Snyder is vice-president of retail industry strategy for EMEA at Blue Yonder, a US specialist in supply management software. He believes that technology can help businesses struggling to strike a balance between packaging cost, security, accessibility and sustainability. 

“Retailers cannot look at any of these factors in isolation,” Snyder argues. “Each requires a different weight based on its characteristics as well as the business strategy. While this task may seem daunting, new AI technologies will enable an optimised method that factors in these questions to find the right balance.”

It’s clear that consumer brands looking to thrive in the ecommerce age must make sustainability a priority and think both inside and outside the box when it comes to packaging.

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Future of Packaging report, published in July 2021

Can crypto’s energy problem be solved?

Bitcoin, Ethereum and other proof-of-work cryptocurrencies might have enjoyed a bull run since the end of last year, but if they are not good for the planet, eco-conscious millennial and gen-z investors could be turned off

Even in the notoriously volatile world of cryptocurrencies, it has been an incredibly turbulent few weeks for Bitcoin, the founding crypto. In mid-June, El Salvador became the world’s first nation to approve Bitcoin as legal tender.

A month earlier, Elon Musk first backed away from accepting Bitcoin payments at Tesla, citing the environmental effects of the energy-intensive mining that goes into validating transactions. Then, a week later, he introduced the idea of the Bitcoin Mining Council to monitor and improve the industry’s sustainability.

Understandably, these positive and negative developments impacted the stock market price of Bitcoin, as well as the values of a cluster of other cryptos that typically take their lead from Satoshi Nakamoto’s pioneering digital currency. In February, following a months-long bull run, Bitcoin – whose genesis block was mined in January 2009 – hit a market capitalisation of $1 trillion for the first time. The asset’s acceleration of nought to one trillion in just 12 years was easily the quickest in history. (The “big four” – Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft – took 33 years on average to reach $1tr.)

However, while crypto investors are used to the ups and downs, could growing worries around energy consumption derail the rollercoaster? Given the popularity of cryptos among younger people, in particular – 77% of investors are under 45, according to a study published earlier this year by Gemini Exchange – and their supposed eco-conscious sensibilities, do Bitcoin and other energy-draining cryptocurrencies need to change direction, and clean up their acts?

Investors aside, environmental concerns are understood to be behind China’s recent crypto crackdown. The vast majority of crypto is mined in China, driving up energy demand and making it hard for the country to achieve its net-zero emissions by the 2060 target.

Solving the proof of work energy issue

The recent skyrocketing of Bitcoin’s value has triggered new interest, which has led to a surge in mining and energy consumption, as individuals and mining farms alike have invested in hardware to dig for digital gold.

“Bitcoin’s energy consumption has more than quadrupled since the beginning of its last peak in 2017, and it’s set to get worse because energy-inefficiency is built into its DNA,” posits Charles Hoskinson, co-founder of Ethereum – the second-largest crypto by market capitalisation – and, as chief executive of global blockchain engineering firm IOHK, the driving force behind Cardano.

The Hawaii-born entrepreneur points out Bitcoin’s carbon footprint will “become exponentially worse because the more its price rises, the more competition there is for the currency” and thus the more energy it consumes.

As a leading “green crypto”, Cardano stands to benefit from the furore around Bitcoin’s energy problem. It uses a proof-of-stake protocol that requires considerably less energy than proof-of-work chains used by Bitcoin and Ethereum. Hoskinson reckons the Cardano network uses 6 GWh annually – less than 0.01% of the 110.53 TWh needed by the Bitcoin network, as estimated by the University of Cambridge

Currently, Bitcoin would rank as the 32nd highest energy-consuming nation in the world, ahead of the Netherlands. Next is Ethereum, and the pair consumes over three-quarters of the electricity used by all cryptocurrencies. Notably, the other three on the list of the five worst offenders – Dogecoin, Bitcoin Cash, and Litecoin – all use proof-of-work protocol.

However, things are changing rapidly. Notably, Ethereum will shortly be switching to a proof-of-stake protocol that, its creators claim, will reduce electricity consumption by 99%.

And most people inside and outside the crypto space welcome both the Bitcoin Mining Council and the Crypto Climate Accord, which is a private-sector collaboration focussed on making all blockchains carbon neutral by 2030.

Ultimately, perhaps this energy issue is the shake up Bitcoin needs to pave the way for a more sustainable future for the whole digital asset class, even if the founding crypto becomes less attractive to eco-conscious investors.