That climate change and pollution are two of the biggest problems afflicting the planet are indisputable facts. Also undeniable is the critical role of governments, corporations, civil society and institutions in combating their worst effects. If there has to be some hope for this little blue planet we call home, they have to come together to minimise contributing factors and implement solutions urgently.

While at an individual level our small actions to save and protect the environment may seem insignificant (and there’s much truth to the assertion that it is primarily the job of governments and big business to clean up the mess that they created), cumulatively they can—and do—make a difference. This is where the concept of individual social responsibility (ISR) comes into play.

What is ISR?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is the more popular term but ISR, perhaps not the exact term but in letter and spirit, is slowly making its way through the public consciousness. These are the everyday ethical choices that make up a green lifestyle – it goes without saying that these are good for the planet as also for one’s health and conscience. Acts like saying no to single-use plastics, conserving water and electricity, avoiding private vehicles, planting trees and saplings, going vegan, etc., at an individual level can have massive impact once they reach the critical mass in terms of number of people. And in a country with India’s population, a small percentage translates into huge absolutes.

Making ISR work for corporations

Current evidence suggests that most corporates haven’t yet sought to harness the power of ISR of their employees. But CSR can make sense only if all employees are aware of their company’s social vision and mission and do their bit to contribute towards the same. With sustainability rapidly becoming a critical part of the operations of every socially conscious company (whether for the right reason or not), it would be a travesty if their employees aren’t encouraged and incentivised to adopt ecofriendly, sustainable measures. And then there’s the simple fact that all those ambitious sustainability targets cannot be achieved without the involvement of employees. Simple acts like recycling, using less paper, switching off the computers, using public transport/ car-pooling to work, etc., all add up to lower energy usage and a greener workplace. Beyond simple but effective measures, deeper levels of commitment from employees can also lead to efficient processes that minimise waste, innovative ideas and solutions, and meaningful participation in volunteering activities.

The first step for a company is to understand employees’ level of interest, thoughts, and key concerns related to sustainability. Based on this, the overall strategy can be devised that should ideally use a mix of different approaches to make employees feel like actual stakeholders in the quest for a green company. Policies like work from home, implementing employee-led innovations, making sustainability a key part of the company’s stated goals and job descriptions are some of the suggested steps. Some companies like SAP have a policy of allowing green team leaders to dedicate 10 per cent of their time to sustainability practices. Communication is critical, of course, and the right messaging has to be relayed from the top management and team leaders, and genuine, hands-on commitment displayed towards sustainability targets. This is a prerequisite if employees are to take their ISR seriously.

The right training and leadership can educate employees about the importance of environment management and green practices, make them aware of the potential value of their contribution, give them the guidance, skills and tools to translate that awareness into action, and provide opportunities for them to devise solutions. For instance, techniques like eco-design and product life-cycle assessment can be taught – this will also signal the commitment of the organisation towards sustainability. Tools like WSP Environment & Energy’s Pact that enable users to set their personal carbon allowances and monitor their carbon and energy usage at home and on their way to work, help companies facilitate green lifestyles for their employees.

Many organisations are using the tried-and-tested method of rewards and recognition to motivate and incentivise employees to embrace and implement green practices and initiatives. Examples include offering incentives for specific actions like subsidies for hybrid cars and solar installations, providing company transport, policies such as work from home, and a points programme that employees can earn for certain green activities like recycling. Intel took the step of linking environmental performance to compensation way back in 2008. In four years the company’s GHG emissions were reduced by 35 per cent; energy usage went down even as its operations showed no sign of slowing. Intel even credited such incentives as the reason for the increased efficiency of one of their core offerings, the Intel server.

Regular feedback should be taken from employees to gauge what’s working and what can do with some tweaking. This ensures that the methods currently being deployed are achieving the desired results and are relevant to employees’ interests and concerns.

Green HR and why sustainable companies do better

When it comes to ISR, green human resources becomes critical to get buy-in from employees. It refers to ‘using every employee touch point/interface to promote sustainable practices and increase employee awareness and commitments on the issues of sustainability.’ The idea is to motivate and help employees to adopt green behaviour at the workplace which can then, hopefully, be translated into a complete lifestyle, both at home and in office. When employees internalise these sustainability values into their personal lives, such as choosing to carpool to work, volunteer in the community, make ethical consumption choices, etc., that is proof that ISR is actually working.

A 2014 report by Ceres, a non-profit sustainability advocacy, found that the number of companies including sustainability performance into their executive compensation packages was increasing steadily. Some companies are even linking compensation to voluntary sustainability targets such as improved diversity, reduced water risks, and lower GHG emissions. Other less radical measures like sustainability competitions have become quite common in best-in-class companies such as Toyota. One of the common and easiest ways to encourage employee participation is to have a programme wherein employees can put forth their suggestions on green actions and steps, and also get the chance to implement the same with the right rewards and recognition given by management for their efforts.

Plenty of studies have already shown that employees at sustainable organisations report higher levels of satisfaction. For instance, a 2011 study by Charlton College of Business at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth found a positive relationship between perceived environmental performance and employee satisfaction, while a UCLA study showed that employees were more productive at green companies.

What if corporate India were to do better

With these facts in mind, it wouldn’t be too wild to imagine this scenario – the largest companies in the country have decided to band together and mandate their employees to take a few concrete but easy ecofriendly steps that benefit the environment.

As a thought (but completely achievable) experiment, CB decided to do some simple, rough calculations using approximate figures* for employees (5.5 million) at India’s 89 companies that are some of the biggest employers. If these companies can get their employees to adopt a few simple practices, the impact can be huge, as illustrated below:

  1. Ban plastic bags: Estimates suggest that annually 650 plastic bags are used per person in India. A decrease of just 20 per cent—not a terribly difficult task—can translate into a reduction of more than 700 million plastic bags each year.
  2. Recycle plastic: The per-capita plastic consumption in the country was around 11 kg in 2015. The recycling rate is said to be 60 per cent. Increasing this to 70 per cent will result in a net increase of more than 6 million kg of recycled plastic.
  3. Reduce fuel consumption: India currently consumes 0.47 million barrels per day (mbpd) of petrol and 1.56 mbpd of diesel, with private vehicles accounting for 34 per cent and 14.73 per cent of petrol and diesel usage, respectively. Assuming that at least 75 per cent of the employees have their own vehicles, a 20 per cent reduction in fuel consumption means that more than 5,000 barrels of petrol per day and 7,250 barrels of diesel per day can be saved.
  4. Conserve electricity and water: The annual per-capita power consumption (at least in the big cities) is about 1,075 kWh. A 10 per cent decrease by this workforce will result in saves of nearly 600 million kWh of electricity per year. Per-capita water consumption per day is approximately 220 litres and a 10 per cent reduction means 122 million litres of water saved every day.
  5. Plant trees: Calculating the economic benefits of planting trees is difficult to measure, but using the numbers from a study of Austin’s (in Texas, USA) tree cover, a simple extrapolation gives some interesting results. If all employees of these companies plant 5 saplings in one year, the number of trees will increase by 27 million, with these trees storing 1.5 million tons of carbon valued at nearly $200 million. The same trees will remove 75,000 tons of carbon per year, saving $9.5 million in economic value. Added benefits include removal of over 1,000 tons of air pollution every year, valued at $2.3 million. The overall monetary benefit of the reduced carbon emission will be $4 million. These are all, of course, based on a study for a place that has far less pollution and population than the metros in India, but even accounting for a difference of plus/minus 10 per cent, the figures are substantial.

These are practical ideas that many people have already adopted on their own. Many Indians are conscious about the effects of climate change and pollution. Companies can channel their concerns and energies into action by motivating, incentivising, and facilitating their behavioural change. Methods like a points-based system can be used to streamline the process and monitor the efficacy of the programme. For instance, points can be given for every verified green action taken by employees, with rewards given after reaching every milestone. Employees can give proofs like submitting power and water bills, fuel receipts with corresponding credit card/bank statements to HR, and so on. While plastic reduction is trickier to track, employees bringing their own non-plastic cups and utensils to office and using the recycling bins at workplace can be some ways to ensure that they are walking the talk.

ISR as a concept and practice offers tremendous potential for organisations that are truly committed to making sustainability a part of their culture and ethos. A lot of people are already aware and concerned about the effects of global warming, while pollution is a ubiquitous problem that impacts everyone, including the moneyed class. Companies need to take notice of the power of their human resources if they wish to be truly sustainable. It may well be the crucial factor that can change the organisation’s environmental impact from negative to positive. With some sincere effort from the management and plans and processes that take employees’ feedback and interests into consideration, ISR can become as important and impactful as CSR.

ISR at Mahindra and Ketto

CauseBecause reached out to several companies to get their views on ISR within their organisations. A couple of them had something to say in response.

At Mahindra, ESOPs (employee social options) are a platform that offers a set of social work volunteering options to employees across the organisation. These options are created and implemented exclusively by employees in the areas of education, health and environment. Mahindra Hariyali has seen the highest engagement from employees and to date 15 million trees have been planted over the course of 11 years. Blood-donation drives see participation from nearly 12,000 employees.

The group encourages its employees to make sustainability an integral part of their personal lives through the philosophy of ‘making sustainability personal’. This is done through awareness building and encouraging behavioural change in energy, water and waste usage. For energy, the group ran a World Environment Day campaign in 2017 that encouraged adoption of LED lights and energy-efficient fans at subsidised rates. Apparently, more than 22,000 employees bought either of the two products. Workshops to educate employees on water conservation have been organised and last year, as part of the World Environment Day programmes, the company ran a six-week campaign on the ‘beat plastic pollution’ theme for employees to give up single-use plastic. Over 1,500 kg of plastic was collected across the company’s Maharashtra offices and local communities. This will be recycled by authorised vendors through the BMC.

Ketto has banned single-use plastics in its office premises and conserves water and electricity by using natural lights during the day and natural ventilation rather than AC. It has also asked its employees to adopt a plant each and look after it.

Both Mahindra and Ketto don’t have any mandatory clause or requirements for employees when it comes to sustainability practices.

*Note: All base data taken from online sources. Final numbers are approximate and merely provide an overview of what things can be like.

Organisations left out: Indian armed forces, Indian railways