When my fellow team members and I went on a fieldtrip to study one of our client’s stores I was both impressed and depressed. The range of reusable bags with clever solutions for different occasions and the recycling program for plastic bags awed me; the cashier’s sigh when I requested to use a reusable bag did not. Worse still was what happened when we handed over a plastic bag for recycling at the service desk: They threw it away. In what was clearly a trash can. Although we clearly stated that we wanted it to be recycled. Ouch. The experiences from the fieldtrip have followed me throughout the project and posed an important question: What is the use of our recommendations on CSR if those who could really make the change sigh and take the easy way out? I’m not saying that employees in general are unmotivated to engage in CSR practices, but it sure is common. Often CSR projects sound good when management talk about them, but never reach employees in a way that makes them embrace it.

So, what were we to do? The key to overcoming the problem is seeing the opportunity that lies in incentivizing employees and make them understand why making the effort off packing a reusable bag makes sense and why a customer who asks for a bag to be recycled wants to see it go in the recycling bin, not to landfill. This applies not only to recommendations regarding employee behavior in general, but to everything a CSR consultant might come up with: If it is not feasible and understandable for those who are to carry out a policy it will never serve its purpose.

Recently I was discussing a similar topic with the sales manager of a worldwide fashion retailer in their New York office. He told me about the difference between Germany, where he had worked before, and the US. “Most European countries have come a much longer way when it comes to environmental consciousness. The society around our company provides the explanation and motivation that employees need to carry out our CSR policies. In America, all of that has to come from within the organization and that poses a great challenge.”

Their solution? Having employees from stores all over the world travel abroad to teach and learn about how work and life was carried out in other places. This might not be the right way for our client, but the essence of the example is important: Learning possibilities come in different forms, and it is by finding the right way to help employees realize why CSR is important that real change can begin. As my friend the sales manager told it: “A woman from our Fifth Avenue store just got back from a three-month exchange in Stockholm. She brought a bunch of awesome tote bags and inspired the whole store crew into abandoning plastic bags for personal use.”

—Jonas Heller

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