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Sustainability Employees are Essential Workers — Why Are They Getting Laid Off?

This article first appeared on The Sustainable Business newsletter which you can follow on LinkedIn.

As part of my job with Rheaply, I am fortunate to work with a wide range of companies and organizations. I love being able to gain insights and spot trends across industries, but that means I occasionally see worrying trends developing as well. I bring that up because, just recently, I have seen multiple instances – and far too many posts on LinkedIn — of sustainability employees being let go.

This is part of a larger trend stemming from the current (and predicted) economic environment. As businesses try to forecast out into a potential recession, they look to reduce costs where possible. The first place companies often start is usually with non-revenue-generating positions — in other words, positions that are deemed “nice to have” instead of “need to have.”

All too often, sustainability positions are put into this group. And it will not surprise you to learn that I believe this needs to be avoided at all costs. To use some parlance that we all became very familiar with a few years ago, sustainability employees are essential workers — here’s why:

Sustainability is all-encompassing.

While sustainability positions may not directly drive revenue, they inform almost every business unit. They integrate ESG criteria across all operational functions, and disseminate that information across the full organization. How do you make your product? What real estate do you utilize? Which partners do you work with? There is a sustainability angle to all of these questions. To that end, if you lose your sustainability team member(s), each one of your departments loses value

Environmental sustainability goes hand-in-hand with economic sustainability.

There’s a harmful narrative that protecting the environment is at odds with economic growth, in truth, sustainability efforts are designed to be economically sustainable as well. It has been proven time and again that investment in sustainability leads to positive financial outcomes in the long term. (I actually touched on this a bit in the previous edition of this newsletter.)

One example particularly close to my heart is how the circular economy creates more resilient supply chains. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen supply chain issues wreak havoc on numerous industries, with these effects often spilling over to consumers as well. The circular economy, and reuse in general, reduces the strain on supply chains — and in addition to cost savings, a circular supply chain can also deliver products quicker. These are tangible business benefits from a green solution.

Consumers — and employees — are becoming more knowledgeable.

To the above point, environmental and economic benefits will only become more intertwined as consumers continue to grow more knowledgeable about the importance of sustainable business practices. As demand for sustainability grows, a company’s reputation in the space could very well be its key sales differentiator. I highly recommend perusing IBM’s “Sustainability at a Turning Point” research brief, which includes a number of interesting stats and charts.

It’s not just consumers who are prioritizing sustainability, either — employees are as well. According to the IBM study, about 70% of employees (or potential employees) find sustainability programs make employers more appealing, whether in accepting an offer or remaining at a company. There are countless other studies that show employees (particularly younger generations) care deeply about these values when looking for new jobs — removing sustainability roles can therefore negatively affect recruiting for even completely unrelated roles. And, frankly, this focus on the environment will only accelerate as we continue to see the effects of climate change.

We can’t afford to lose momentum.

To that end, even if companies or governments have climate goals that stretch out years or decades, we are already at a point of urgency. At a tactical level, letting go of sustainability employees makes those goals much harder to reach in both short and long term. It also has the bigger-picture effect of discouraging people to enter or stay in this field, as they may feel there isn’t solid job security. Ultimately, while everyone has to play a role in achieving sustainability, those who have dedicated the time and energy to becoming experts in the field are a vital resource for driving every business forward. 

Sustainability isn’t just an extra we can tack on to our businesses when economic times are good; it must be a priority at all times. Do you have other ideas for how we can ensure sustainability experts are treated as essential workers in the business world?

Garry Cooper

CEO, Founder

Dr. Garry Cooper is the Co-founder and CEO of Rheaply, a Chicago-based tech company that enables Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and universities to better visualize, quantify, and utilize their physical resources. He also serves on the boards of directors of P33 Chicago and 1871, the faculty of Northwestern University, and the investor team at LongJump Ventures, of which he is a founding partner. Previously, Garry facilitated supply chain and performance improvement for enterprise businesses at Ernst & Young. As a result of his work, Garry has received recognition on the Forbes Next 1000, Chicago Magazine’s The New Power 30, and Crain’s 40 Under 40, and as a Scholar at Google for Entrepreneurs. Garry has published in high-impact, peer-reviewed international journals and holds a U.S. patent. He holds a PhD in neuroscience from Northwestern University, a certificate in management from the Kellogg School of Management, and a BS & BA in mathematics and chemistry from Indiana University.