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Empowering Grassroots Energy: Transforming ESG Initiatives for Lasting Change

Explore the limitations of top-down ESG initiatives and the need for grassroots energy to drive lasting change within organizations. It emphasizes the importance of tailoring solutions, empowering employees, and transparently measuring progress to create meaningful impact.
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Sunny Cheng
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AT A GLANCE

  • ESG initiatives driven by executive teams often fail to address an organization’s specific flaws, necessitating a shift towards grassroots energy and tailored solutions.
  • Engaging employees and creating safe spaces for ideation allows organizations to tap into the passion and diverse perspectives needed to drive impactful change.
  • By building a portfolio of goals and transparently measuring progress, companies can maintain the momentum and energy generated by their grassroots initiatives while adapting to evolving needs.

Corporate history is rife with training opportunities, initiatives, and broad efforts to create a sense of solidarity from the executive or board level that they understand will appease their employees’ environmental and social conscience. Sometimes these are genuine efforts to convey that the company is advancing with the cultural moment. Still, frequently, they feel like cynical checkboxes to be ticked, never aiming for true systemic change.

A recent study by the Harvard Business Review concluded that a third of all professionally managed assets, roughly $30 trillion, are now subject to ESG criteria across the globe to hold companies accountable for sustainability efforts. However, even when the company attempts to implement ESG in good faith, they fail to realize the change they’re looking for as energy wanes and initiatives die on the vine.

If your company is genuinely looking to foster change internally and integrate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and sustainability into its business model, you cannot look solely to other corporate models or frameworks of growth to do so. Leaders must instead look to the history of social movements and how they start with grassroots energy to enact systemic change.

The need for authentic change: moving beyond checkbox ESG efforts

ESG programs are often defined by a corporate board and implemented by executive teams. While not inherently an issue, there is a risk that these initiatives will miss the mark of what an organization’s broader employee base expects, both in breadth and depth. Frequently, these programs come about as a reaction to broader social events, taking advantage of the critical mass of popular support already there.

However, the nuances and complexities of issues like diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or corporate sustainability manifest differently in some companies. What you miss from being reactive to current events instead of proactive to existing internal issues is that the problems that your initiatives are trying to solve are not tailored to what your company is failing at.

As such, a new framework is needed that allows a company to identify its flaws from an ESG perspective, create criteria to define improvement, and give all employees the power to design and ideate to democratize solutions.

When ESGs are designed and implemented from the top down, there’s often a feeling that the purpose is for compliance rather than making an impact, and a lack of integration within divisions or departments will silo the ESG work into its own team, undercutting efforts for change.

To properly identify the unique changes your company needs to make lasting change, grassroots energy is required for these initiatives to take shape and persist long-term. As leaders, you have the wisdom and experience to create a set of guiding principles and goals. However, allowing your employees to identify what’s needed to meet those goals will create more sustainable, meaningful progress.

Steps to energize and engage your workforce for ESG progress

Employees who bring their whole selves to work will be passionate about making an impact and have energy and ideas on what initiatives the company should tackle. Here are some steps to approach fostering this energy:

Be honest about your company’s flaws

Transparency leads to discussion, which leads to progress. No company is perfect, and your employees know that. However, it should not require the emergence of a generational social movement like Black Lives Matter or an inflection point in climate change metrics to look internally at the impact your company is having on broader society. Giving your employees the tools and metrics will make them more informed about creating solutions.

Create trusted, safe spaces

Your employees are smart, and they have opinions and experiences that will be useful. Engage them! Create forums where they can talk about their interests and ideas and feel like they’re actually being heard. Lower the friction to joining these spaces and harness this energy to action.

For example, book clubs have a discrete, manageable time commitment and a clearly defined topic. Try to tie these discussions into how ideas can be applied to your organization.

Make visible investments into these spaces

As a leader, you can give power to more junior employees that they would not traditionally have. Draw a line from their ideas to actual impact. They’ll remember this and continue to build energy by communicating what they could do to other co-workers.

Consider the polarity of top-down and bottom-up approaches – initiatives that are forced down tend to fail because of employee engagement, but ones that are exclusively grassroots tend to not have the staying power without executive investment. Act as an experienced sounding board for ideas from junior employees. Collaborate with them even if their ideas feel too ambitious at first; your experience can turn their ideas into something more realistic.

Build a portfolio of goals

As you build energy and gather ideas, leadership teams should aggregate the actions and thoughts of the spaces you built and create goals for the company to engage with. Create a tight feedback loop so those goals are concrete, have consensus, and can adapt to changing needs.

Lean into trusted partnerships

At Pariveda, we’ve made efforts to leverage our expertise with cloud technology, namely Amazon Web Services (AWS), to accelerate and scale projects supporting non-profit organizations. Our experience gives us the unique capability to leverage grants that AWS provides in order to advice and implement cloud solutions that would otherwise be too costly for NPOs.

Measure and report transparently

You will unlikely get it right the first time or the second or third. But what’s important is maintaining the energy generated from the previous steps by continually updating employees on progress. Perhaps even give the opportunity to more junior employees to own those updates and coach them on the additional responsibility.

ESG initiatives should be built from the bottom up, with the executives and board providing resources and oversight rather than being prescriptive about how to enact change. The movement will continue to be a driving force in the future, and a company’s social and environmental impact will become more of a priority to employees.

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By Sunny Cheng
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Sunny Cheng is a technical manager in Pariveda’s DC office with experience in implementing IT solutions and managing engineering teams. He has experience in the fields of health care, education, hospitality, and telecommunications. He has been involved in Pariveda’s effort to become B Corp Certified and brings a broad perspective to solving problems involving both people and technology.

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