Is Your Company Really Eco-Conscious?

An environmental track record says a lot about a business.

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It used to be that all an employer had to do to be one of the good guys was to pay well and sponsor a holiday party once a year. Step by step, the best places to work became those that offered ample benefits, then generous family leave, then flexible hours and telecommuting. These days, workers don't expect companies to just take care of them; they want their employers to take care of the environment, too.

More and more, job candidates are asking corporations how they are "going green." Some professionals believe that a company's environmental track record says a lot about it as a business and as an employer, and that a company's values and public image reflect on its employees and their values as well.

Net Impact, an organization for professionals and business school students who want to "use business to improve the world," has seen its membership grow from 2,600 to 4,800 between 2004 and 2007. Among its 3,000 student members, 80 percent want to hold jobs they deem "socially responsible" at some point in their careers and nearly 60 percent want to do so right after school. For this group, environmental sustainability is becoming a significant part of what it means to be socially responsible. (Here's a list of up-and-coming green careers.)

But idealistic students aren't the only ones looking for more eco-friendly work environs. A 2008 survey from the human resources firm Adecco shows that 34 percent of all Americans would prefer to work for a company that "makes a conscious effort to promote socially and environmentally friendly practices," and 31 percent would take a pay cut to do so.

Big employers, especially those that recruit on college and business school campuses, realize that if they want to attract top talent, they need to present a culture that embraces social responsibility, and it's better if that culture has a distinct green tinge to it. The best employers also understand that their sustainability programs have to be more than just window dressing and should have measurable effort and progress behind them. (Here's a look at how to size up employers' green reputations.)

The business of being green

This is because it's not just wide-eyed idealism that's driving workers to look at employers through the lens of sustainability. There's a business case to be made for it, too.

Whether or not you believe in global warming, you can't ignore the regulations aimed at curbing it that are working their way through policymaking circles. The most talked-about regulations involve a "cap-and-trade" system where companies that pollute above a certain level buy credits from cleaner counterparts.

Tim Sanders, author of Saving the World at Work, notes that in some iterations of cap-and-trade, emissions ceilings are set by industry. "So if you're over your cap and have to buy credits, you're handing cash over to your competitors. That's a death sentence." He says that even M.B.A. students who would never go near a tree much less hug one are still looking at employers' carbon reduction plans because "it impacts their competitiveness."

Additionally, how readily a company acknowledges global warming and how speedily it addresses its risks and opportunities are a good proxy for how it approaches cutting-edge business issues and adapts to change.

"From the research I've done, it's clear that a firm that is proactive environmentally is going to be more progressive in general," says Frank Montabon, a professor of supply chain management at the College of Business at Iowa State University. "These companies are willing to take more risks in a variety of areas, like human resources, product, and process designs, or how they deal with potential regulations."

As a result, he says, their financial results might be less predictable than less proactive companies but, over the long run, they're a better bet than a company that's more staid and reactionary.

The Facebook Factor

Employees also think a lot more about work-life issues nowadays, and working for a company that advocates good citizenry and supports one's values contributes to a sense of good balance. So as Americans recycle more, cut their energy use, and buy the kind of coffee that supports the rain forest, they want to feel that their employers are right there alongside them doing the same things on a larger scale.