Can employee benefits be used to counter climate change?

Need to know:

  • Increasing climate change awareness and the introduction of government targets are leading employers to review what can be done within their organisations.
  • Some are changing the slant of their benefits schemes by promoting these differently to employees, highlighting the environmental impact more prominently.
  • Incentives can be used to create day-to-day behavioural change, like encouraging employees to recycle, as well as have a larger impact, such as cutting down on air travel.

Since the BBC aired Blue Planet II in 2017, the so-called ‘Attenborough effect’ has resonated strongly in the UK’s collective conscience. Images of the devastating impact of plastic waste on marine life, for example, was enough to cause an uplift of 55% in internet searches for plastic recycling in the weeks after the programme aired, according to the consumer insight service Hitwise.

Addressing climate change has also become an increasingly popular topic among major organisations. The Climate A-list, compiled by Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in January 2019, awarded employers such as Sainsbury’s and BT an A rating for their actions on climate change.

As employees and organisations alike come to realise the necessity for an all-encompassing approach to tackling environmental issues, what role might reward programmes play?

Graham Simmonds, chief executive of Green Rewards, says: “People are looking at climate change, emissions, what we can encourage people to do that will have a positive impact, and then [linking] that back to [their] employment processes.

“[For example,] we work with employers on engagement and reward programmes for their staff which are all about encouraging people to take positive actions in terms of the climate and the environment.”

Carbon emissions

The biggest driver of climate change is the burning of fossil fuels for electricity and heat; many employers have taken action to reduce their energy usage and carbon emissions, but there is still work to be done.

The Carbon commitment report, published by Carbon Credentials in January 2019, found that 66% of employees would support a bonus incentive to help cut carbon emissions at work, while 57% say their organisation is not doing enough to involve them in cutting carbon emissions.

Laura Timlin, director, business services at The Carbon Trust, says: “Externally, there’s a lot of focus on [organisations] and what they are doing to be sustainable, that’s driven by targets.

“What comes out of that process is: ‘how do we then bring our entire organisation along the journey, so they can help us reach that target?’”

To do this, employers must understand what they are producing, where there is opportunity to reduce, and how to make sure that there are strong communications to employees, explains Timlin.

Employee habit

Some employers have introduced environmentally friendly initiatives, typically focused around employees’ commute, such as cycle-to-work schemes. Employers can also promote discounts with train operators to encourage more employees to forgo their cars.

“We often see that as a really important step when organisations want to try and make sustainability a key focus,” Timlin says. “We are seeing more incentives around company car choice, and thinking about either moving away from totally petrol or diesel cars to either hybrid or electric vehicles.

“Quite a lot of organisations will offer added incentives if employees car share, and the benefit there is usually either a guaranteed parking space, or a space that is closer to the building. It makes the commute to work a lot easier and less stressful.”

However, while more action should be taken on addressing climate change, small changes can add up to big differences, says Sarah Robson, strategic consultant at Aon.

“Most [employers] have cycle-to-work schemes, but we’re seeing a change in how these are promoted internally,” she adds. “[Showing that] it’s better for the environment first, then [that employees] can save money and keep healthy at the same time.”

Green Rewards’ approach allows organisations to identify areas in which they would like to make a change, then offers employees the chance to win points and prizes through positive behaviours. Areas of focus might include greener travel, recycling, or reducing electricity use, with specific behaviours linked to, and easy to enact during, the employee’s working day.

“From the individual’s point of view, we have to try and keep it as simple as possible,” says Simmonds. “People tend to get a bit overwhelmed by climate change; it is a massive thing and it’s [about] understanding what [they] can do in terms of [their] daily routines that [is] going to have an impact.”

Flight footprint

Air travel is one of the fastest growing sources of harmful greenhouse gases. WSP, the professional services firm for environmental and sustainability professionals, has set a target to be a carbon neutral business in the UK by 2025; 60% of its carbon footprint is attributed to employee travel, most of which is flights.

The organisation has created campaigns and programmes as part of its Future Ready initiative, encouraging staff to think about whether they really need to fly for business, or if they can use video conferencing. It also introduced a levy per team for each flight taken within the UK; last year this was a £50 charge, this year it has been raised to £200. The money collected goes into WSP’s social foundation, which is used to support charities.

David Symons, Future Ready global leader and director of environment and energy UK at WSP, says: “That has halved our carbon footprint, while also not reducing the profitability of our business at all. It’s a slightly different way of engaging our staff: taxing the bad and rewarding the good.”

While video conferencing options offer many organisations an accessible alternative to flying, giving up flights is not as easy when it comes to an employee’s long-awaited summer holiday.

However, climate change charity 10:10 Climate Action is pioneering a project, Climate Perks, that seeks to offer employees low-emission solutions for their annual leave.

Emma Kemp, campaigner at 10:10 Climate Action, says: “We wanted to find a way that empowered people to travel on holiday without flying. It was also under the caveat that leisure flights are rising rapidly, and business flights are not.”

The scheme works with employers to offer paid journey days to staff who travel by train, coach or boat instead of flying. These days are taken to facilitate slower travel, such as by boat or train, rather than being treated as additional holiday allowance.

“It is not the easiest option for people to not fly when they go on holiday, largely because of time, so this scheme enables employers to offer their staff a minimum of two extra paid journey days that they can take when they go on holiday, so that they don’t have to fly,” explains Kemp.

Growing demand

The Climate Perks programme also gives employers an opportunity to address the ever-increasing public awareness of these issues, and the subsequent employee demand for climate change initiatives, says Kemp.

“Workplaces have become so central to modern life,” she explains. “They direct the lifestyles we lead in so many ways, such as a lot of trends we get from our colleagues and conversations over the water cooler. As climate change is such a huge thing to tackle, it’s essential for workplaces to get involved.”

While there are small steps and changes employers can implement within their reward and benefits schemes that can help improve their carbon footprint, the journey has only just begun.

As Simmonds concludes: “I think we will start to see, over time, more linkage between employee benefits and reward, and climate change, but I think we are still at the start.”