The New Sustainable Workforce

The New Sustainable Workforce

Gina Acosta
a woman smiling for the camera

When food retailers and consumer packaged goods companies talk about sustainability, often it’s energy efficiency, reusable bags, emissions reductions and food waste that get most of the oxygen. But sustainability in 2020 is about a lot more than being green. It’s primarily about people, or your employees. And supporting employees has never been more critical than it is now, as the nation faces a pandemic, a deep recession and racial division.

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis in May generated one of the largest protest movements that the United States has ever seen. And the intense reactions from consumers and employees to those protests suggest that the standard corporate sustainability playbook may need to be rewritten.

Key Takeaways

  • Organizations can’t be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and social welfare of their associates. 
  • Employees and consumers alike want their preferred retail and CPG brands to take a firm stand on social and political issues. 
  • Developing talent by providing career advancement, educational opportunities and the chance to learn new skills is also key.

More than ever before, food retailers and CPG companies must embrace the sustainability pillars of profit, planet and people in a new way. This means that organizations can’t be sustainable without protecting the safety, health and social welfare of their most vital resource: workers. Many food retailers and CPG firms have embraced this new sustainable-workforce mindset as a way to showcase their values, measure impacts and outcomes, and increase their competitive advantage.

Today, to be impactful, any corporate sustainability framework requires a deep integration of the three “people pillars” of social justice, opportunity and education. Many employees and consumers now see social justice, which includes diversity, inclusion and racial equity, as a necessity, not just buzzwords. One company meeting this new challenge head-on is PepsiCo. The Purchase, N.Y.-based beverage giant knows that by helping its workforce not just survive, but also thrive, employees will give back to the economy, the community and the environment.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic ... the food system was under tremendous stress,” said PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta in the company’s latest sustainability report, released in June. “The past few months have been among the most challenging in recent memory. COVID-19 has profoundly transformed how we work, parent, shop, learn and socialize. It has caused unfathomable grief and taxed our social infrastructure like nothing before, laying bare longstanding inequalities and injustices.”

Laguarta noted that the company has set three “aspirations,” or goals, to transform its business for the new age of corporate social sustainability (CSS) or corporate social justice (CSJ), two topics now used interchangeably.

“We know that systemic problems require systemic solutions, and the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the larger need to address our long-term sustainability challenges,” Laguarta said. “It is clearer than ever that organizations like PepsiCo and our partners need to take bold steps to catalyze positive change and bring about a stronger, more sustainable future for us all.”

Specifically, PepsiCo has pledged a five-year, $437.5 million commitment in support of efforts to address inequality and create opportunity for Black communities and increase Black representation within the multinational company.

The CSJ era

In the post-George Floyd era, social justice, diversity and inclusion will become bigger strategic imperatives in the food retail industry. Companies won’t be able to just publish a diversity report or casual press release anymore: Employees and consumers both want their favorite retail and CPG brands to take a firm stand on social and political issues.

Corporate social justice is driven by socially aware consumers and employees who want companies to do better by everyone. Companies have an opportunity to rise to the occasion, and some are doing just that.

In June, Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Seattle-based Amazon, wrote a note to employees saying that his leadership team had been reflecting on the “systemic racism” facing Black communities, and urged employees to take time to learn about and reflect on Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. (Amazon also announced that it would donate $10 million to organizations that are working to bring about social justice and improve the lives of Blacks and African-Americans.) Several other food retailers, including Minneapolis-based Target, made Juneteenth a paid holiday.

These strategic actions are part of a wave of moves by some companies to reframe their corporate sustainability efforts to include a social justice component. With nearly half the members of Gen Z identifying as a racial or ethnic minority, companies that prioritize social justice initiatives will have a huge leg up in recruiting and retaining the next-generation workforce.

Retailers and CPG companies looking to revamp their diversity and inclusion programs to focus on social justice should:

  1. Develop a Vision: Pledges and statements won’t resonate with employees or consumers unless they’re backed up by a solid vision for social good.
  2. Create Internal Working Groups: Stakeholders should collaborate on social justice issues and use this knowledge to proactively inform how the company acts on, and reacts to, societal problems.
  3. Take a Stand: Companies should talk about social justice issues and establish a clear track record of standing behind the programs that they develop to deal with them.

An Opportunity to Succeed

Kroger's technology and digital team is offering a virtual summer internship program in which participants will work on business projects and get involved in community service.
Kroger's technology and digital team is offering a virtual summer internship program in which participants will work on business projects and get involved in community service.

At The Kroger Co., one of the key drivers of the Cincinnati-based company’s Restock Kroger transformation plan is making sure that employees feel supported, valued and put in a position to succeed. In June, the grocer was named to Computerworld magazine’s Top 100 Best Places to Work in IT for 2020. This marks the third consecutive year that Kroger’s technology and digital team has been recognized by the annual list for having an innovative, industry-leading workplace culture where employees feel like they have opportunities for advancement. This year, Kroger ranks 51st among large companies, and is the only food retailer on the list.

“A big part of our organization’s culture is providing opportunities to grow, learn and develop the talented and passionate team behind the company’s seamless ecosystem,” said Yael Cosset, Kroger’s chief technology and digital officer, at the time that the ranking was released. “Our internship program offers real-life opportunities to future industry talent, which has never been more important to those entering the workforce, and I’m proud of our ability to continue to provide these experiences in the current environment.”

This summer, as part of its emphasis on developing talent, Kroger’s technology and digital team is offering its first virtual summer internship program in which more than 30 interns will work on real projects impactful to the business, as well as participate in a series of virtual networking, mentorship and community service opportunities.

Upskilling as Education

Retailers have the power to drive a collective solution for the future of education in the workplace, empowering workers with opportunities for learning new skills and continuing their education.

Amazon’s Career Choice program, for example, pays up to 95% of tuition and fees toward a professional certificate or diploma in qualified fields of study, up-leveling skill sets and allowing recipients to apply for in-demand jobs. More than 10,000 employees have participated in this initiative so far.

Other companies, such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, are investing in upskilling programs for existing employees across the organization, whether they work in physical stores, at corporate headquarters or in a warehouse. In June, Walmart announced the expansion of Live Better U (LBU) education benefits to include in-demand skilled-trade and digital-skills programs, beyond the initiative’s traditional college programs. LBU is designed to support working adult learners and meets associates where they are on their educational journeys by focusing on degree completion through a number of supportive elements, free student coaching, college credit for Walmart training and career pathways for LBU graduates. Regardless of which path an employee chooses, those who take advantage of LBU have one thing in common — they’re earning a degree or certificate along with a paycheck, without lifelong student debt.

In the first two years, more than 25,000 Walmart and Sam's Club associates from all 50 states have taken advantage of Live Better U education programs.
In the first two years, more than 25,000 Walmart and Sam's Club associates from all 50 states have taken advantage of Live Better U education programs.

“The current economic climate has only added urgency to the need for practical training and education opportunities for Americans, especially those who do not fit the historic profile of a full-time student,” said Julie Murphy, EVP of people of Walmart U.S., at the time of the program’s expansion “By adding both digital courses and skilled trades to our education benefit, associates have access to even more in-demand skills, so they can advance their careers, whether at Walmart or elsewhere.”

Nationally, there has been much focus on the future of work, but less has been placed on future-proof jobs such as skilled trades. The United States suffers from a skilled-trades talent gap accelerated by retirement, turnover and a shift away from trade education in high school. A Deloitte study found that the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million jobs unfilled by 2028.

Other key training and retention trends that food retailers can expect in 2020 include the growth of upskilling for jobs in foodservice, distribution, delivery and logistics. As food retailers continue to invest heavily in machine learning and automation, opportunities for upskilling will only increase. This is a great strategy for retaining workers who are hungry for career advancement.

Clearly, embracing social justice, opportunity and education as cornerstones of sustainability is good for workers and good for business. Integrating these pillars into sustainability strategies can transform an organization into one that strives for long­-term economic viability and allows all people to thrive.

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