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Intertwining Sustainability and DE&I in the Workplace

According to a Deloitte study, “almost 9 in 10 millennials believe that a company’s success should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance. They think that companies should not only be concerned with their financial performance but should also pay attention to the environment and care about the social life of their employees. As a result, millennials are willing to sacrifice a portion of their salary to work for a sustainable company that can provide social benefits.”

Sustainability and DE&I have taken the lead in attracting and retaining top talent. Candidates are looking to work for companies that align with theirs and act on those values to show they care.

Join Dr. Michiel Kolman and Mark DeDeckere as they discuss sustainability in the workplace, cultivating DE&I, how sustainability and DE&I are intertwined, and more.

Michiel Kolman

Co-Chair Workplace Pride, Chair Inclusive Publishing & Literacy IPL Committee, and Ambassador Beurs van Berlage


Mark DeDeckere

Co-Chair Pride at Swoon & Women’s Initiative Network (W.I.N.) and Major Account Manager


Mark: How would you define sustainability in the workplace?

Michiel: The UN has an excellent framework, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a framework for our planet and society that was launched with a strict deadline of 2030. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals:

  1. No poverty
  2. Zero hunger
  3. Good health and well-being
  4. Quality education
  5. Gender equality
  6. Clean water and sanitation
  7. Affordable and clean energy
  8. Decent work and economic growth
  9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
  10. Reduced inequalities
  11. Sustainable cities and communities
  12. Responsible consumption and production
  13. Climate action
  14. Life below water
  15. Life on land
  16. Peace, justice and strong institutions
  17. Partnerships for the goals

Mark: I think the Sustainable Development Goals are essential because responsible business and investment will be crucial in achieving transformational change worldwide. To break it down a bit, some reasons why businesses should support the SDGs include business growth, attracting talent, and reducing risk from operations while supporting the greater good and working to make the world a better and more sustainable place.

For me, a sustainable organization is one that not only supports employee wellbeing but also pushes them to also work towards minimizing their negative impact on the environment. The organization deeply cares about its employees and does not push them to the limit of burning out. Instead, they find ways to care for and support their employees and help them achieve their goals rather than just being seen as a resource to achieve their business goals. A healthy and sustainable workplace equates to happier employees, higher retention rates, increased productivity, improved health of your employees, and much more.

Mark: Are there any aspects where DE&I and sustainability are intertwined? What benefits are you prioritizing within your organization?

Michiel: I can see them going hand in hand because organizations can contribute to a better world and make it more sustainable. For example, they can look at their carbon footprint, make it more carbon neutral, and set a specific date to achieve that goal and bring everyone in the company onboard. I think with an inclusive mindset, you can contribute to a better society, thereby ensuring everyone can be themselves at work. So that they can bring their authentic self, and everyone feels appreciated and that sense of belonging. So, for both of them, you have to ensure that the working culture is inclusive and sustainable.

Mark: I agree. The most important thing to me is to ensure that everyone feels welcome and has a safe space to express their ideas for growth. This year, Pride at Swoon (one of our DE&I committees) implemented an allyship certification during Pride Month. Our internal team created curriculum, presented 5 modules and attendees had a follow up assessment to truly develop their skills as an Ally.  We were very proud to have brought in a keynote speaker from The Trevor Project, Keygan Miller (They/Them) who highlighted the importance of allyship to younger generations.  During this webinar, we discussed:

  • The History of the LGBTQIA+ Community
  • Why We’re Here
  • Stereotypes, Bias + Discrimination
  • Identity, Gender + Inclusive Language
  • Allyship in Action
  • How to be an Ally to Youth (presented by our keynote speaker)

After the webinar, we had each participant complete an assessment that required an 85% to pass. Everyone who passed then became a Swoon Certified LGBTQIA+ Ally. We are proud to have successfully certified 33 Allies with the inaugural class!

Mark: What are some benefits of sustainability in the workplace, and why is it important?

Michiel: On one hand, you are doing the right thing, but in addition to that, you are also making the world better, which I mentioned earlier. When you have an office, you have to ensure your carbon footprint is okay by using renewable energy. When organizations can prioritize and embrace sustainability, they become more attractive to employees, allowing you to bring in more qualified candidates to your open roles. It also helps with retention because your employees see that the organization stands for clear values, and sustainability is a big focus right now.

Mark: There are many benefits of sustainability in the workplace. First, as you mentioned, it allows companies to bring in more qualified candidates since they show they care about their employees and their impact on improving the world. Some other benefits include:

  • Reducing your carbon footprint – by using eco-friendly practices, an organization can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help conserve natural resources (ex: water and energy).
  • Increasing productivity – organizations can see increased productivity within their teams by avoiding using resources that damage the environment or cause health problems. This also helps create a more friendly environment, improves air quality, and generates less noise pollution overall.
  • Reducing cost – by implementing sustainable practices, organizations can reduce energy consumption, waste output, greenhouse gas emissions, and more to reduce costs and improve their environmental impact.
  • Increasing your employees’ overall happiness – by implementing a sustainable work environment, employees become more satisfied because they can see the benefits of their work and are encouraged to be more involved with decision-making.
  • Boosting company image – while this should not be your number one goal in implementing a sustainable workplace, it does happen. When you encourage your employees to use natural resources responsibly and create a healthy environment, organizations can reduce their impact on the planet. It also helps showcase your values to people outside of your company and that you prioritize your employees’ health and innovation.

Mark: How can employers encourage environmental sustainability and eco-friendly practices in the workplace (remote and in-office)?

Michiel: I hope there will be a bit of an overarching strategy in organizations saying that as a company, they will be sustainable and look at their carbon footprints which come in different scopes. Scope one and two are your immediate emissions (the electricity you use and business travel), and scope three is your indirect emissions (if you outsource certain activities, you are still responsible for that carbon footprint). Sometimes I see companies say they want to be carbon neutral by 2025, which sounds optimistic, but they are also very strong commitments. The Climate Pledge is a great example.

Mark: When it comes to encouraging these practices in the workplace, I think it is important to note that if you make it easy enough for employees to do something, they will. For example, if you make recycling easy in the office, employees will do it. Create a sign and showcase what type of materials can be recycled in that bin. Some other ways in the office could be as simple as having office plants, supporting green vendors, promoting a paperless office, and encouraging sustainable transportation. It gets a little more complicated regarding the remote side of things. Still, some ideas could be as simple as giving each new hire a reusable water bottle, reevaluating your office space (can you downsize with most/all of your employees being remote), going paperless, providing energy-efficient equipment, and promoting recycling programs.

Mark: What advice would you offer to an organization looking to cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace for the first time?

Michiel: First, we should start by asking how we can chart a long-term strategy. Inclusive work environments cannot be achieved overnight. You need support from the leadership team and for them to say that it is important to them so that it is included in the organization’s strategic objectives for years to come. We also can tap into what I would call activism among your colleagues. For instance, the Pride group at Elsevier had events around coming out at work and about using prep medication to prevent HIV. We did fundraisers for transgender, LGBTQ+ homeless youth, amnesty, etc. We had fun events like a drag queen bingo which was also a fundraiser, but it is important to note that leadership needs to be at these events to show their support and communicate that it is essential to the company. I recommend companies join the Workplace Pride or HRC organizations because you can exchange best practices with other companies. They have learning and development modules, and you can benchmark how you are doing compared to the global benchmark. When it comes to the long-term strategy aspect, it is important to note that McKinsey has shown that if you want to change your workplace culture, it takes an average of 8-10 years. So, you must stick with it and have that moral obligation to your employees to be themselves and live up to their fullest potential within the company. Business cases also show that companies embracing diversity perform better financially, make better decisions, and are more creative and innovative.

Mark: I completely agree. One thing that I would add is to ask your employees for feedback. The best way to learn what your employees are passionate about and what they want to see implemented is to ask them. Take their feedback into consideration; your initiatives will mean much more to your team.

Mark: What are some of the more successful DE&I initiatives you have seen or helped implement?

Michiel: I think what stands out here is psychological safety. We know from studies that if teams do not have that psychological safety, they will not function well. At Elsevier, we rolled out a way for our leaders to measure psychological safety within their teams and improve it over time. One instance is that we had a new CEO, and when she measured psychological safety within her team, it was pretty low when she started, which was interesting. However, it improved dramatically when she repeated the same test two years later. That says a lot about her leadership style and shows that change is possible. As a leader, you need to acknowledge that things are not going well and take steps to improve them.

Mark: That is very interesting and impressive how she improved psychological safety within her team in such a short amount of time. For me, the two most successful events I have helped put on are the Drag Queen trivia event Swoon has hosted for the past two years during Pride Month and the Allyship certification we implemented this year. Both events are great for getting our team excited to learn and increasing employee engagement. Many of those who participated had never experienced something like that before. Allowing my peers to step outside their comfort zone and grow is something extremely valuable to experience!

Mark: How can organizations promote and strengthen allyship in the workplace?

Michiel: Allyship is crucial. Looking at the LGBTQ+ diversity lens, we are a minority and cannot change that overnight. You have to get the majority on board; that is where our allies come into play. I strongly support a structural program where everyone is encouraged to think about what kind of ally they want to be, which is then supplemented with a little bit of training, introduction, and what it means. There are even organizations that give their potential allies a test. I do not know if other organizations will be that strict with their allies, but I do like the level of ambition. We need strong involvement and allies who are not afraid to speak out if something does not sound right. On the positive side, allies can also show support and reinforce the positive developments within the organization. One easy example is just adding your pronouns to your email signature.

Mark: I completely agree. It is so important for our organizations to promote allyship in the workplace so they can speak up when needed and show support. When our leaders are allies, teams feel safe and have the ability to shine bright. 

Mark: At Swoon, we encourage our peers and even people that I do not work with to be your authentic self. How would you encourage someone striving to be an executive in today’s business world to be their authentic self truly?

Michiel: Tap into your network. At my organization, we just rolled out a reverse mentoring program around race and ethnicity which I think was very important so that our leaders could learn more about what it is like to be a person of color. Also, for Pride, we have a mentoring program where we match senior-level individuals to those who are mid-level or just starting in their career to coach and mentor them.

Mark: I think mentorship programs are a great idea, and I love the idea of a reverse mentorship program. I also believe it is important to note that if you want to be an executive within a company, you should showcase your authentic self at work because your team is looking up to you. If you are not open and being yourself, your team may not feel they can be their authentic selves at work either.

Mark: What advice would you offer to an organization looking to amplify its DE&I work?

Michiel: Having an inclusive environment is key. You cannot just attract a diverse workforce and hope for the best. You must start by laying out a program that can even include inclusive leadership, psychological safety, ERGs, etc. The more inclusive your organization is, the more diverse it becomes. You can ask minority groups how they feel included and if they have a sense of belonging, which is great. You can measure that with different benchmarks, but what could make the most impact is looking at organizations already doing this for inspiration to see what you can bring back to your organization and implement.

An example of this would be marriage equality. The Netherlands was the first country in 2001 to have marriage equality, but there are still countries that do not have this, such as Japan which is the only G7 country that does not have marriage equality. So, it is important to note that companies and chambers of commerce can put pressure on the government and show the case for embracing marriage equality and the benefits that come along with it. As you can imagine, if you and your partner are sent to Tokyo, but your marriage is not acknowledged, it gets complicated.

Mark: To add to that, I would say that now more than ever, our DE&I networks must come together, confide in our allies, and have the courage to be our authentic selves. So, if you are just getting started, keep going! Find a mentor or join a professional network to stay connected, involved, and inspired.

Mark: Are there aspects where DE&I and sustainability become intertwined?

Michiel: Both are contributing to the greater good. We want to live in a society and work in an organization where we are supported, everyone can be themselves, and we all want to live in a more sustainable world. One where we do not have to worry about climate action because, in 10 or 20 years, our carbon footprint has dramatically reduced. Of course, there is also the aspect that I brought up earlier around the Sustainability Development Goals. There is a goal within that around gender equality. So, the two are more intertwined than we think.

Mark: With Gen Z especially, DE&I and sustainability are important factors when choosing which organization they will work for. Not only does it show that the organization cares about those two topics, but it also shows that they are innovative and keep up with the challenges the world is facing. Therefore, organizations must prioritize DE&I and sustainability to stay relevant in the job market and stand out from their competitors when hiring top talent.

Meet Our Guests

About Michiel

Dr. Michiel Kolman is the Senior Vice President and Academic Ambassador at Elsevier and former President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), where he now chairs Inclusive Publishing and Literacy. He is the executive sponsor of Elsevier Pride and was listed two years in a row in the Financial Times’ Top 100 ranking of most influential LGBT senior executives.

Since joining Elsevier in 1995, he has held various core publishing roles in Amsterdam and Tokyo. He launched one of the first online journals in the industry in 1996: New Astronomy. Michiel was Managing Director in Frankfurt, Germany. For 10 years, he spearheaded academic relations for Elsevier, building up a global network of ambassadors engaged in strategic discussions with research leaders. Today he continues to engage with research and government leaders in his role as Academic Ambassador for Elsevier.

About Mark

Mark DeDeckere started at Swoon in 2017 as a technical recruiter, continuing to manage and build relationships with our MSP partners and now overseeing a portfolio of account relationships to implement PMO staffing solutions for Swoon’s major accounts. Mark has a background in public education, philanthropy, and music. Over the last 5 years, Mark has witnessed monumental growth at Swoon. He is currently a Co-Chair for the Pride at Swoon and Women’s Initiative Network (W.I.N.) DE&I committees. In addition, he is a board member of Swoon’s Community and Charity Committee, where he can put his love for hosting events into action.