Sustainability Initiatives Hold the Key to Winning the Talent War for Iowa Companies

September 20, 2018 | Adam Hammes

Adam Hammes; President/CEO, ecofluence, Inc.; Executive Director, Iowa Sustainable Business Forum

Since the February release of my new book, Sustainable Business in Iowa, I spent two months driving around the state of Iowa to meet with chambers of commerce representing our 30 largest populated communities. My intent was two-fold: (1) share with them a free copy of the book and the value their business members could receive from joining the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum (ISBF), and (2) ask them to share with me what top issues their Iowa business members were facing.

The answer was unanimous: finding good people. Iowa businesses are focused on winning the war for talent. That should come as no surprise to most, but what did surprise me was that it was not always clear to chambers or to their business members what role sustainability initiatives could play in their quest for stronger job applicants. I did my best to share my perspective from working with ISBF business members, many leading companies across the state, who have been sharing best practices regarding profitable environmental and social responsibility initiatives for the past four years.

The first and obvious answer most companies think of is to offer a higher wage, but that is not a silver bullet. Businesses say, “We’re paying good money and it’s not enough. We’re not sure what else we’re supposed to do.” It’s helpful to consider the current state of our economy.

We truly live and work in a globalized and information-based economy. That brings access to cheaper goods from global supply chains. It also means smart and talented young people graduating from college (and sometimes even high school) can work anywhere in the world.

Picture the most talented up-and-comers. They spend their days dreaming of clocking in at work on their laptop from a pristine beach in the Mediterranean, working for a fast-growing corporation while learning a new language in Asia or launching a startup with low living expenses in South America. Social media may have over-inflated the real possibilities for many, but we need to ask, “Is this really a stretch for the qualifications our company is trying to hire?”

Now, look at how fast-rising talent with these dreams may perceive living and working in Iowa. We are mostly an agricultural and rural state. While many of our cities and farm communities have done amazing work maintaining, or developing into, an attractive culture for employees, they can unfortunately remain a best-kept secret. Stereotypes from non-Iowans certainly still need addressing, but native-Iowans are also enticed by very real and very attractive opportunities outside of our borders.

So, how do Iowa businesses attract the talented employees they need to succeed?

Yes, pay needs to be good but, given nearly-equivalent paying jobs, will people choose Des Moines or Venice? Sioux City or Beijing? Cedar Rapids or Rio de Janeiro?

How do you make your job opening in Iowa sexy enough to win? Two additional considerations besides pay are important: making both living and working in Iowa attractive. Leading businesses are addressing both.

People move for a job, but also for a life in a vibrant community. They want cool friends and fun things to do on the evenings and weekends. They also need to be able to explain to themselves and their existing friends and family why they are moving to Iowa.

Because of this, Iowa communities have become more adept at seeing and leveraging the long-term value of their local environmental and social resources. Programs like Keep Iowa Beautiful’s Hometown Pride and the Iowa Economic Development Authority’s Main Streets are spurring a renaissance for rural towns, offering coaching, visioning and asset-mapping strategies—among many other services. Communities are finding that investing in beautification, clean water, parks and trails, outdoor recreation, vibrant downtowns or central squares, and the arts helps attract new businesses, increase tourism and give the next generation more reasons to stay or move home after college. Businesses wanting to benefit from this are investing in these community initiatives because they care about their town and because this helps them attract talent.

People also move for a job, knowing they will spend most of their waking hours with coworkers. They want to enjoy those hours on-the-job and be proud of the work they are doing—as well as the company they are doing it for. Free enterprise is competing on social and environmental issues to create enjoyable and inspiring corporate cultures capable of recruiting and retaining high-caliber job candidates.

Social initiatives might include: charitable giving and employee volunteerism; safety, health and wellness programs; diverse, inclusive and collaborative workspaces; as well as financially literate and empowered teams. Each of these is capable of not only attracting top talent, but also increasing existing employee engagement, satisfaction and productivity.

Environmental initiatives might include: waste reduction with product and packaging innovations; energy efficiency and renewable generation; water conservation and quality; transportation efficiency and renewable fuels; as well as protecting ecosystems and climate. Businesses who track these things and invest in continuous improvement projects can directly benefit their bottom line from operational efficiencies. In addition, today’s employees value these initiatives more than ever, so authentic environmental responsibility can also provide a boost to recruitment and retention efforts.

Leading companies who operate in vibrant communities, while finding profitable ways to take care of their people and the planet, can improve financial performance—including winning the war for talent. And that is the definition of corporate sustainability: people, profit and planet.

Adam Hammes is president/CEO of ecofluence, Inc. and executive director of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum. You may email him at