In December 2003, the furthest thing from Jason Suiter’s mind was excavating a Roman archaeological dig. The 41-year-old equipment operator had been with the Alcoa-Davenport Works in Riverdale, Iowa, for 20 years and, as a factory worker, held no dreams of a life spent in scientific research.
Which is why he was surprised to find himself, six months later, painstakingly removing a sixth-century oil lamp from an ancient Roman fort along the Danube in Halmyris, Romania. Only slightly less surprising was that Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, the world’s leading aluminum producer and distributor, was paying for the experience.
Suiter had read about the opportunity in the Alcoa-Davenport Works newsletter. (The works manufactures aluminum sheet and plate for use in aircraft wings and also manufactures products for the defense industry.) In partnership with the Earthwatch Institute, 15 Alcoa employees would be afforded the chance to participate in scientific research projects around the world.
The Earthwatch Institute, based in Maynard, Massachusetts, is a charitable organization that supports scientific research projects through the work of volunteers. For $700 to $4,000, excluding travel expenses, participants can aid in the study of crocodiles in the Kalahari Desert, determine the health of coral reefs in the Bahamas, document the culture of a traditional Chinese village before its relocation, or support any one of about 140 scientific expeditions in 48 countries. Each volunteer spends one or two weeks as part of a team led by a research scientist, and no special skills or background are required. All necessary training is provided on-site.
The institute was formed in 1971 in response to a severe reduction in government funding for scientific research, says Blue Magruder, director of public affairs at Earthwatch. With the lack of support, important environmental and social studies were being ignored or left unfinished.
"We decided to reach out to amateurs," Magruder says.
The interest, labor and funding for these projects were in place. All that was needed was an organization to bring them together.
While the program originally relied on individual participants, Earthwatch was approached by Atlanta-based GNB Battery Technologies in 1995 with the suggestion of forming a corporate partnership. As GNB sent more plant managers into the field, they started "waking up to the company’s role in nature," Magruder says.
This is a familiar and growing trend, says Brian Dill, senior director of corporate relations for Earthwatch. As more attention is focused on the global environment, employees, consumers and, more importantly to firms, shareholders now expect companies to produce detailed goals and tangible results with regard to corporate social responsibility.
The connection between social responsibility and shareholder value is still seen as tenuous by the investment community at large, but may soon be more demonstrable, according to a recent report by Mercer Investment Consulting’s socially responsible investing research team in the United Kingdom.
"From a theoretical standpoint, we have some sympathy with the argument that ‘socially responsible’ companies are likely to be better performers, over the long term, relative to competitors with lower standards," report author Emily Whitaker writes. "The increasing emphasis on the importance of social and environmental considerations, together with the ever-increasing importance on brand value will mean that many companies will strive to ensure that they do not break those ‘rules’ and suffer the potential negative impact on share price."
Dill says that commitment has to involve a company’s workers.
"Companies see a real need to engage employees for corporate responsibility," he says, "They need programs that are not only sexy but that capture their (employees’) hearts and minds."
It’s important for companies to clearly demonstrate to employees and consumers how their corporation is making a contribution to the environments and communities in which they operate. Earthwatch expeditions serve as tangible examples of environmental commitment, and since the research doesn’t directly support participating corporations, accusations of "green washing"--superficial attempts at making businesses seem environmentally conscious--are difficult to support.
Some companies see more practical applications for an Earthwatch partnership, Dill says. Starbucks recently sent customers on Earthwatch expeditions as part of an in-store promotion, and Lotek Wireless, a developer of fish and wildlife monitoring systems, is considering sending employees on Earthwatch expeditions to gain insight into radio transmitting devices.
However, Dill says Earthwatch is cautious when making such arrangements because the institute doesn’t want to create an environment in which "the tail wags the dog."
Four years ago, Alcoa was asked to join the Earthwatch Corporate Advisory Council to determine how the institute could best help corporations meet their environmental, health and safety goals. Patrick Atkins, director of environmental affairs at Alcoa, says the aims of Earthwatch and of Alcoa are "very compatible."
Alcoa reports that it has made a dedicated effort toward promoting global environment, health and safety with its "2020 Vision," which details its plans "for cleaner air, better use of land and water and the protection of human health." From 2000, Alcoa plans a 50 percent reduction in landfill waste by 2007, 60 percent reduction of water use by 2008 and, overall, no incidents of environmental noncompliance.
"The best line of defense is for integrity to be part of the living values of each individual member of the team," chairman and CEO Alain Belda stated in Alcoa’s 2002 annual report. Belda views a partnership with Earthwatch as a chance to give employees one-on-one interaction with the environments Alcoa was striving to protect.
"I realized that Alcoa employees spent all their time talking to other Alcoa employees and others within the industry, and not to people with other perspectives," he said in the report.
The Earthwatch program at Alcoa began in 2003 when 15 applicants, called fellows, were chosen to participate in expeditions to Costa Rica, Switzerland, Vietnam and other international locations as well as projects within the United States. The selection of expeditions depends upon the needs and interests of corporate partners, Dill says. Starbucks, for example, has sent employees to study the restoration of Costa Rican coffee plantations, he says. Companies can also leave the selection to the discretion of Earthwatch, which makes it easier to ensure that all of Earthwatch’s projects receive equal attention.
Alcoa continued the program in 2004 with an additional 15 employees selected from about 150 applicants. Applications are reviewed by a panel from Alcoa’s environment, health and safety department and then by members of Earthwatch. Employees’ names, locations and job titles are removed so that consideration is based strictly on merit.
"We look for the understanding that this isn’t a vacation but serious research, and that the applicant shows a sincere interest in cultural interaction," Atkins says.
Suiter had doubts when he first thought about applying. "I thought to myself, ‘An hourly factory worker, in Iowa? What are the chances?’ "
Fairly good, Atkins now says. He notes that Alcoa makes an effort to include every employee in the program. All full-time employees are eligible, as are Alcoa contractors. In many cases, contract employees work for a year or more at an Alcoa location, supervised by Alcoa management. The company also features the journals of its fellows on its corporate Web site and includes photos from the expeditions. The "Earthwatch Diaries" are not mandatory, however.
"We didn’t want to make writing a requirement," Atkins says. "The program is open to all employees, and we didn’t want anyone to feel as though they needed a journalistic background."
Potential fellows must provide a well-structured plan for outreach and community involvement once they return. Participants are expected to present seminars about their experiences to their workplaces and communities. Atkins concedes that the response from these seminars has been disappointing at the community level.
"Attendance in the workplace has been good, but it’s more difficult to get the word out to employees’ communities," he says. "We recognize that our employees need help to publicize their events."
Suiter has yet to present any seminars to the community in Riverdale, but he has spread the word of his expedition work informally.
"I’m very involved in athletics and the community, so everyone knew when I was gone and why," he says. "When I got back, everyone kept asking me about the trip. I’ve got everything on CD, and some teachers have asked me for more information."
Alcoa spends $2,600 per employee who participates in an Earthwatch project. Earthwatch calls the expedition fee a "share of cost" that covers food and accommodation as well as costs associated with field research, such as equipment and permits. Depending upon the level of corporate involvement, the fees may also go toward developing new research projects and supporting Earthwatch’s subsidization of educators’ participation.
The share of cost does not cover travel expenses to and from expedition sites, and Earthwatch leaves these details to its participants. Alcoa has a department that coordinates all the travel details for participants, rather than reimbursing expenses. The company offers no stipends to its Earthwatch fellows, and all other costs--such as passports, sightseeing and equipment--are left to the employee. In addition, employees use their accumulated vacation time to participate.
Employee safety is one of Alcoa’s primary goals (99.9 percent of its employees have had zero lost workdays due to work-related injury or illness since November 2003), and Atkins says the Earthwatch program is no different. Apart from preparation materials provided by Earthwatch, Alcoa employees take part in a conference call that reviews health and safety policies. Employees are also given emergency phone numbers and procedures on what to do in case of an injury or illness. So far, only one serious injury--a broken hand--has taken place during an expedition, and the employee was well cared for by local facilities.
Depending upon the expedition, Alcoa fellows can learn practical skills, such as data management, but Atkins says practicality is a secondary concern for the company. "It’s more important to develop a more productive Alcoa," Atkins says. For example, "we want employees to see firsthand why it’s important to push for a recycling program."
Before the Romanian expedition, Suiter admits that he had been skeptical about Alcoa’s environmental programs. "I saw them (Alcoa) spending money on everyone else and not my paycheck," he says. During the trip, however, Suiter realized how important Alcoa’s programs were. His perspective of the world has changed.
"Over there," he says, "you use everything you can and make something with it. They’re using a 30-year-old wheelbarrow, where here we’d just buy a new one. I started to see how much waste there could be in manufacturing.
"Now I notice everything Alcoa does," Suiter says. "I really appreciate the life change they made in me."
Workforce Management, March 2005, pp. 68-70 -- Subscribe Now!