Immersion program: Ernst & Young teaches sustainability through Earthwatch missions

By sending hand-selected volunteers to ongoing expeditions in places like Brazil and Costa Rica, the services company hopes to embed field-tested sustainability ideas across its practices.

For some companies, the idea of sending employees on a week-long Earthwatch Institute expedition to Brazil or Costa Rica would be considered a boondoggle. Not so for Ernst & Young, which just sent its third round of hand-selected volunteers to ongoing missions in both countries.

Ernst & Young views the Earthwatch initiative as not just a way to reward socially conscious employees, but also as a way to incorporate field learnings from the projects into its Climate Change and Sustainability Services practices, according to Ernst & Young executives.

"The participants really get to understand the link between sustainable development and economic development. They actually see the impact on an ecosystem, which they then can share in their office," said Mel Steiner, senior manager in climate change and sustainability services.

There were 10 volunteers selected for each location, from a pool of 160 applicants from the Americas organization. Applications are limited to those below the management level, but they can come from any practice within the company.

Steiner, who was a team leader on the Brazil project, says the locations for the projects are selected based on their potential impact to Ernst & Young's global business. Obviously, Brazil is one of the most important emerging nations for ALL of Ernst & Young's business and professional services, not just the sustainability practice. The expedition took place in the Atlantic Forest, which is considered one of the world's most threatened forests. The team will collect data over time (not just during the summer visit period); it also is working with a community of bee-keepers. Honey-making was identified as one of the most important alternative revenue sources for residents of the region.

In Costa Rica, Ernst & Young volunteers have been working with a coffee cooperative for the past three years. "In the first year, the first year was about basic economic sustainability, by the third year, the last time we went, the focus had shifted to a full-fledged triple bottom line program," said Leisha John, Americas director of environmental sustainability for Ernst & Young.

Ernst & Young will stick with these expeditions -- because it is interested in the long-term learnings. However, John says the company is studying potential ways to expand the program to other regions based on the strong internal and external response so far. "It really helps our people connect the dots," she said.

The video below provides an overview of the expedition program:

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