The Power of Rewards and Recognition in Sustainability Programs

Recognition of sustainability and energy projects makes mundane process and infrastructure improvements gratifying and rewards team work.   

Harvard University's Green Carpet Awards provides an outstanding example of a successful internal reward program. Hosted by Harvard's Office for Sustainability, the annual celebration and recognition event honors the creativity and hard work that students, staff and faculty bring to the university's sustainability efforts and goals.

The program honors community members from across the university's 12-plus schools and departments, with 55 individual awards and seven team project awards. It provides an array of ideas for sustainability leaders to hone their own award programs and demonstrates the important role the sustainability office plays in identifying innovations and opportunities while supporting, coordinating, and harvesting the organizational energy for sustainability improvements.

On April 11, about 500 people attended the 90-minute award ceremony in Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., which included short lectures, musical performances by student groups, and videos produced by students and the Office for Sustainability.

With 650 buildings, central steam generation plants, and 37,000 students, faculty and staff, Harvard University is a large, complex organization. Nevertheless, it has been consistently a leader and innovator on the sustainability front.

The University has had a formal sustainability office for a decade. Initially created by a faculty and staff initiative, it was a first for any major university. In 2008, Harvard established the university-wide Office for Sustainability to oversee and expand sustainability initiatives.

The campus has 88 LEED certified buildings, the most of any institution. In 2008, the university set a very aggressive, publicly stated greenhouse gas emission goal of a 30 percent absolute reduction by 2016, from a 2006 baseline.  This goal is inclusive of growth as the university has already added more than several million square feet of new buildings during this time period. The university is making progress in achieving this goal and has seen reduced energy usage across all schools and departments, regardless of growth.

The Green Carpet Awards program is impressive. Two hundred projects and individuals were nominated, including project teams of three to 16 people from all areas of the university. Projects were wide ranging and included initiatives for infrastructure improvements, behavior change, waste/water reduction, green buildings, green teams and renewable energy. Innovative projects, such as the use of reuseable containers for biowaste, populated the submissions.

In many cases the financial savings are significant. A retro-commission lab facility project saved $500,000 per year. Another green building project led to a 56 percent reduction in energy use while another lowered energy cost by 49 percent. A system that reduces the number of air changes in labs, always a difficult balancing act with concerns for safety, netted significant environmental benefits. In another case, an executive education program was honored for greening their program, including eliminating the use of 45,000 bottles of water annually.

Projects were judged by a selection committee of 18 people and included faculty, deans of schools, the CFO, vice presidents, students and other leaders.

Videos from Harvard professors speaking about the challenge of climate change and Harvard's GHG reduction goal were presented and music from a student band and a capella groups performed. A delightful hip-hop music video titled "Turn Off the Lights," produced by undergraduate students, was met with thunderous applause.

Organizations are populated with individuals passionate about sustainability and energy reduction. Recognition programs, such as the Green Carpet Awards, are a powerful tool to reduce environmental impact, save money and reward cross-functional team work and project execution. 

Image credit: Kris Snibbe, Harvard Public Affairs and Communications.