How to make sustainability ideas stick

What makes one idea or project "stick" and another disappear?

It's a question we have asked for years as we track the progress of companies who have invested in our Pollution Prevention Lean Principles workshops. At the end of every workshop we see people walking out with a solid plan and motivation to get it done. A year later we follow up and, while some have transformed their company, others have made no changes.    

During the training, participants assess potential projects by carefully considering technical, economic and risk factors. They develop a plan to reduce waste and save money and a strategy to sell the project to management and gain employee support. Even with this degree of research and planning, too many companies fail to implement the project.

What was missing?

This summer we followed up with workshop attendees to find out which were successful and which needed help. We found that a successful project has three elements:

1. It improves the company's core business processes
2. It engages employees and management
3. The project has a "cool" factor, or something that makes it memorable

Improving a company's core business processes

Reducing waste can improve the efficiency of core business processes and lead to big savings. Two companies we worked with were able to reduce tons of hazardous waste and increase profitability. One Houston-area specialty chemical facility began using leftover chemicals from previously blended batches in new batches, reducing more than eight tons per year of hazardous waste and saving $235,000 annually.   

Similarly, a test laboratory reduced waste by three tons per year and saved about $20,000 annually on solvents and expired chemicals through modification of the lab's analytical equipment and centralized purchasing.

Engaging employees and management

Involving leaders throughout a company is a key factor for success. An engineer for a paint manufacturer we worked with tried for several years to find a use and reuse option for large quantities of a byproduct with marginal success. Projects like this can be quite complex and often require many people from inside and outside the company to coordinate the effort. Making any significant change requires enlisting help at all levels.

Coordination between the plant engineer and corporate sustainability office made it happen. They found enough end-users of their byproduct to divert more than 3,000 tons per year of material from the landfill with combined savings and earnings of more than $350,000 annually.

The 'cool' factor

One community college's green chemistry program had both multi-level cooperation and something that made it "cool."

A faculty member's idea about green chemistry lab experiments took off when supported by the environmental health and safety (EHS) coordinator. Faculty and staff worked together to implement a standardized lab curriculum that cut hazardous waste by about half. All of these levels were engaged because the project had a cool factor which called for students to switch to soft drinks in chemistry lab experiments in place of toxic, heavy-metal chemicals.

Companies that tell the story or adopt a memorable phrase also tend to have better success. For instance, do you remember these phrases: "biodegradable plant acute hazardous waste absorption bins" or "cactus sinks?" Out near the West Texas town of El Paso, hospitals installed "cactus sinks" to reduce their hazardous waste and save $8,000 per year. The key was discovering that using local cacti in their pharmaceutical disposal bins was a cheaper and more effective way of managing their acute hazardous waste.

Of course, persistence and sound projects are important. But the difference between success and failure for good ideas rely on three things: Make the project part of core business strategy, involve all levels of your business and include a "cool" factor to make it memorable.

These three things can be the glue that makes an idea stick.

Sticky notes image by Peter Zvonar via Shutterstock.