When JCPenney enlisted the help of volunteer "energy captains" at each of its 1,000-plus retail stores, they were asked to be the eyes and ears on the ground to look for more ways to conserve energy and green their workplace.

Even though the Plano, Texas-based retailer has a formal energy team in place at the corporate level to carry out sustainability initiatives companywide, executives there wanted to tap the enthusiasm of green-minded employees who could work on energy-saving efforts on the front lines, explained Robert Keller, JCPenney's energy management and engineering services director.

"We have 100 million square feet of buildings and our employees had no idea how much we were spending on utility bills," Keller said. "Our energy captains helped communicate that cost to other employees and encouraged them to help find energy savings too."

JCPenney is among a growing number of businesses, both large and small, that are seeking out volunteer "green champions" among their workforce who are passionate about being green and want a role in making their workplace more environmentally friendly, according to sustainability consultants. Companies are tapping a wellspring of employees who may not sit on a green team or sustainability committee at their company, but are eager to roll up their sleeves and make pointed suggestions about reducing energy consumption, improving recycling efforts, or boosting water conservation.

In many instances, these recommendations translate into cost savings for companies as more waste is cut from the system and co-workers change their everyday behavior to be more eco-conscious in the workplace, experts said.  

JCPenney's program is making a difference. One energy captain in Salt Lake City, Utah, helped slash her store's monthly energy consumption by 25 percent when she found a hidden light switch in a massive stockroom and began turning the lights out at night, Keller recalled. She also posted large signs to alert co-workers where the wall switches are located so they too could flip the switch for savings at the end of each day.

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Tips for Using Green Champions Successfully

Be specific about expectations and goals Employees need to know what they’re getting themselves into before signing up as volunteers. The more they know, the more likely you will find the right personnel to participate. JCPenney managers told prospective energy captains they could expect to spend no more than an hour every couple weeks on their green volunteer work.

Give volunteers time in their work schedule to focus on exploring green improvements Companies that give employees paid days off for volunteer work in their community might consider adding green champion work to the list of approved activities. While it should be okay for workers to carve out small chunks of time for green initiatives, make sure those employees continue to fulfill their regular job responsibilities or other workers will be resentful of their volunteering.

Create a reward system to incentivize volunteers It doesn’t have to be about cash. In most cases, recognition at high levels of the organization is enough of a reward. If you’re giving away stuff as a thank you, try sticking with an energy-efficiency theme: hand out CFLs so workers can make their homes more energy-efficient too.

Check new ideas with experts before plowing ahead with changes Bounce new ideas off internal corporate sustainability experts before rushing forward to implement volunteers’ ideas. Companies need to verify that a recommendation is safe and will result in true sustainable improvements beyond a green veneer.

Use volunteers to spread the word about good green practices found in other parts of the company When large organizations make green improvements at one site, a communications mechanism should be available so volunteers learn about it and explore the merits of applying similar changes at their location.

Give volunteers tools to help them find eco-friendly improvements If they’re focusing on energy savings, for example, develop a utility bill database. You can’t make wise changes if you can’t measure where you started. A database will give you baseline data, and then keep you up on the numbers as savings are implemented. You can use web-based tools or create your own Excel spreadsheet and track information using monthly utility bills.

These captains, mostly sales associates or store managers, are excited about their volunteer efforts, even though they get no extra pay for their participation, Keller said. What they don't get in dollars is made up in recognition from superiors when their suggestions lead to real energy savings. On occasion, their store may get an extra perk, such as relief from paying a monthly utility bill to bolster their revenue picture at the end of the year.