4 tips for fostering a sustainable company culture

A mug with a smiley face drawn in the coffee.
Shutterstockandrew crotty
Goal: Engage workers in sustainability personally and professionally.

A company's culture isn’t defined merely by ping-pong tables and free lunches; employees want to feel like part of something bigger. That sense of community and fulfillment benefits employers, too; by one estimation (PDF), disengaged workers cause losses of close to $500 billion every year.

Happy employees are engaged, which depends partly on sustainable practices at work. When a company trades silence and waste for open communication and sustainability, employees respond positively. For instance, after implementing sustainable programs and zero-waste practices last year at our company, Earth Friendly Products, we saw an 18 percent decrease in health insurance premiums and a 30 percent drop in employee sick leave.

When you drive awareness and excitement through your team, aim to articulate goals and how you plan to measure success. This way, employees can discern the effects of their decisions. For instance, we encourage employees to embrace sustainability through incentives. Those who move closer to work, drive eco-friendly cars, or install solar panels earn financial incentives and points redeemable for rewards. Beyond zero-waste goals, we sponsor "health-friendly days" in 2010 to speak to employees about how to live healthier lifestyles, including advice on eating habits and exercise.

The following four areas can help to achieve employee buy-in for sustainability efforts in your office:

1. Persistence

Any habit change requires time to stick. Employees might resist an initiative at first, but continue to insist on sustainable practices and they will eventually view, say, a zero-waste mindset as second nature. What feels like extra work at first becomes a regular business process.

In our internal marketing campaigns, we provide short bits of information on healthy eating and sustainability practices so people can learn during their downtime. Keep it light so employees don’t feel lectured; after all, brains can only process a limited amount of information at once.

Keep up a steady stream of passive, consistent information to bring employees around to the reality of sustainable business practices. Eventually, they will begin to give back on their own. For example, one of our employees suggested we switch to reusable hairnets, which now allows us to reuse and recycle equipment that used to go in the trash. 

2. Ownership

Instill a sustainable mindset by providing incentives and encouragement. Make employees feel they aren’t forced to participate, but that they are driving the initiative. 

"When you build a culture where people can be their authentic selves, they’re going to bring their best work, their best ideas, and their best people to your company," said Ciara Trinidad, head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Blend, a digital lending company. Research backs her up; Harvard Business Review reports that employees who personalize their work areas feel more satisfied and able to contribute.

To illuminate the benefits of sustainability, encourage your team to implement such practices at work and at home. For instance, our company’s "Sustainability Passport" allows team members to earn points, redeemable for fun activities or perks at work. To earn points, an employee can carpool, install solar panels at home or move closer to the office. In turn, our work culture has become more enjoyable and collaborative. When employees see the connection between their personal efforts and broader changes, they're more likely to feel positive about their role in a work-driven initiative.

3. Reusing and recycling

We encourage employees to bring unused items from home — such as appliances, clothing or shoes — several times per year to share with one another. This helps to limit waste at home while helping others.

Workers, especially younger ones, say they appreciate perks such as these. They notice when companies install recycling receptacles in shared office spaces and feel good about the environmental impact. To that end, we brought in a guest speaker last year to share simple strategies for limiting environmental footprints. 

Additionally, be sure every element of your company — from manufacturing to customer service — finds ways to be sustainable. Audit certain points of production to discern where energy could be reduced or more efficient workflows implemented. We use 100 percent renewable energy, for example, much of it from our own solar panels.

4. Ongoing message

The effort to inform and involve employees must be continuous to remain effective. Understand your audience and build a relationship through organic conversations.

Don’t lower standards to make goals easier to reach. Instead, install smaller objectives on the road to bigger ones, and show that leaders are pursuing the same goals. This focus naturally creates environmental advocates in the office who become brand ambassadors for sustainability and bring others on board. For example, when one of our leaders suggested that an employee replace her old coffee mug, the employee declined, because throwing it out would create unnecessary waste.

Continue to demonstrate to employees that the company cares about both the environment and their personal well-being to create a contagious, positive experience. The more you encourage sustainability, the more employees will make it a personal goal.

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