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Corporate Green Teams: Sustainable Business from the Bottom Up

When corporate sustainability initiatives spring up organically from employees' own motivation, the results can include more than just shrinking a company's footprint. Three companies highlight the different stages of how a green team evolves.

With sky high gas prices and a growing sense of belief that global warming may be a real and imminent threat, many individuals are starting to ask themselves, "What can I do about this now?" This rhetorical question often inspires people to change personal habits such as taking public transportation, getting a hybrid car, or bringing their own grocery bags to the store. But this is a question that people are increasingly taking from their personal lives into their working lives.

An April 2007 survey by Adecco, an international HR company, found that 52 percent of employed adults felt their companies should do more to be environmentally friendly. "Green Teams", a formal or informal group of people in a company who are passionate about environmental issues, are gathering in offices across America to brainstorm solutions and promote ways in which their company's practices can become more environmentally sustainable.

Green teams develop in any number of ways: sometimes they're convened by top management at large companies as part of a corporate sustainability initiative, but also common are self-started groups that build momentum and are incorporated into a company's structure.

However they come together, these groups offer many benefits to their companies. By uniting like-minded folks who are passionate about the environment, employees can increase the sense of community as well as employee engagement in the company. When employees get excited about something at the workplace -- even something not directly related to their jobs, this passion can spill over to existing projects, infusing more productivity.

Green teams can also help companies attract and retain top talent: The 2007 Adecco HR survey also shows a trend that companies are highlighting their green activities to market themselves and attract new employees. In a separate survey, commissioned by National Geographic magazine in Feb 2008, more than 80 percent of U.S. workers polled said they believe it is important to work for a company or organization that makes the environment a top priority.

Every Green Team has its own history, its own processes and its own successes and challenges. This article explores the activities of three teams -- from the online world, biotechnology, and architecture -- in a variety of industries as they travel on the journey of creating change in their companies.

Making the Sale at eBay

eBay's Green Team formed one year ago and currently has 1182 members worldwide. The team started out at the San Jose location and has expanded globally with members from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. The effort has sparked eBay's employee engagement as many employees welcomed the opportunity to gather, discuss, and learn about environmental issues.

Many meetings are structured around employee ideas for addressing environmental concerns. Some key activities the eBay Green Team has sponsored include: solar employee incentive program, preferred parking for hybrid vehicles, CFL bulb and reusable shopping totes giveaways, a program to calculate carbon footprints and discussion on the process of carbon offsets, and a Funky Mug contest, in which employees brought in unwanted mugs from home and voted for their favorite.

When asked about how the team will grow in the future, Libby Reder, eBay's Environmental Program Manager for Global Citizenship, explained, “The Green Team has clearly captured the imagination of a whole lot of people who are interested in learning and taking action. The next step for us is to keep fueling the movement with unique content and opportunities, and then to calculate and aggregate our positive impact.”

Genentech: Sustainability in Their Genes

The Green Genes team at Genentech is 5 years in the making and has nearly 500 members, mostly located in South San Francisco. With their newly implemented Sustainability Suggestion website, the team is harvesting ideas from the entire company to capture ideas that may improve Genentech's environmental performance.

The team will then do research to prioritize the ideas, and facilitate the process to link the viable ideas to internal environmental programs. Key activities include: projects that work to reduce energy and water consumption and waste generation, community service events like beach clean-ups, a Kill-a-Watt Lending program that allows employees to measure their power consumption, educational and fun monthly speaker series and regular movie nights focusing on sustainable practices.

Members of the team said their "Eco Ho-Ho," a yearly green fair, has been a successful event that attracts employees and their guests to learn about sustainable practices and the company's efforts.

Michael Brodie, the chairperson of the Green Genes Energy team, says "If, by our example, we can inspire just a small change in behavior from the average employee -- turning off lights in their own offices or conference rooms, or printing double-sided -- we'll raise awareness to the point where good things start to be done because it's expected."

Building a Sustainable Community at BJG

BJG Architecture and Engineering's Green Team formed a year ago and has become more formal in the last 6 months. They have 9 members, which for a 45 person company means 20 percent participation. Members participate from all their sites: Las Vegas, Reno and Pleasanton.

BJG's president sits on the Green Team and is an active participant. Key internal activities include: bike to work week, revamping purchasing processes to focus on recycled goods, optimize use of resources and reducing waste (ex. double sided printing), and developing fun internal competitions to measure and become more aware of employee recycling efforts (best recycling team gets free BBQ).

The BJG Green Team has also developed initiatives to help their clients be more sustainable. Some of BJG's client-oriented green initiatives include developing a design process for LEED certification, specifying green building materials, and educating clients about sustainable building practices.

Teresa Kulesza, a Green Team member and a Vice President at BJG, has a long list of goals for the future: “Our green team has a long list of ideas: We are ramping up our measurement efforts from weighing trash to reviewing utility bills to measure our carbon footprint. We are planning in house movie times to watch inspiring as well as educational videos on sustainability issues."

Further down the road, the group may undertake projects like offering an electric or fuel efficient company car for bikers and carpoolers to use for off-site meetings, installing a renewable energy generation system at their offices, and getting their facilities LEED-certified. BJG's projects go beyond in-house efforts to include outreach to clients as well. Kulesza said the group is developing a list of 10 free green improvements for each project.

Common challenges

Green teams find that they encounter common challenges. Some challenges include:
  • Companies exist to make money vs. being green as an objective. Unless the leader of the company see being green as a priority, programs may be slow to evolve.
  • For teams that are comprised mainly of employee volunteers, people can be over committed in their full time jobs and then struggle to try to squeeze out extra time to participate in green team activities.
  • It takes time and effort to research alternatives to current practices. Often, solutions are iterative rather than final.

Easy Tips for Successful Teamwork

No matter the differences between these teams or their companies or the challenges they encounter, several ideas emerged that are applicable to almost any situation:

Be inclusive. Green team leaders stressed that involving stakeholders who may be directly affected by green initiatives (e.g. facilities or purchasing) in the early planning phases is very important for success of any initiative.

Choose projects wisely. It's important to tackle projects that are most impactful and whose success can be quantitatively measured.

Make green goals part of the job. Participating in Green Team efforts is often an opportunity for the employee to develop and enhance leadership and teamwork skills. Having Green Team goals written into team member's quarterly goals will help support the employee in their development process.

Bigger is better for green teams. Since teams are mostly voluntary and time availability will vary with members depending on what work projects are going on, engaging a wider network of people to do activities is a key factor in keeping the momentum going.

Make sure communication channels are appropriate. As teams grow in size, email distribution lists may become unmanageable and teams should consider using other communication technologies such as blogs, digital dashboards, wikis and other tech tools to share information.

Small-scale focus can lead to more productivity. Having a single group when your company is dispersed nationally or internationally is unwieldy. Local issues will vary (for instance, water conservation for the Southwest) and different countries will have different practices. It's good to have local teams for each region and then an overarching team structure that unites local teams together for company wide initiatives.

Making it fun works to engage people in green team initiatives. Among the successful goals some teams have used to energize their companies include: Giving away fun incentives like CFL bulbs, free mugs, or gift certificates is an effective way to recruit new members and keep the energy fun amongst existing members; Sustainability Movie Nights; Funky Mug Contests; Office competitions to spur impact, for instance measuring how much each project team is actually recycling vs. throwing away trash with a free BBQ party reward for the winning team.

Green Teams: A New Twist on an Old Idea

Harnessing the creativity of employees to learn through sharing and collaboratively developing best practices is not a new practice among corporations: One of the most successful results from tapping employee ideas is Toyota, who follows the Kaizen Ideas Generation process.

As part of the Kaizen process, managers and supervisors encourage and even require employees to come up with ideas for improvement and then work to finesse and implement most of the ideas. Since the mid-1970s, Toyota plants worldwide have averaged some 20 to 30 ideas per employee per year, of which more than 80 percent were implemented. This has contributed greatly to Toyota's success as an innovative car company.

An article from the April 2008 issue of Entrepreneur magazine urges companies to "make your employees part of the solution by tapping them for environmentally friendly ideas.” Green Teams are an excellent vehicle for companies to tap into employees' passion and creativity and harvest innovation.

Here are some resources for starting and evolving your company's green team efforts:

Portland, Oregon's guide to setting up a recycling program for your business.

What Makes a Green Team Thrive, a presentation from the Sustainable Silicon Valley Educational Forum.

Incorporating Sustainability into Corporate Culture, an article by Leo Pierre Roy.

And case study presentations of all three of the companies profiled here are posted online at the Sustainable Silicon Valley website.

Quynh Nguyen started Adobe's Sustainability Catalyst employee group and is a student at the Presidio School of Management Sustainable MBA program.

Story photo licensed under the Creative Commons by lumaxart.

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