The Three Keys to a Successful Sustainability Program

The Three Keys to a Successful Sustainability Program

As Time Magazine recently reported, organizations of all kinds have begun making a gradual and powerful move toward sustainability as they recognize increasing convergences between economic and environmental interests. One increasingly-popular accelerator used by high-profile companies like Walmart is to engage employees in helping to achieve sustainability goals. 

My company, Brighter Planet, embarked on a nationwide employee engagement survey to uncover insights into the extent and nature of employee sustainability programs. After crunching, sifting, charting, and interpreting 30,000-plus data points collected from 1,055 survey-takers, we were disappointed to discover that most employers have only just begun interacting with employees around sustainability, and that their efforts leave much room for improvement. Yet we were heartened to identify key attributes of effective programs. 

Respondents represent a diverse set of demographics, organizations, and job roles. They perceive themselves as more environmentally-inclined than most Americans, and, across the board, are enthusiastic sustainability cheerleaders for philosophical reasons.

By contrast, respondents view their organizations’ interest in sustainability as saving money, one-upping competitors, or retaining employees.  Although 86 percent said their employer promotes employee sustainability in some arena, 67 percent wanted their employer to change their stance on sustainability and only 14 percent rated their engagement tactics as very effective. 

We found that size does matter. But since large companies tend to have sustainability directors and official policies, we were surprised to find that outfits with less than 100 employees are in fact twice as likely to promote sustainability. And their efforts are twice as likely to be effective at changing employee behavior. 

Sector matters too. Environmental organizations have the greenest workforce, but energy/utility and retail companies also rank above average.  Government and manufacturing workers are less green than average. The lightest green workforces are in technology and financial services, where only 20 percent of respondents self-identify as dark green -- less than half the survey average.

Retail, government, and technology sectors were found to be laggards in the effectiveness of their employee sustainability engagement.  Respectively, these sectors have workforces that are more green than average, less green than average, and lightest green. In addition to these three sectors ranking lowest on sustainability effectiveness, they are also less likely to promote sustainable employee behavior than those in the financial services, professional services, manufacturing, not-for-profit, energy/utility, or environmental sectors. 

While changing an organization’s size and sector to better its sustainability hand is admittedly unlikely, we did find three underlying attributes of successful programs that can be embraced by organizations of any type:

1. Visible advocacy from management increases the odds

In theoretical terms, survey-takers suggest that they thought top-down and bottom-up sustainability organizing would be equally effective within their institution. But in practice, organizations where sustainability advocacy comes from management or board levels were found to have higher effectiveness in their engagement programs. 

Light green respondents, perhaps because sustainability isn’t a personal priority, are more likely than dark greens to favor the top-down approach.

Interestingly, programs in which a sustainability director is the main advocate for employee sustainability are one third as effective as programs where management or the board is the main advocate

2. Measure twice, cut once      

Just as in carpentry, making sure that a company’s sustainability decisions are based on sound data is essential to reaching goals.  Surprisingly, both employee sustainability goal setting and data collection are rare. Only 14 percent said their employer had an official employee engagement policy, just 25 percent said their organization measures its carbon footprint, and just 16 percent and 12 percent, respectively, measured emissions from employee commuting or staff travel.

3.  Communicate, communicate, communicate

Perhaps the study’s most damning finding is that up to 25 percent of respondents don’t know their employers’ position on sustainability.  Further, 32 percent said their company never shares sustainability goals and strategies with employees.  Only 33 percent said their organization has a method for employees to share sustainability ideas with coworkers, but these respondents are nearly five times as likely to rate their employer’s efforts as very effective at changing employee behavior compared to other respondents.  

Organizations demonstrating the highest effectiveness in encouraging employees to think and act sustainably are much more likely to have open channels for staff to cross-communicate ideas. Further, employers that encourage the use of social media are twice as likely to be rated very effective in their sustainability engagement as employers that don’t.

Why should an organization care about engaging their employees on sustainability?

A recent Gallup study concluded that companies that effectively engage employees outperform others by wide margins, demonstrating 2.6 times higher earnings-to-share growth rates.   For any organization that's serious about folding sustainability into its culture, it's becoming clear that engaging employees on the issue can be a major boon for the triple bottom line. 

The free survey results are available at

Patti Prairie is the chief executive officer of Brighter Planet, a for-profit company that provides technology-driven climate change solutions that help people and businesses manage their environmental impact. Brighter Planet has engaged more than 150,000 customers to date.