Earth Day 2011: What Works, and What Doesn't, to Engage Employees

Earth Day 2011: What Works, and What Doesn't, to Engage Employees

For hundreds of companies, Earth Day represents a prime opportunity to get employees pumped up over green -- and, in the process, give a boost to its ongoing sustainability activities.

That's what we heard from dozens of executives when we asked them, "What do you consider your organization's biggest Earth Day successes and failures?"

As we expected, accounts of Earth Day successes far outweighed failures. Yet many shared lessons learned and talked of experiences that were less than glowing. We tip our hat to those brave execs and their candor.

Here are select examples of how companies are engaging employees on this 41st Earth Day:

Kevin Anton, Chief Sustainability Officer, Alcoa

We have learned that we can do more through partnership, and so we have taken our successful "Month of Service" model that last October mobilized 29,000 employees in partnership with 3,000 community organizations, and applied it to our Earth Day celebrations -- working in collaboration with our employees, customers, partners and neighbors around the world. A great example is the e-waste drive we will hold across our U.S. plants over the Earth Day weekend, in collaboration with our new business partner, Electronics Recycling International. By leveraging ERI's recycling infrastructure and making it available in our communities at no cost, we will help provide a much-needed solution to the growing challenge of e-waste.

Terry F. Yosie, President and CEO, World Environment Center

Asked what separates successful employee Earth Day events from those that fail, Yosie said:

The Earth Day events that succeed are those that are specific, participatory, frequently local and therefore authentic. They succeed because they are continuous and result in observable benefits. Those that fail tend to be the celebratory, check-the-box, one-off events that nobody remembers. Or, if people do remember it's because subsequent performance deflated the hype.

Holly Emerson, Senior Analyst, Center for Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Climate Solutions Sector, Ingersoll Rand Company

Ingersoll Rand Company coordinates several Earth Day activities for employees and encourages each site to host them, according to Emerson. They include electronics recycling, a Bloom Challenge (a bulb-planting activity), biking to work, holding nature walks, locovore lunches, and highway and trail cleanups. The company also borrowed a concept from Burt's Bees: Dumpster Dives, which give employees a firsthand look at what has been thrown away to help them gain a better understanding of how waste impacts the environment and to identify materials that can diverted from landfill for recycling. The company's campus in Davidson, N.C., posted a YouTube video (below) of its Dumpster Dive

Here are her highlights of how some activities fared:

A "Walk the Trail Clean" event one year was very successful. It was a beautiful day, lots of people participated, and lots of trash was picked up. And employees felt great about contributing to the beautification of our campus. It was simple to organize and very effective. Environmental change begins with environmental awareness!

... Our dumpster dive provided us with valuable empirical data. We had enough volunteers, but few employees came to see what we had done. It was a lot of work to plan and required some external partner involvement. We got an excellent video out of it:

Emerson said Earth Day challenges include engaging middle managers so that they participate in activities in addition to supporting them. "Middle managers are supportive,"  she said, but perhaps don't participate as much because they "don't understand their value in the process." Emerson also said:

Most important is to recognize that ANY small effort is valuable and that people can help in very different ways. For example, the admin that can't leave her desk can help by sending announcements and scheduling volunteers.

Mary Wenzel, Director of Environmental Affairs, Wells Fargo

Our actions represent positive momentum that will, in combination with others and overtime, lead to the ultimate success -- making every day Earth Day. Each of our individual actions is a success. Each Wells Fargo Green Team that takes and inspires local action is a success. Each time our customers switch to paperless options, we are, together with our customers, successful. Sometimes even inaction can be a success. Failure occurs only when you stop trying.

Amy HargrovesAmy Hargroves, Manager, Corporate Responsibility, Sprint

Earth Day activities have steadily grown at Sprint with events talking place this year at 14 sites, the most ever, according to Hargroves. She added:

Our only disappointments have been with our non-campus sites. It can be difficult to find a local organizer and funds. Last year's event on campus was particularly interesting in that it poured rain for nearly the entire event and we paired the event with Take Your Kids to Work Day. Amazingly the rain didn't appear to slow down attendance and the visiting employee children had a great demonstration of Sprint's commitment to environmental responsibility. We generally don't get to select the date for Take Your Kids to Work Day, but wish we could have them together every year.

Beth Colleton, Vice President of Green is Universal, NBCUniversal

Lessons learned is probably a more accurate way to describe what we’ve gleaned over the past few years. Communication is key. We've learned that it's important not to work too behind-the-scenes, people want to know what their company is doing and we need to make sure we do it in a way that is accessible to everyone. That's why we've made a concerted effort to leverage all of our internal assets this year to help push out what we're doing as a company: from our internal website, to creating an internal portal where employees can interact and discuss green best practices. We've also created some signs around our buildings to help communicate our efforts as well.

Gerri Walsh, Director of Sustainability, Ball Corporation

Ball Corporation is holding an employee Earth Day Sustainability Fair today that will include interactive booths presented by outside vendors, said Walsh, who added:

This is the third year we've held this type of event and we get great feedback from our employees. Prior to this we've had quizzes and done mostly internal stuff.

John Rego, Executive Director, Environmental Sustainability, Sony Pictures Entertainment

SPE has had great success related to their Eco-Incentive and Employee Compost Giveaway Programs, but just like everything there are always challenges. While SPE's Pledge Booth is a great way to get employees involved it is difficult to track individual progress to date. [In the annual, Pledge Booth activity, employees commit to an environmental act for the next year and as a reward for pledging, they receive a reusable item such as a tumbler, coffee mug, and/or utensils to encourage their commitment.] Sony is striving to identify a creative solution to this challenge but in the meantime with tremendous internal support and great success with local and sustainable partners, SPE continues to strive for creative solutions for the greatest employee involvement and making every day Earth Day.

David Brennfleck, Large Enterprise Account Manager, SAP Sustainability Champion, SAP Americas

In 2010, SAP launched "100,000 Steps towards Sustainability" around Earth Day, and we exceeded our target. This was a big success.

Stephanie Kraemer, Performance Management Analyst, Process Excellence & Quality Group and Green Team Member, Schneider Electric Buildings, Americas

Celebrating Earth Day as one company is a challenge with our offices located around the country. We are fortunate to have teams dedicated to employee and environmental initiatives. Between these teams there are representatives in each office to drive a companywide event.

The Earth Week Team met multiple times to collaborate and develop the best possible events for Earth Week. Each representative has taken the companywide communications and templates to make them relevant to their location. They are the key to making the event successful.

Kathrin Winkler, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, EMC

Having on-site events such as PC collection and vendor showcase has been successful as they drew employees as well as reinforced our relationships with local partners. Some other activities include a game-show style quiz and a swap shop for used items held at EMC's Apex North Carolina facility.

In 2009, we held an Earth Day virtual tradeshow and invited people from different groups to do round-the-clock online interviews. It didn't turn out to be a success as it didn't draw people beyond those who already had a deep interest.

Eric Olson, Senior Vice President, Advisory Services, BSR

Asked to comment on the evolution of businesses' Earth Day activities, Olson said:

The most important way in which activities have evolved is that they are more often embedded in a larger, year-round program for change and improvement. Additionally, more companies have expanded their formal Earth Day programs well beyond the day itself. I was just at Aveda's HQ in Minneapolis this week and noted they are celebrating Earth Month with a full suite of both customer-facing and employee activities. Target is celebrating the month with a "Refresh Your Nest" promotion and sweepstakes to engage their customers around more sustainable products for the home.

The most important point is that Earth Day activities cannot be the one time in a year that a company engages its people around environmental sustainability. If it is not part of a broader ongoing program and discussion it comes across as at best trivial and at worst cynical and insincere.

The most exciting and effective programs (including Aveda's and Target's) also include and connect activities across three areas:
1) Customer-facing programs and messages.
2) Employees at work.
3) Employees at home and in their communities.