Motivated Employees Make Sustainability Initiatives Sustainable

Motivated Employees Make Sustainability Initiatives Sustainable

When a company, large or small, decides to assess and improve its environmental performance, having employees on board to support and extend the project can make the difference between success and failure.

Danielle Latta bought electricity from a green energy provider but didn't recycle and never thought about waste. The Dallas-area resident knew she had to change some habits when she learned more about the air quality issues facing her city.

"I suffer from allergies," she said. "On bad pollution days, it's really bad."

The realization occurred when Latta's employer, D Magazine, began exploring ways of becoming more environmentally friendly while preparing to publish its Green Report on the ways in which Dallas is softening its environmental footprint. A grassroots bottom-up employee program built upon education, empowerment and reinforcement helped to jumpstart and sustain the company's green initiatives.

D Magazine made changes, beginning with small steps: It instituted a mandatory recycling program, worked with its building management to incorporate energy efficient lighting and phased out paper plates and plastic cups in favor of reusable versions.

Latta, who joined her company's "green team," which was formed in August, began doing things differently, too, such as recycling at home, taking reusable bags to the grocery store and dry cleaners and keeping an eye on her energy usage.

"Education was a huge part of it," Latta said. "It made me want to make changes in my life."

Making a Personal Connection to Sustainability

Employees often connect to the broader concept of sustainability through the prisms of finances and health and wellness, said Judah Schiller, executive vice president of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a consulting firm currently working with Wal-Mart to help its 1.3 million employees become more personally sustainable.

"The majority aren't doing it to save the trees," Schiller said.

He offers an example of an employee he met who was overweight, ate fast food regularly and led a sedentary lifestyle. By gradually eliminating fast food from his diet, he saw the positive impact on his physical wellbeing. He eventually saw the environmental aspect, too: Eating less fast food meant less packaging and waste headed to the landfill, as well as fewer greenhouse gas emissions from the delivery and manufacture of the food or from waiting in the drive-thru lane to pick it up.

Schiller and others agree that upper management commitment is necessary before any significant steps toward greener operation, or the broader notion of sustainability, can be taken.

"It made it so easy," said Dayna Ahrens, who led D Magazine's green team. "I haven't asked for anything that wasn't granted."

For Latta, having an outside consultant come in to enlighten the staff lent the education more credibility. While some companies can broach the ideas of environmental stewardship and sustainability successfully on their own, others may experience a backlash.

"I end up coming into situations because of what has been tried before," said Terry Gips, president of Sustainability Associates. "I would rather come in at the beginning to know where the key barriers are and engage them earlier. Once water has gone over the dam, it is often much harder."

It's important to give employees the chance to take ownership of an initiative on their own, rather than being forced to adopt one. "The approach wasn't condescending, like 'You should be doing this,'" Ahrens said. "I don't feel like anyone feels pressured or like they're being preached to."

Giving workers the opportunities to come up with ideas to drive initiatives is a good way to encourage ownership, Gips said.

"It's important to have people aligned with a shared vision," he said. "But if there's no ownership, and people are not encouraged to come up with new solutions, you'll stay stagnant."

Ahrens, an account executive who drives a hybrid, was already versed in environmental issues when D Magazine's green team was created. Employees like her are vital to driving green initiatives, said John Provisor, chief technical officer of Guidance, a Marina del Ray, Calif., company offering web-based site development for enterprises focused on e-commerce.

"Tapping into the passion of a core group of people is instrumental to success," Provisor said.

About a year ago, Guidance was working on a proposal from a company indicating its desire to work with vendors who agree with its environmental principles.

"It struck a chord in me," Provisor said. "Guidance at that time wasn't doing much of anything in terms of impact on the environment."

He spoke to the company's president, who felt that environmental stewardship could have a beneficial impact on the company. Provisor asked other employees to join him; he received a healthy response.

"It was a seed in all of us but had never been watered," he said.

The company formed Guidance Green, a committee of employees who teamed to draft a solution to make the company greener.

Navigating by the 'North Star'

Establishing a "North Star" for people to drive toward is essential, Schiller said. For Guidance, erasing its carbon footprint represented its North Star. It devised an action plan that called for recycling, reusing and reducing material wastes. Then it looked at its business processes to ease energy consumption. It took what it learned into the community, such as forming partnerships with conservation groups and creating a toolkit of help other businesses.

"The goal was to help external companies easily become more efficient," Provisor said of the toolkit. "It was not a management directive."

The group keeps the green momentum going with consistent reinforcement: At each monthly meeting, an environmentally focused topic is discussed. D Magazine's green team produces in-house monthly newsletters with tips on how workers can make green changes at home and at the office.

Some companies offer ongoing incentives to inspire workers to take environmentally focused action. Thirty-eight Timberland employees, for instance, have taken advantage of the company's $3,000 subsidy toward the purchase of a hybrid vehicle.

JCPenney rewards teams of workers for developing and supporting energy-saving solutions as part of its company-wide program, Monthly Utility Mania.

Companies, Gips said, must also establish ways of measuring whether an initiative is successful. For Latta of D Magazine, the end result of her company's green initiative had a big impact on employee morale.

"It's not necessarily the cheapest thing but it's something they really supported," she said of her colleague from all levels of the organization. "The amount of energy invested was inspiring."

Tilde Herrera is the associate editor of GreenBiz.com.

School of fish photo licensed under the Creative Commons by suneko.