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Three Tips for Engaging Employees in Sustainability

| Wednesday September 16th, 2009 | 5 Comments

workers-208x300Employee engagement is a growing strategy for driving performance and building competitive advantage for companies with a commitment to sustainability.

“The engaged workforce will find more opportunities to get lean and identify more opportunities to innovate and create products and services that lower customers’ environmental impacts. All of this work will improve the top and bottom lines,” comments sustainable business expert Andrew Winston, in his recent book Green Recovery.

Based on his book, and some of the other recent literature available, I offer the following three tips for engaging employees in sustainability:

  • Look at the big picture and identify your greatest impacts across the value chain;
  • Involve staff in sustainability on multiple levels, both at work and at home; and
  • Integrate sustainability into operations and everyday decisions on products throughout their life cycle.

Catalyzing your employees to integrate sustainability into both their lives and work decisions can be a low-cost strategy for saving money, driving innovation and keeping employees happy.

Three tips for getting started

1.  Look at the big picture and identify your company’s greatest impacts

Review your key business operations to understand the key environmental issues for your business and the opportunities and risks presented by these issues. Think broadly about what sustainability means to your business–look beyond your four walls and up and down your full value chain.

If possible, quantify your impacts and prioritize the areas where your impacts are the greatest. And while doing a complete life cycle assessment (LCA) is beyond the scope of many companies, a back-of-the-envelope assessment can highlight the key areas to focus on.

In Green Recovery, Winston suggests that a key strategy for getting the most value out of green thinking is to “give employees a base knowledge on environmental issues and their implications for the business.” He highlights the need to make sure employees understand that climate change is both a threat and an opportunity.

2.  Involve staff on multiple levels, both at work and at home

Hewlett Packard provides a great case study for employee engagement. They engage employees on multiple levels, ranging from providing them energy kits to reduce their personal carbon footprint at home to offering incentives for biking to work to encouraging them to innovate more and find ways to embed sustainability into product design, the supply chain and the sales process.

Green teams are a growing tool for more informal employee engagement to build awareness, educate employees on important issues, provide opportunities for cross-functional brainstorming and implement quick wins both at work and at home. This approach focuses more on engaging employees in their personal lives and around the office.

Tim Mohin’s post on GreenBiz.com earlier in the year has some resources for getting started.

One of the employee engagement strategies gaining traction is low carbon food service. Companies such as eBay, SAP Labs and Yahoo! are all working with Bon Appétit Management Company to lower the carbon footprint of their food and bring more sustainable food choices to their employees. Environmental Defense created a short video that frames the issue from the corporate perspective. I recently had the chance to eat at one of Bon Appetit’s cafeterias and their commitment to local, fresh, organic and healthy food is impressive (see recent 3P post by Bon Appetit for more details on their sustainable agriculture policies).

Stay tuned for more–I am currently working on a white paper for AltaTerra Research that will go into more depth on the best practices for engaging green teams.

3.  Integrate sustainability into operations and everyday decisions on products throughout their life cycle

In addition to more informal programs, some leading companies are taking employee engagement to the next level by integrating sustainability into operations and everyday decisions on products throughout their life cycle, from product development to manufacturing to marketing to product use and ultimately end-of-life.

Scott Johnson, Managing Partner at FairRidge Group, comments, “We have typically used two approaches to help jump start employee engagement efforts at our clients, such as Red Bull North America.” In addition to using informal “Green Teams” efforts to build awareness and engage employees in a cross-functional setting, FairRidge uses a more formal “Continuous Improvement” process that “focuses on the systematic review of departmental activities, working with the managers and employees to understand the key activities, inputs/outputs, key environmental issues and opportunities for improvement.”

The next level of employee engagement will begin to think about such issues as:

  • Securing a commitment to action from senior management;
  • Discovering quick-win solutions that reduce energy use and waste;
  • Creating a culture that supports innovation and identifies products and services with a smaller footprint;
  • Web 2.0 tools to promote communication and learning;
  • Engaging informational seminars for employees;
  • Considering packaging and end-of-life issues; and
  • Linking performance evaluations to sustainability metrics.

For additional case studies and information, see The Engaged Organization, a recent report from National Environmental Education Foundation.

And while Deloitte’s report Crossing the Green Divide is a a year old, it has some strategy ideas for channeling your team’s passion for greening into actions for your bottom line.

***

Deborah Fleischer, founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies identify key environmental issues, strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges.

Since majoring in environmental studies in 1983, Deborah’s career has focused on environmental issues in both the public and private sectors. She is an expert in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact.


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  • http://www.carbonrally.com Jason

    Deborah,

    This is a great article. Thanks for all of the links to helpful studies. Regarding your second point, Intel is doing some interesting things to engage employees on multiple levels. One of their strategies involves deployment of a team-based competition with Carbonrally. There’s a good BSR article on Intel’s programs here: http://tinyurl.com/mzgzfm.

  • http://www.greenimpact.com Deborah Fleischer

    Thanks Jason. If anyone else has best practices and resources to share, please send them my way.

  • Jagan

    Hello Deborah,

    Nice blog post Deborah.
    On you #2 point SAP also has a green website that they use to inform employees, connect with them and engage them.

    We also have a solution that helps companies engage employees in sustainability initiatives.

    Thanks
    Jagan

  • http://computingforsustainability.wordpress.com Samuel Mann

    Great post Deborah,
    We’ve also found that public recognition has been important – both for those involved, and as a way of bringing out the lurkers who will do something only after they see that others are before them. Also, it is important to communicate all the things in the “integrate in operations…” category – once you’ve made a decision to change a supply chain, make this transparent. To this end we’re working to the guideline that “everything we do is a learning opportunity for our whole community”. So I would add “celebrate and communicate” as important in engaging the workforce.
    Cheers
    SaM

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  • http://www.engagingideas.co.uk rob

    For ideas and exercises that help to inspire employee engagement and change, readers might like to see:

    http://www.engagingideas.co.uk

    Many thanks for the read too: great stuff.

    Rob.