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Sustainability and Employee Engagement: Anything Goes

Jennifer Elder, The Sustainable CFO | Saturday November 21st, 2009 | 4 Comments

Engage employees through recyclingEngaging employees through sustainability is not a one size fits all approach.  From Walmart’s Personal Sustainability Project to  Sodexo’s Corporate Citizenship Program to Intel’s intranet to FMYI’s online collaboration, the variety is endless.  Each of the four members of the Net Impact Conference 2009 panel on Sustainable Innovation Through Employee Engagement, had differing approaches on everything from launching a sustainability program to reward programs to changing employee behavior.  The panel was moderated by Justin Yuen of FMYI and was comprised of Holly Fowler of Sodexo, Carrie Freeman of Intel, and Richard Coyle of Walmart.  While variety was their norm, there was also a consistent theme – when it comes to sustainability it doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it, it matters that you do something.  Here are some of their ideas for starting a sustainability program and getting the employees actively involved.

Launching a Program

  • create a vision of sustainability for your company (What does sustainability look like?)
  • demonstrate C-suite support (What steps will management take?)
  • explain why sustainability is important to your business in particular (What benefits will be gained? cost-savings, improved image in the community, etc)
  • share the broader context – from both a business and personal perspective (answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”)
  • begin with some company mandates (set all printers to double-sided printing, adjust thermostats)
  • provide examples of how one employee can make a real difference (removing a single light bulb from every vending machine at all Walmart locations saved $1 million)
  • identify and allocate resources (budget time and money)
  • put infrastructure in place to generate ideas
  • identify what you are currently doing well and why (appreciative inquiry)
  • be prepared to act and implement ideas

Encouraging Employee Involvement

  • provide opportunity for employees to generate ideas (green teams)
  • allow employees the freedom to run with and implement their ideas (encourage passion!)
  • provide a format for sharing ideas across departments, locations, and countries (intranet, electronic newsletters)
  • start with initiatives that everyone can participate in (establish recycling programs, remove all Styrofoam products from cafeteria)
  • develop ongoing training programs (videos, podcasts, lunch & learns)
  • leverage the diversity of your company – allow for different ways to engage in sustainability initiatives (recycling, volunteering, leading a team)
  • communicate early and often and in different formats (signs, newsletters, conference calls, meetings, pod-casts, tweets)
  • make sustainability part of every employee’s job description

Changing Employee Behavior

  • develop metrics by company, by department, and by individual and report out progress (track effect of recycling program – reduction in waste, reduction in trash removal)
  • tie variable compensation to progress on sustainability initiatives (in manufacturing plant, part of manager’s bonus is tied to drop in energy usage)
  • sponsor competitions (most ideas, most cost savings, greatest effect on community)
  • provide awards and rewards (often “atta-boy” recognition is a more powerful motivator than money)
  • make new behavior easy and old behavior difficult (provide ceramic coffee mugs next to the coffee machine and move the paper coffee cups to the far end of the cafeteria)

The depth and breadth of ideas presented gave everyone in the audience at least one actionable idea.  Underlying the diversity of ideas and their process, there was still the common thread – do something!  Throw the sustainability “kite” in the air and let your employees run with it, you’ll be amazed at the results!  Based on the informal conversations after the session, there is no question that there are at least fifty companies who will be experiencing the excitement of engaging their employees in sustainability.


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  • http://www.jfcoach.com Jonathan Flaks

    Thanks for capturing this list of ideas and insights, and for conveying the encouragement to “do something.” Some business initiatives DO need to be planned out before taking action, but asking people how they want to make a difference really can start anywhere.

  • http://www.outerarc.com Aaron, OuterArc

    Some very good points in this article. I believe that engaging employees and changing behaviour is key to reducing energy consumption.

    It’s good to see the steps of an intiative, from idea to implementation and employee involvement, broken down.

    It also goes to show that just making sustainability and energy consumption part of people’s everyday lives provokes thought, innovation and positive action.

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  • http://www.fmyi.com Justin Yuen

    Thanks Jennifer for writing this article! It’s a great summary of what was covered during the panel I moderated. I’m looking forward to keeping this dialogue going on sustainability employee engagement.

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