Engaging Employees in Sustainability

engageBy Kelly Flores, Kanal Consulting

It’s quite possible that if you don’t have a sustainability program in your company, you probably do and just don’t know about it yet.  In the process of conducting a recent study with 25 leading companies to identify best practices in sustainability, we discovered many formal, established sustainability programs originated from “grassroots” employee efforts unknown to senior executives.

Today, employees want to work for organizations that reflect their values, and respect their concerns about environmental and social responsibility (ESR).  The days of “The Organization Man” are long gone.  If companies want to retain the best and brightest employees, they must consider how to better align their values and interests with their employees.  And ESR is not just for tree-huggers anymore.  As humanity faces the global impact of climate change and the growing loss of our natural resources, individuals are looking to their own lives to see how they can make a difference, at home and at work.


So what should companies do? Leading organizations are harnessing their employees’ energy by first identifying who and where they are in the organization. Setting up brown-bag lunches, carrying out internal surveys, or organizing town-hall type meetings can help to gauge interest and coordinate early participation. Employees in common groups and departments can be identified and official “green teams” established to begin to consider issues together. Supporting managers and executive sponsors can also be identified at this time and formally assigned to create guidance and foster communication among groups.

Green Teams

In companies with no established programs, individuals are banding together to create informal “green teams.”  These teams are challenging management to improve operations and find more sustainable methods of creating and delivering their products.  Often, these efforts start small, with projects like recycling and composting, double-sided printing, and finding alternatives to daily commuting and business travel.  But don’t dismiss them for being too small in scope. They do have an impact. Ebay’s green team inspired the company to build San Jose, CA’s largest commercial solar installation saving the company $100,000 in annual energy costs and reducing CO2 emissions by over a million pounds a year.

When companies pay attention, such savings are possible. But undirected employees’ efforts can side-track other business operations and create conflicts in the organization. Independent side projects without coordination or leadership can become contentious pursuits of ideology over common goals.  Employees’ passion can become a latent liability or a powerful asset. Companies that recognize and engage employee desire for sustainability can reap tremendous benefits not only in retention rates, but productivity and profitability as well.

Organization & Leadership

Teams need leaders. Managers and executive sponsors can assist teams is staying focused and work with them to develop the business cases needed for their projects.  Requirements such as return on investment and payback period may be new to those not previously involved in company decision-making.  By encouraging a rigorous assessment of each proposed project, employees can come to see the opportunities, challenges, and trade-offs critical to making successful decisions.  At the same time, they will learn to understand the standard criteria for developing new projects. This will allow teams to further focus their efforts and bring better, more effective opportunities up for consideration. Not all teams will be the same. Managers can serve as team leads or as advisers depending on the level of involvement necessary.

Similarly, teams can be semi-autonomous or part of a more formalized structure. At equipment maker Applied Materials, the company uses regionally based employee-led green teams, while furniture maker Herman Miller, has a formal company team called the Environmental Quality Action Team (EQAT).  Comprising cross-functional sub-teams, EQAT groups are chartered with focusing on specific areas such as Green Buildings, ISO 14001, Packaging, Communications and Design for Environment. By engaging a diverse set of cross-functional employees, the company is able to benefit from a variety of perspectives and build alignment among different departments.

Engaging Middle Management

One of the concerns we heard from several companies in our study was how to engage middle management in their ESR efforts. Senior management can set goals and there can be a lot of passion and activity at the grass-roots level, but you need middle management to channel that energy in a coordinated manner to get maximum impact. With all the demands on middle management’s time, how do you get them motivated to set these efforts as a high priority? We found successful companies got the necessary engagement and cooperation from middle management by clearly communicating the importance of sustainability to senior management. If it’s shown that it’s a high priority for their boss, it’s likely that middle managers will see it as a high priority for themselves too. Ideally of course, sustainability goals should be part of every employee and manager’s MBO but we think most organizations haven’t reached this level of maturity yet.

Employee Communication

Another challenge companies often face is how to best communicate with employees.  In our research we discovered a variety of strategies in use. One common approach is to utilize the company’s existing intranet. In some cases, leading firms had to consolidate a divergent array of online sites that evolved as a result of the previously informal “grassroots” phase of their program.

For leading companies, their centralized green site includes information about the company’s sustainability strategy, vision, and goals, along with information about best practices, accomplishments, and events.  Often, these sites also include forums where employees can share thoughts, ideas, and suggestions. Many leading companies we spoke to also made use of a regular newsletter.  Symantec’s quarterly “Global Green News” is an example of a regular dedicated communication. Other firms have opted to include sustainability content in an existing monthly or quarterly communication.

Social Networking

The jury is still out on social networking. The firms we interviewed were divided about using it. Sprint has embraced Twitter with its @SprintGreenNews page.  Intel has created specialty pages on Facebook such as its Data Center Efficiency Challenge site. While EMC’s head of Sustainability hosts the blog “Interconnected World.” However, others in our research had strict limits on employees’ use of such sites.  Especially for companies with newer programs, social networking appeared to be most beneficial when it was used strictly internally.  Communication that might be seen by other stakeholders, such as investors and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), needs to be properly reviewed and vetted.  The last thing a company wants is to see Greenpeace protesting on their roof because someone tweeted unflattering internal environmental information.

Acknowledgement & Recognition

Once a company has made a commitment to build out a sustainability strategy, aligning employees to the cause can be significantly enhanced through some simple steps.

Communication from the company CEO can be a boost to morale and reinforce executives’ commitment to the overall sustainability strategy.  Employees closely watch and listen when their CEO appears in the media and, as a result, a brief comment regarding sustainability can go a long way in offering motivation and support. Another simple step is in providing recognition to employees and teams who are reaching goals, and building best practices within the organization.  Recognition need not be in the form of elaborate or monetary awards, especially at a time when funds may be limited. Recognition can be as simple as a profile in the company newsletter or lunch with a top executive.

The firms we spoke with were often surprised at the level of attention employees gave these simple gestures and how some would intensely lobby for the opportunity to be recognized. In some cases, companies have chosen to formalize the process for recognition, to invoke a spirit of competition.  Pitting teams against each other to reach specific targets and goals, can add an additional level of focus and attention for both individuals and their teams.


Sustainability efforts are increasing as employee interest has grown.  Many companies are seeing grassroots teams springing up, which presents the opportunity to harness their energy to improve organizational efficiencies and improve the company’s bottom line. Providing leadership, an organizational structure, good communication, and recognition can be key to engaging employees and building a program that is focused and effective for everyone.

About Kanal Consulting

Founded in 2003, we provide management consulting services focused on strategy, marketing, and sustainability. Our mission is to help clients grow sustainably. We have conducted dozens of engagements for Fortune 1000 companies, working with clients to identify and execute on new opportunities, develop partnerships, and understand how sustainability can contribute to the top and bottom line. Our sustainability practice for corporate clients includes services related to setting strategy and goals, product management and product marketing, stakeholder research, funding, operations, change management, and reporting.  Please contact us for more information.

Note: Fore more on Sustainability Consulting, see our special archive here.

3p Contributor

TriplePundit has published articles from over 1000 contributors. If you'd like to be a guest author, please get in touch!

7 responses

  1. Pingback: Engaging Employees in Sustainability |Triple Pundit | Green Company Report
  2. Our company has a “green team” that consists of myself (marketing), 3 from development and 1 from the construciton department. I am finding out currently if we can save paper in accounting…which is a big feat. I'm also looking into soy-based inks for our printers and pens.

  3. This article provides great insight into the future of sustainability in the corporate setting. It's exciting and motivating to know that real change is going to come from the bottom up (ie. grass roots/volunteer efforts). Look forward to seeing how this trend takes shape and the impact it will have on fundamental business practices.

  4. This is a great article that speaks to everything we/my company strives to do. We have always recycled paper products. In the past 3 years we started a company wide plastic/glass recycle program for the entire company. The company pays for the container rental and recycling removal. All we as employees have to do is “recycle”. There are many ways for businesses to participate in a “greener” way of doing business. Recently we decided to become a paperless accounting office. There is a lot of work involved up front but the end result is well worth it.

  5. This is a great article that speaks to everything we/my company strives to do. We have always recycled paper products. In the past 3 years we started a company wide plastic/glass recycle program for the entire company. The company pays for the container rental and recycling removal. All we as employees have to do is “recycle”. There are many ways for businesses to participate in a “greener” way of doing business. Recently we decided to become a paperless accounting office. There is a lot of work involved up front but the end result is well worth it.

Leave a Reply