Sustainability Programs Must Engage Employees

By Matt Courtland

People learn through stories. When special tales are told frequently, they become more than words. They are transformed into myths which hold life lessons. The Green Committee I founded in 2007, and which I wrote about launching in Developing an Award Winning Sustainability Program, has one of these stories. It shines a light on our past and reminds us that sustainability programs must engage employees.

Soon after removing Styrofoam™ cups from our kitchens and providing all employees with a ceramic mug, the Green Committee decided to replace the individual coffee brewing system. We had used Green Mountain Coffee’s K-Cups® for years and had literally thrown away hundreds of thousands of the non-recyclable plastic containers used in the K-Cup. Everyone on the team thought switching our coffee vendor made sense but we quickly learned a valuable lesson: DO NOT MESS WITH PEOPLE’S COFFEE
To Make A Coffee by Latente

We initially replaced the plastic cup system with a product that looked similar to a tea packet. These new “pods” contained no packaging, making them entirely compostable, and appeared to be exactly the solution for which we were searching. Each user could still select his or her own flavor and enjoy unlimited cups of coffee, tea, or cocoa. After making the switch, we learned that many employees felt the replacement coffee was not the same quality as what they were used to with the K-Cups. The Green Committee received several emails from people who were very upset with the change. While some complained that the new flavored coffees were not as good as the previous brand, one person went so far as to say, “This new coffee tastes like a used charcoal briquette.” Not the reaction we were expecting.

Knowing that we could not make all 200 of our colleagues happy, yet understanding the Green Committee’s future would be much smoother if we sought majority support, we decided to try another hot beverage vendor. The new system also offered a variety of drink options but used packets which left behind a plastic sheath. Not ready to admit defeat, we did some research and found a “clean energy” power plant operated by Wheelabrator Technologies that would take the empty packets for free and burn them to make electricity for New Hampshire homes.

Faced by Flyzipper

This appeared to be a fantastic solution and the GC was proud to say it listened to employees and found a creative option that satisfied everyone. What we did not count on was that a fair amount of people enjoyed the pod coffee and this change to packets now upset another contingent of employees. The Green Committee felt stuck between two angry mobs of caffeinated people. The step toward sustainability we felt so positive about a few weeks before seemed to be moving our team backward instead of ahead.

Not willing to return to K-Cups, we decided to pull our employees even more into the process of change by asking them to vote for their favorite coffee system. We gave people one week to make their decision and when the results were tallied, employees chose the system with some disposable packaging.

After three years, we are still enjoying single-brew coffee and feel the switch was a great learning experience for our entire organization. The Green Committee makes a conscious effort to engage employees and believes this commitment to the people of our organization has created a strong partnership between the sustainability team and the rest of the company.

Matt Courtland of the The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.

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