How To Keep Sustainability Initiatives Rolling After Earth Day

by | Apr 22, 2008

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recycle_sign.jpgCompanies are plastering the Internet with press releases touting Earth Day initiatives – yours is probably one of them. So, how can managers and supervisors increase the probability that sustainable practices will stick in the office – long after any Earth Day momentum fades?

Taking a few lessons from research on organization change, there are ways to encourage employees to commit to sustainable practices, according to Cathy A. Rusinko, Ph.D., associate professor of management, School of Business Administration, Philadelphia University. Here are the top ten ways to promote green initiatives that will have staying power in your organization.

1. Start at the top: This is the most important rule for successful organizational change – employees are much more likely to take any change seriously if it comes from top management. Ideally, top managers should roll out the general concept of sustainability, which can then be interpreted more specifically in each part of the organization.

2. Involve everyone: Involvement leads to buy-in in the workplace. Encourage different parts of the organization to interpret sustainability in a way that is tailored to that function; for instance, engineering can focus on design, while purchasing can switch to environmentally friendly supplies. Encourage suggestions from everyone.

3. Communicate the importance: Sustainable behaviors are good for the environment, but they yield other benefits, such as helping to cut costs, attract new customers and improve competitiveness. The U.S. commercial carpet industry (Dr. Rusinko authored a recent study on sustainability in the U.S. carpet industry) saved at least $4 million in 2006 by diverting 261 million pounds of used carpet from landfills. Employees are more likely to go along with sustainability efforts if they are made aware of all the benefits.

4. Set goals and report progress: We all know that what’s important gets measured and reported. Whether it’s in the cafeteria, on the factory floor or in the cubicle, be sure to set sustainability goals (for instance, recycling glass, paper and aluminum) and report progress to all stakeholders (the volume of recyclables collected, impact on virgin resources and cost savings).

5. Start small: Don’t try to make your organization sustainable overnight. Start with small goals, such as using real plates and compostable, potato-based containers called SpudWare in the cafeteria. Move from there to larger projects, such as making your product more sustainable or making your process more sustainable – for instance, by using electronic communications to save resources such as paper and fossil fuels. By doing this, you can learn as you implement measures and build a steady progression of successes.

6. Celebrate small victories: We often underestimate the power of appreciation in the workplace. Be sure to recognize any progress toward sustainability. This can be communicated in many ways, such as sending an e-mail, posting an announcement or recognizing employee successes at a meeting.

7. Set increasingly challenging goals: According to research, effective goals are both achievable and challenging. When sustainability goals are achieved, be sure to replace them with more challenging goals, so that you can advance your progress. Think about developing short-term (under one year) and longer term sustainability goals. Revisit these goals frequently and revise when appropriate.

8. Keep visibility high: Keep the sustainability message in front of employees: use bright-colored recycling containers and signs, print t-shirts and bumper stickers and other eye-catching visual cues. Some companies have passed out reusable water bottles and real cups for coffee.

9. Find the champions: Employees who are truly invested in sustainable practices can set the pace for everyone else. In one carpet company, I saw an employee gently remind a colleague to recycle his beverage container. That employee later became a strong advocate for recycling and encouraged others to do so. Another benefit: champions typically are willing to head-up sustainability initiatives and programs.

10. Reinforce and reward positive behavior: For any organizational change to stick, it has to be reinforced and rewarded over time. Marriott International designates green ambassadors who reinforce the importance of such steps as turning off lights, shutting down computers and printing on both sides of paper. Friendly competitions between departments – say, who can recycle the most waste or generate new sustainability ideas – and rewards can also keep interest and momentum strong.

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