Corporate sustainability efforts are a bright spot in the quest to reduce carbon emissions. Yet these bright spots – equivalent, perhaps, to an old-fashioned 60-watt light bulb – could be brighter and more effective (LEDs) if more organizations were on track to integrate green thinking into corporate culture.
Instead, sustainability is often a siloed value, disconnected from the priorities of rank & file employees.
Efforts usually start out great, with companies taking advantage of easy wins. The stories about how a green team quickly implemented a project to save five or six figures are outstanding because those examples help to build some early momentum.
But then it gets trickier.
For instance, we worked with a consulting firm that did a great job helping its clients save energy. The COO, though, was frustrated that when he walked around the office at the end of the day he saw lights and computers on in empty cubicles. “How is it that we can help others save energy, but we waste it here?” he’d ask.
We see something similar in other settings: from factories to schools – sustainability leaders chagrined at examples of waste in their own facilities. The transgressions are minor, but painfully visible. So even while some organization can boast victories– a drop in energy or water usage, for example – the wasteful practices resound, undermining the supposed commitment to sustainability.
It’s not just the sustainability team that notices either. Regular employees in these organizations see the waste. For them, it’s a sign that the efforts aren’t real. So, while the cubicle light may make the COO crazy, it also reinforces a nobody-really-cares-about-sustainability message on the whole.
So what’s a sustainability lead to do? Ideally, he or she would want to create a shared culture around sustainability. It’s a challenging goal, but not an impossible one.
What not to do is simple: Do not reinforce bad practices. Announcing “Everyone keeps leaving their computers on at night!” reinforces that the group norm is to leave computers on. But asserting that “Nobody here cares about saving energy” nudges everyone toward apathy.
Rather than reinforcing negative practices, start creating and “being” the culture you want. Catch people doing the right things and offer spontaneous rewards – a thank you, some recognition, maybe a free coffee. Take photos of people doing the right things and share them on the company intranet or recognize people at staff meetings. Or you can use a platform like Cool Choices. In any case, when Jim sees his colleagues recognized for reducing waste, he may reduce waste too, which creates a virtuous circle. And, as more and more people see themselves as part of the solution, the sustainability lead will see spontaneous coaching and innovative problem solving around sustainable practices. The group will own green values as part of its shared system. And then? Well, then the truly amazing innovations will begin.