Engaging Employees in Helping the Environment

Companies are turning to workers for ideas on how boost sustainability—and many are seeing cost savings and other benefits, too.
Engaging Employees in Helping the Environment

Capstone employees were encouraged to make a sacrifice: Surrender your waste bins. Instead of tossing wrappers and lunch leftovers into a basket at their feet, they would separate them into recycling, organics, and trash at one end of the office.

The decision didn’t come from senior management—though it supported the move. Rather, it was driven by an employee green team led by Criste Cossi, the publisher’s sales operations manager.

“I expected to run into more people who thought it would be gross or stinky, and really, we didn’t run into that at all,” says Cossi.

That was about three years ago. The roughly 50 employees in the publishing company’s Bloomington office have since embraced the program, reducing their trash stream by more than half. The money that the company saves on its garbage bill covers the added expense of buying biodegradable bags for the organics recycling.

It’s nothing to turn up your nose at.

In workplaces across the country, seemingly small efforts like this are beginning to add up to a big impact—and not just for the planet. Companies big and small are starting to tap their employees’ energy and ideas to meet sustainability goals and boost morale.

A late 2011 survey by New York-based sustainability consulting firm Green Research found that getting employees more involved in company greening efforts was the most common priority for sustainability executives going into 2012. Eighty-eight percent of the roughly 50 U.S. leaders interviewed said they planned to significantly invest in employee engagement this year.

Why? “Engaged employees make things happen,” says David Schatsky, author of the Green Research report.

The National Environmental Education Foundation has tracked the trend in a series of recent reports. Employee green teams and other internal “green” programs used to be isolated efforts but are now increasingly connected to companies’ core sustainability strategies. And they’re reaching far beyond the office or break room. Many are starting to affect operations and innovation. As employees’ roles have grown, so have efforts to measure their impact.

The Human Factor

Jill Kolling, a principal with Minneapolis-based sustainability consulting firm Paydirt, has seen a big uptick over the past year in the number of companies looking for help engaging employees on sustainability issues. They’re often organizations with a history of high-level support for sustainability. A lot of times, they’ve set company goals and even achieved some significant successes. But they eventually find themselves limited without support from throughout the organization. “They’ll get to a point where they realize they need everyone to join the fight,” says Kolling.

Cargill reached that point not long after it began setting five-year environmental sustainability goals in 2000. LaRaye Osborne, Cargill’s vice president for environmental health and safety, says the company initially focused on achieving the goals through capital investments. But after a while, it saw efficiency slipping at some of the same facilities where it had just made improvements.

“We really realized that if you want to be good at energy efficiency, it takes more than just investing in new equipment,” says Osborne. The company added training, and it tapped its own engineers and operators to help fine-tune how to run equipment most efficiently.

Companies can do a lot with design and technology—energy-efficient lighting or improved controls, for example. But there’s a “human factor,” too, says Kate Worley, co-executive director of Minnesota Waste Wise, a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce affiliate program that helps companies train, educate, and engage employees on sustainability matters.

“We often assume that technology can counteract or take the place of human involvement, and what we find in environmental sustainability is that’s really not the case,” says Worley. “A plastic bottle doesn’t walk itself to the recycling bin.” Sometimes employees seize a role in sustainability efforts without being prompted by leadership. Five years ago, when Kori Sanders joined Vivid Image—a small online marketing company in Hutchinson—she was bothered by the lack of recycling bins, among other things.

“It drove me nuts to know how easy it is to recycle and to be a greener office,” she says. When the company moved to a new building the following year, Sanders saw it as the perfect opportunity to step up and implement changes.

Today, Vivid Image has more recycling bins. Sanders stocked the break room with dishes and silverware from garage sales, which has eliminated the need for paper or plastic utensils. It has a water cooler so employees don’t need to bring bottled water. The office is lit with energy-efficient light bulbs, and the computer monitors meet Energy Star guidelines. Sanders sees to it that electronics make it to the local Best Buy for recycling.


Haberman Business Development Manager Toccara Torres leads the media and marketing firm’s green team. That team designated a drafts-only printer that cuts down on paper waste and came up with a creative way to reduce food waste among employees—compostable food items go into a worm bed and become soil that’s later brought to an employee garden.

“It’s just a lot of little changes we can do on a day-to-day basis,” she says. The employee-led green team at Minneapolis-based marketing firm Haberman has come up with several effective conservation efforts as well. The team designated one of the firm’s office printers as a drafts-only printer, says Business Development Manager Toccara Torres, who leads the green team. After the one-sided print-outs from the other printers have served their purpose, they are taken to the drafts-only printer where the flip side is used to print drafts of various documents—thereby stretching the firm’s paper as far as possible before it’s recycled.

The green team also came up with a way to reduce food waste among the firm’s 40 employees—while at the same time helping to care for Haberman’s employee garden, which sits on a few acres of land in Delano. Each day, employees place their compostable food items into a worm bed; after the worms turn the items into soil, employees bring the soil to the garden, which they take turns maintaining.

Every week, the garden yields a couple of bushels of vegetables, which the employees split up and take home to enjoy; they also deliver some to local food shelves.

“Employees really do have a voice here,” says Torres. She added that in addition to helping the environment, rallying around various green practices has been “a really great team-building opportunity.”


‘They have to believe in it’

Creating a culture in which employees are engaged in sustainability—from pitching plastic bottles in the right bin to sharing ideas to green the company—first requires permission or endorsement from the top. People need to know it’s not taboo.

A company’s leadership needs to communicate why sustainability is important to the company and why it should be important to employees, says Kolling. It often starts with an internal communications campaign, sometimes one with its own branding. That campaign might include e-mails, posters, online training, or kick-off events.

General Mills, for example, promotes its sustainability values in part through a volunteer week called “Think Global, Volunteer Local,” in which employees are encouraged to volunteer for hunger relief and environmental causes, including beach and street cleanups, tree planting, and community garden work. Thousands of employees participate worldwide.

Aside from education, the other piece of engagement is listening. Companies need to offer employees a venue for sharing their own ideas on sustainability—and have a system for vetting and implementing them. The answer at many companies is an employee-led green team.

TCG Management LLC, a Burnsville real estate company that manages more than 600 apartments in eight buildings, organized a green team within its property management unit in 2009. It recruited and invited managers, maintenance staff, and caretakers, among others, to join. About a dozen of the unit’s 34 employees became active members. In part, that’s because they felt empowered to share their ideas. And there were many.

Within just a few years, TCG has switched exclusively to recycled, low-volatile organic compound paint (which gives off fewer toxic fumes than conventional paint) and “cradle-to-cradle” carpet (which the manufacturer eventually takes back and turns into raw material for new carpet instead of dumping it in landfills). It also switched to non-toxic cleaning supplies, organic fertilizer, and environmentally friendly ice melt. It’s changed lights, insulated pipes, and planted gardens.


Diane DeVon, portfolio manager at Burnsville real estate company TCG Management LLC, organized a company green team that has spearheaded many changes—including switches to “greener” paint, carpet, and cleaning supplies.

“Without the employees, you can’t do it,” says Diane DeVon, TCG’s portfolio manager, who spearheaded the green team effort. “They have to buy into it. They have to believe in it.”

Less Waste, Lower Costs

As employee engagement becomes a more central component of companies’ overall sustainability strategies, more efforts are underway to try to measure the impact.

According to the National Environmental Education Foundation, common metrics include tracking employees’ volunteer hours and participation in green teams or environmental pledges, as well as determining reductions in waste, energy, and water that are attributed to employee efforts.

“It’s smart business,” says Worley. Cutting waste and conserving resources often means cost savings in the form of smaller utility bills or lower materials costs.

Since green teams have sprouted at many companies only within the past few years, the numbers are still scarce or incomplete at many workplaces. TCG saw its electricity bill at one building go down 7 percent, for example, but DeVon says it will have a better idea of cost savings at the end of 2012.

Sometimes tracking the impact also motivates employees to make changes.

Cargill’s specialty canola oils business recently rolled out a “green deeds” tracking system for its employees. When an employee chooses to do something for the environment, he or she can log the action on the website, which then aggregates the impact of the entire group.

Employees log actions taken both on and off the job, such as carpooling, bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, and turning off computers and monitors at the end of the workday.

The tracking system was inspired by employees in the group’s Fort Collins, Colorado, facility, who wanted to track their collective biking, walking, mass transit, and carpool miles.

It’s now available to all 125 employees, including about 15 in the Twin Cities.

“We have a lot of employees that are interested in sustainability overall, both in their personal and professional lives,” says Specialty Canola Oils Controller Sheri Bandle.

One benefit that’s easier to see at companies where sustainability is a priority: happier and healthier employees.

The annual employee turnover rate at TCG’s property management unit exceeded 50 percent four years ago. Since it launched the green team in 2009, only about 10 employees have left. More and more people want to work for companies that align with their values, says Kolling, which is why engaging employees on sustainability is likely to become more important as a recruiting and retention strategy.

Employees can also be the best source of innovative ideas.

“The people actually doing the jobs, building the products, delivering the services—those people are going to have great ideas,” says Kolling. “And unless you educate them and empower them to speak up, you’re not going to get those really great ideas.”

Take John Hellweg, for example. The now-retired General Mills operations manager came up with an idea to burn leftover oat hulls as an energy source. General Mills installed a biomass burner at its milling plant in Fridley, where the hulls produce 90 percent of the energy required to run the plant. Last year, the practice saved the plant nearly $400,000 and reduced its carbon footprint by 21 percent.

One Piece in a Bigger Puzzle

Employees can’t carry it all, though. Engaging workers is one piece of a “bigger puzzle,” says Worley. A company’s leadership needs to support sustainability values and it needs written goals and guidelines to reinforce them.

But green teams and other employee efforts don’t have to be a huge expense, Kolling notes. One challenge is that the return on investment isn’t always easy to calculate, which makes some companies reluctant to back sustainability committees or their proposals.

And like Haberman’s employee garden, these efforts need regular tending. “Companies assume that once a program is implemented that you don’t have to address it again—that it’s going to keep going at the same speed and nothing’s going to take it off track,” says Worley.

She adds that sustainability programs require refreshing and reminders as new employees are hired and others forget about procedures because they’re most focused on doing their jobs.

A key to Haberman’s green team success has been designating volunteers to oversee each of its initiatives to ensure that none slip throught the cracks. For example, one person routinely picks up one-sided print-outs from around the office and brings them to the drafts printer for reuse. Another regularly empties the soil from the worm bed where compostable food is placed.

Some employees will be pre-disposed to participate, but others will need motivation to stay involved, such as games or contests. Ultimately, the efforts depend on passion and persistence from the employees who participate.

Cossi’s effort to bring organics recycling to Capstone’s office could have stalled a dozen different ways, she says. It required convincing people within the company, as well as working with its garbage collector, its paper shredder, and Hennepin County, among others.

She recommends setting realistic goals. An employee green team isn’t going to get solar panels put on the roof, but there are plenty of ways in which employees can make an “everyday impact.”

“It did take a lot of my personal time to keep it rolling, but just by continuing to look at it in a different way, or asking a different person, eventually it got moved along,” says Cossi.

“It really takes somebody to continually work at it and not take no for an answer.”


Employee Engagement Efforts


Twin Cities Business, in partnership with the Minnesota High Tech Association, polled online readers in April to find out whether and how their employers are engaging them in sustainability efforts; 431 local business people responded, and their responses indicate that local companies are all over the map when it comes to whether and how they are greening their offices and promoting conservation in the workplace. We also compared the results to those from an international survey conducted last year by Shelburne, Vermont-based Brighter Planet, which consults on data-driven sustainability initiatives; nearly 1,000 people who work in a broad range of organizations and industries responded to the Brighter Planet survey.

Here are the highlights:

  • 66 percent of local respondents and 56 percent of international respondents said their employer frequently promotes conservation efforts or sustainable employee behavior.
  • 29 percent of local respondents said their employer has an official engagement policy—representing a significantly higher percentage than the global respondents, of whom just 17 percent work at a company with an official policy.
  • 69 percent of local respondents said that their employer not only engages employees on conservation, but it is either very effective or somewhat effective in changing employee behavior; just 58 percent of worldwide respondents work at companies that are at least somewhat effective in changing employee behavior.
  • Although experts say that green teams are increasingly springing up at businesses as a way to promote employee engagement, only 17 percent of local respondents indicated that their company has a green team. One-fifth of international respondents work somewhere that has a green team.
  • Less than half—39 percent—of local respondents said their employer has a method for employees to share sustainability ideas with each other; a slightly higher percentage of global respondents (41 percent) work for a company that has such a method.
  • In the local survey, 36 percent of respondents indicated that their company’s management team is the main advocate for employee sustainability, while 27 percent said it was employees; 18 percent of international respondents said management drives workplace initiatives, and 35 percent said that such efforts come from workers.
  • Slightly more than three-quarters of local respondents said that their employer collects sustainability data related to employee efforts, whereas only 32 percent of global respondents work for companies that collect such information; 43 percent of local respondents said their company measures the organization’s footprint, and that’s true for only 29 percent of worldwide respondents.

Employer Focus Areas


Figures below represent the percent of respondents whose companies actively encourage conservation by staff in each area.

Waste and recycling
Minnesota: 86
International: 76

Energy use
Minnesota: 65
International: 57

Minnesota: 31
International: 40

Minnesota: 45
International: 37

Water use
Minnesota: 30
International: 34

Food and drink
Minnesota: 25
International: 33

Business travel
Minnesota: 27
International: 22