Cultivating Sustainability: How to Ensure Your Company's Green Initiatives Take Root

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Trying to instill green office habits for your business? Here are some tips on making sure your eco-friendly efforts are successful.

Unless you’re the one who gets stuck cleaning out the year-old leftovers from the break room refrigerator, the connection between the terms “company culture” and “ecosystem” may not be something that you really consider.

But beyond the thriving funguses that are doing quite well for themselves in Linda’s forgotten takeout box, the truth is that the businesses of today have a very real responsibility to the living world that they inhabit. 

After all, it’s almost 2016, and if you haven’t already noticed, the business world is a very different place than it was a few decades ago.

Related Article: Farm to Table: Must's for Building a Green Strategy in Food and Beverage

Where eco-friendly business was once somewhere near the bottom of the priority list for employers, an increasing number of big companies are now switching to greener practices in order to increase efficiency and environmental consciousness. And, the benefits of going green extend beyond just reducing your carbon footprint; from an economical standpoint, eco-efficiency is smart business.

Companies from IKEA to Foreo, Adobe to Quill, are all making efforts to cut back on waste, and have seen many benefits as a direct result. For example, businesses that “go green” spend, on average, 15 percent less on paper products, 20 percent less on water utilities, and 30 percent less on energy bills, which means more money in the bank, and more profit overall. 

Couple that with improved public image that naturally accompanies an environmentally-focused business (not to mention the advantages that come from, you know, not destroying the world), and it becomes fairly apparent that those organizations that do their part to help the planet are also helping themselves.  

But there’s more to going green than offering recycled products or cutting back on factory emissions; sometimes, the real problems lie a bit closer to home. If your organization is busy telling the press all about its new green products, while the employees in your office are still treating the environment as a disposable resource, then eventually, it’s all going to catch up with you.

And that’s how “company culture” and “ecosystem” go together.

Here are some tips on how you can instill a green culture into your office, without having to rely on the green cultures that might be growing in the fridge.

1. Trickle It Down

Many employees have a pretty dim view of the importance of management. In fact, to a large portion of the workforce, bosses in general are nothing more than well-paid-yet-under-talented wastes of time, using unnecessary meetings (which cost American businesses $37 billion in lost productivity annually) and worthless performance reviews to justify their own bloated paychecks. But the truth is, for good or bad, management sets the tone for the entire company.

As such, before any green initiatives can take hold, employees are going to have to see that the higher ups are willing to make the same pro-environment sacrifices that are being expected of the rest of the workforce. After all, pressuring employees to use alternative forms of transportation isn’t very effective when the boss rolls up in a three-ton cloud of black smoke, and even something as simple as providing a recycling bin completely backfires when a manager is seen casually tossing an aluminum can into the wastepaper basket.

If you want to promote an environmentally-aware culture in your organization, then by all means set some policies regarding paper conservation—just make sure that those policies aren’t printed in triplicate and then dropped into a landfill a week later.

2. Get (Basically) Everyone on Board

No matter how excited the high-ups may be about saving the planet, a company’s switch to an environmentally-conscious culture just isn’t going to work unless the employees are into it. And while we just made a point of telling you how much influence management’s example can have on the rest of an organization, there’s just no way to force involvement in new policies.

Instead, you have to be able to get a feel for what the employees themselves care about, and you have to do it on an individual level. By creating surveys, focus groups, or even simply speaking directly with employees in informal settings, you can begin to develop an accurate picture of just how dedicated to sustainability your workers are. And, considering that approximately three-quarters of U.S. workers think it's important that their employers take action to protect the environment (according to a study by personal-energy-management platform WattzOn), you’ll likely find that your employees are eager to help in whatever way they can.

Related Article: Renewable Resources: The Impact of Green Energy on the Economy

As for those who are not as interested, they can often still be brought on board through basic reward-programs (e.g. cut down on paper-waste, get a bonus). What you don’t want to do is start slapping wrists and making threats; when employees begin to perceive that their companies care more about sustaining environmental resources than they do about sustaining human resources, then engagement drops, and everyone suffers.

3. Work With What You’ve Got

Alright. You’re pumped to implement a new environmentally conscious culture in your company. You’re employees are pumped to help you. What could possibly go wrong? Well, a surprisingly large amount, apparently, because according to Gallup, over 70 percent of all new business initiatives ultimately fail.

There are a number of reasons for this, but one that is especially dangerous when attempting to adopt a green company culture is the tendency for business leaders to look at their organization as a sort of ‘blank slate.’

The idea is that new policies will be created, and everyone involved will just sort of shift over into the new paradigm. The unfortunate reality is that the incumbent culture will always have the advantage over the new challenger. Employees fall into routines. They become comfortable. They reach the point where company culture is no longer something that needs to be consciously considered, and when that happens, having to suddenly change the way they do things in order to realign themselves with a new vision can be frustratingly difficult.

So, instead of supplanting your old culture and hoping that no one notices, take a long, hard look at the culture you currently have in place. Add to it, Adapt it. Reorganize it where possible, but don’t push it out of the way, or your employees are going to push right back.       

4. Think Small

Helping the world doesn’t always mean taking on the world. For example, businesses that make the switch from conventional light bulbs to sustainable, recyclable, energy efficient LED bulbs can reduce their electricity-related emissions by as much as 50 percent

What we’re trying to say is that you don’t need to militarize your workforce and launch guerilla warfare tactics against logging companies in order to make a positive difference. If your new company culture is focused on completely eliminating the need for coal-burning power plants, or is designed to repopulate every species on the endangered list, then more power to you—but it’s probably not going to work.

On the other hand, if you’re focused on reducing your own office waste, trimming energy consumption, and promoting sustainable practices in your industry and community, then your goal will be much more attainable. As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Identify the environmental weaknesses in your company culture, implement changes where possible, promote awareness in conservation, and always work to improve your organization. You may just find that while you were busy tackling small problems, you accidentally helped solve some of the bigger ones as well.    

5. Keep on Keepin’ On

Sustainability and environmentalism are certainly a fashionable cause in today’s world. In fact, it is arguable that the environmental movement is the most popular social movement in the world today. But to say that the recent interest in going green is ‘just a fad’ really isn’t accurate. The world is in dire straits, and unless we as a society can make some serious changes, and fast, we’re going to find ourselves regretting it in the generations to come.

But that having been said, it’s not always easy to maintain the momentum that real social change requires. Like the concert-goer who begins to clap along with the music only to find himself awkwardly losing interest in doing so, businesses that get caught up in the fervor of environmentalism without ever planning for the long-term implications, might end up embarrassedly and quietly falling back into their old non-sustainable ways.

Related Article: Earth Day Aspirations: Saving Money While Saving the Environment

When it comes to creating a green company culture, developing something that can endure through the shifting whims of social interest is far more important than making a big splash among your environmentally-captivated peers. Remember: You’re culture defines your company, so you need something that will endure. And, if the only green culture that you can see surviving in your organization is the thing that lives in the back of the break room refrigerator, then you probably need to make a few changes.         

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