Getting Your Employees Engaged in Sustainability Measures

Feb. 27, 2012
The best way to get your employees engaged in corporate sustainability measures such as recycling and energy management is to involve them in the process and make it as easy as possible to participate, say experts.

A networking session at the 2012 Grainger Show, an event in Orlando that brings together thousands of purchasing, facilities and safety professionals to discuss the issues that impact their work sites, discussed implementation of sustainability measures. Some companies are implementing the basics, while others have graduated to examining their carbon footprint.


One healthcare system recycles 25 percent of its waste, a pretty good percentage, considering biological and pharmaceutical waste cannot be recycled, said an engineer there. “We want the thought process [to recycle] at the top of employees’ minds every day,” he noted.

They recently introduced an employee survey to discover new ideas for sustainability and recycling. He noted that if programs do not have employee buy-in, sustainability efforts will not have the support necessary to succeed. Over 1,000 surveys – many with excellent ideas – were returned by employees, showing that they really care about sustainability. Of course, he joked, the drawing for an I-Pad among employees who filled out the survey didn’t hurt.

The healthcare system also recycles food waste from its cafeterias and kitchens. It is picked up by a local business that uses it to in the generation of compost.

A manager from another healthcare system who was participating in the networking event noted his employer is “at the beginning of the spectrum. Even aluminum cans are going in the dump.”

He said the first effort he’s undertaken in the year he’s been there is to eliminate Styrofoam cups. “Styrofoam is forever,” he noted. When he totaled up the amount of Styrofoam cups the healthcare system used in a year for patients, employees and in the cafeteria, he was astonished. “Four million cups a year!” he announced.

The organization switched to paper cups at a slightly higher cost. The price differential was offset by a slight increase in beverage prices. They also sell reusable plastic cups for a minimal price, and employees who use those cups pay a lower price for refills.

Everyone who participated in the discussion agreed that making recycling easy by providing single-stream recycling bins (no need to separate paper from plastic and aluminum) in areas convenient for employees is the best way to get them to recycle.

More Intense Efforts

For companies that are looking beyond recycling in their sustainability efforts, one contractor suggested using a thermo-imaging camera to determine the loss of energy via steam traps, which are the valves at the end of steam lines that indicate temperature and volume. He recently finished a survey of 109 steam traps, in which he found that 40 percent of them were not working properly. The survey cost $3,000. The company saved $4,000 in energy costs the first month after the traps were fixed. “It’s one the easiest, low-hanging items [for energy conservation],” the contractor said.

From a hotel chain that features its own organic gardens that utilize food scraps from its kitchens and restaurants as compost to a supermarket chain that updates employees about sustainability efforts via a monthly newsletter to a department store chain that converted its halogen lighting technology to LED technology – a move that means lighting lasts 10 times longer and offers significantly reduced maintenance costs – companies obviously are considering and discussing ways they can save money and reduce their carbon footprints. While your company might not be ready to install sensors that turn lights on and off in rooms that are not regularly used, there are many was to save energy and reduce costs.

Industrial supply giant W.W. Grainger Co. certainly takes sustainability seriously. In a roundtable with media, CEO Jim Ryan discussed the company’s sustainability efforts, which range from energy conservation and recycling efforts to the world’s largest platinum certified LEED building, its new distribution center in Minooka, Ill. The company currently operates 12 LEED certified facilities in North America, and one facility has solar panels on the roof, which provide most of the electricity needs for the building.

Sustainability efforts improve energy efficiencies, said Ryan, and are perceived as being environmentally friendly, which is the feel-good aspect of sustainability. But that only gets you so far, he added.

“You have to make the business case for sustainability,” said Ryan. “Is it cost-neutral? Is it cost-savings? If you can’t tie a return to investment for sustainability, companies won’t do it. At the very least it has to be cost-neutral.”

The same is true of employees, say the people charged with sustainability efforts at companies across many industries. Show employees why they need to care about recycling, turning off lights, keeping thermostats in reasonable ranges and composting food scraps and show them how their efforts positively impact the company’s costs.

“Corporate buy-in, manager buy-in, none of it works without employee buy-in,” said one manager. “We have to show them why their suggestions are valuable and why their input is necessary for sustainability programs to succeed."

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