Why Your Employer Should be Part of the Sustainability Solution
With more than one-third of our time spent at work, employers have an important role to play in encouraging greener habits.Posted Jan 31, 2017
Everyone knows how hard it can be to replace an undesirable habit with a good one. Habits take time to form, and they can take just as long to break. According to Psychology Today, people often fail to break unwanted habits because their goals aren’t specific enough, or they haven’t truly faced up to the fact that change is difficult.
Last year, Eartheasy ran a four-week sustainability challenge that gave employees the opportunity to think about some of their less-than-sustainable habits and change them for the better. The result? Our employees knew a lot about sustainability, but they still had improvements to make in their day-to-day activities. Thanks to their dedication and willingness to try new things, we learned that employers have a big role to play in encouraging sustainable habits—at work and at home.
The Role of the Workplace in Promoting Sustainable Behavior
According to the American Time Use Survey, the average employed American spends 8.8 hours per day taking part in work-related activities. That’s one of the reasons new companies like WeSpire work with businesses to promote a sustainable workplace culture. In 2014, the company published the results of a study looking at employee engagement in sustainability efforts. In an interview with GreenBiz, CEO Susan Hunt Stevens noted that, “respondents overwhelmingly stated (89%) they would try a sustainability tactic at home that was introduced at work. The results emphasize how powerful the workplace can be in driving broader behavioral change and impact.”
But where should employers start? A number of resources now exist to help workplace leaders encourage sustainability among employees. The David Suzuki Foundation has a workplace sustainability toolkit available for free download. Other organizations are also sharing a variety of resources to help employees get on board with making a difference.
The Eartheasy Sustainability Challenge
Eartheasy was originally inspired to host a sustainability challenge after learning about a similar challenge created by podcaster, Marjorie Alexander. Both challenges aimed to educate participants about a variety of environmental issues, although Alexander’s challenge was voluntary.
Blair Mullins, the communications coordinator at Eartheasy, notes that this factor of mandatory participation influenced how the Eartheasy challenge developed. She and her co-worker, Amanda Wood, created the challenge to target activities that people could do on a daily basis. “We also came up with point system and prizes to help motivate those who might not take part otherwise,” she said.
During each week of the challenge, Eartheasy employees received an information package with background notes about their weekly theme. Themes were further broken down into concrete activities. During the week about recycling and waste, participants earned points if they avoided using disposable coffee cups, take-out containers, or plastic bags. They also earned points for bringing their own lunch to work and watching one or more suggested documentaries.
During the week entitled “Behind the Purchase,” participants earned points for researching where items in their lunches came from or looking up ingredients in their personal hygiene products. Another list of documentaries included exposés on fast fashion and the chemical industry.
The final two weeks of the Eartheasy challenge asked employees to consider the impact of their food choices and energy consumption habits. Employees who had never composted learned what was acceptable in a compost heap. Everyone also received a seasonal produce list, the dates and locations of local farmers markets, and a list of compelling reasons to eat local, seasonal foods. Other material included encouragement to walk or bike to work, and tips for reducing energy use.
Each employee’s package included a checklist to monitor their progress. End-of-the-week prizes for the highest weekly scores included memberships to local farmers markets and local food products. The three people who scored the highest over all four weeks received one of three grand prizes for their efforts.
“We tried to set people up for success. The goal was having sustainability top of mind,” Blair said.
Motivation for Change
For Steve Watson, that goal became reality as he worked to improve his habits in one particular area—food. During the challenge, the wholesale accounts manager for Eartheasy made all his lunches at home, grilling vegetables and chicken on Sunday night in preparation for the coming week. This was in stark contrast to buying lunchtime takeout and the garbage that came along with it.
“It’s really amazing how much waste you cut out when you’re not eating take-out every day,” Steve said.
Three months later, he has kept up with some of the changes. “Now if I want a coffee, I will come to the office and get a takeout mug or bring one from home. I’m very cognizant of not getting a plastic cup any more.”
Other employees who considered themselves environmentally savvy also noticed areas where they could improve. Although Blair co-created the challenge and was already aware of many issues thanks to her degree in environmental science, the challenge helped her realized that she was leaving her computer on every day after work. She also began eating less meat and more vegetables after watching the documentary Forks Over Knives.
“Everyone seemed to learn something valuable during the challenge. Overall it was a successful way to get people paying attention to their daily habits,” she said.
10 Ways for Employers to Encourage Sustainable Behavior
More and more evidence shows that employers have an important role to play in encouraging sustainable behavior. Do you have a business or workplace that would benefit from some simple changes? If so, here are some ways to get started:
- Stock your workplace with reusable mugs and/or travel thermoses for coffee and tea. If you provide coffee on site, avoid single-serving coffee makers with disposable coffee pods.
- Ensure that reusable bags are on hand for employee use during work time.
- Provide access to healthy, local foods in the workplace. If you have vending machines on site, consider switching your offerings to healthier options.
- Stock your employee lounge or kitchen with reusable tableware and washable take-out containers. Stainless-steel food containers are easy to wash and extremely portable.
- Promote energy efficient machine use among employees, including powering down electronics at the end of the day or using programmable timers to turn off machines when not in use. Ensure that computers and other electronics have automatic shut-offs or sleep modes. Plug other electronics into power bars to make powering down easy and to reduce the drain of non-active machines.
- Consider allowing employees to have telework days (work-from-home days) where and when it makes sense.
- Offer safe, dry places for employees to lock their bicycles during their workday. If possible, designate places for cyclists to change and/or shower at the office.
- Encourage a green workplace culture by discussing sustainability issues during staff meetings. Ask employees what they’d like to see change or improve.
- Consider using a platform like WeSpire for sharing employee contributions and bolstering morale.
- Host your own sustainability challenge.
The State of Employee Engagement in Sustainability and CSR, WeSpire, August 2014.