By Rory Bakke, CSO/VP Product Development, True Market Solutions

For 10 years I directed the StopWaste Business Partnership which operates in the East San Francisco Bay Area. During that time we reduced the amount of solid waste going to landfill from Alameda County businesses by over a million tons by working with 600 companies from over 40 industries. More often than not, an employee would contact us to diagnose their company’s situation and to set up a waste reduction and recycling program. But when the “champion” left the company or changed responsibilities within the organization, the successful efforts frequently fell apart.

As I continued to witness this pattern, I realized that to sustain environmental programs within companies, it was essential that initiatives be embedded within the organization’s operations and infrastructure. Improved environmental and social practices (now referred to as Sustainability) needed to become part of the culture and structure of the organization.

What does it take to make this happen? No matter what the desired objective — whether it’s setting up a recycling program to reduce the cost and impacts of generating waste; reducing the use of energy by installing more efficient lighting and controls or having employees unplug unnecessary equipment to eliminate “vampire load”; or improving worker wellness by promoting healthier eating habits — consciously designing a way to change behavior is an early key step that is vital to the success of any project.

While there are many frameworks currently being utilized to organize employee engagement efforts, one set of tenets that I like a lot is Unilever’s simple yet profoundly useful 5 Levers of Change:

  1. Make it Understood
  2. Make it Desirable
  3. Make it Easy
  4. Make it Rewarding
  5. Make it a Habit

Let’s look at an example:
When Google redesigned their employee wellness program they wanted to encourage employees to take the stairs. This was not a popular employee practice when they began.

They made the campaign understood by explaining (in several different ways and more than once) how taking the stairs daily is a simple activity that can bring significant health benefits. They made it desirable by repainting and piping music into the stairwells. They made it easy by providing fun building maps that included stairwell locations and information that translated number of stairs taken to calories burned. They made it rewarding by adding a competitive game aspect to the campaign and by providing consistent participants with high-level recognition that was made known to the peer community (e.g. other employees). Finally, they made it a habit by checking in with people, reminding them of the benefits and being persistent with the campaign.

Employee engagement is another important component contributing to the long-term impacts of sustainability programs. Next time around I will discuss the benefits to the company, employees and other stakeholders of focusing in this area.