Last reviewed 14 May 2019

Employees who are passionate about sustainability can be powerful agents of change within an organisation. Caroline Hand looks at how to equip employees to be outward-facing sustainability ambassadors and inspirational Green Champions to catalyse internal change.

Millennials at work

Look on the website of any major company, and you will find a sustainability page listing impressively worded commitments to cut carbon emissions, send zero waste to landfill, and ensure that raw materials are responsibly sourced.

Such messages are not only intended for shareholders and customers; increasingly, potential employees seek out organisations that share their own strongly held values on the environment. Millennials are looking for more than merely salary and status: they place a high priority on meaningful work that has a positive impact on the planet and its people.

Sustainability is no longer the sole responsibility of a nominated environment or sustainability manager. Forward-looking businesses incorporate sustainability goals into each employee’s job description and responsibilities, eg they may be set a personal goal to reduce energy consumption, use less paper or to volunteer in the community.

What are your colleagues tweeting about the sustainability credentials of your business or organisation? Social media is a great leveller, and even the most junior employee can influence stakeholders around the world as they share their opinions and impressions.

Businesses that are sincere in their efforts to be more sustainable will find that engaged employees can be their most effective brand ambassadors. Conversely,

“If employees are not equipped to advocate the sustainability credentials to their local community, in a way they genuinely believe, with stories, anecdotes and facts at their fingertips, then a big opportunity is being missed. Worse the corporate line will sound increasingly hollow if employees cannot walk the corporate talk.”

(Sullivan, Joanna. Creating Employee Champions: How to Drive Business Success through Sustainability Engagement Training (DoShorts), 2014. Taylor and Francis.)

A bright future at Unilever

BrightFuture is Unilever’s employee engagement programme. It is “about demonstrating how everything we do as a business and as individuals, can deliver sustainable growth”. Employees have used Unilever’s products in projects to benefit wider society: eg more than 5000 employees visited schools to teach children the healthy habit of washing their hands with soap. In 2016, some 3000 employees ran Dove self-esteem workshops in schools in 37 countries, helping more than 30,000 young people worldwide.

Unilever is very positive about the impact of their sustainability training. The company describes the employees as “our story tellers; talking to friends and family about how we’re creating a brighter future and building advocates inside and outside the organisation”.

Sustainability engagement training

To become sustainability ambassadors, employees need more than mere facts and figures about the company’s environmental strategy. They need to feel personally passionate about the issues and have the confidence and skills to communicate them to others.

In her book Creating Employee Champions, sustainability trainer Joanna Sullivan describes how she transfers the training techniques developed by green NGOs to a business setting.

The objective is that the company’s environmental strategy should be “owned” by staff at all levels. Sullivan employs a three-stage training model, which she uses in one-day training workshops for groups of about 15 employees. The workshops bring together a diverse group of employees from across the company and employ the following techniques.

1.  Challenge

Rather than presenting to the employees, the trainer begins by exploring their understanding of sustainability and finding out their priorities. Misunderstandings can be explained, and people’s awareness of key issues can be raised. “This is not about someone else telling you how you might think, or how you might improve your performance: it’s about learning to think differently yourself as an innovative sustainability thinker.”

2.  Connect

The trainer explains the company’s environmental strategy to the group. In Sullivan’s experience, it is best to avoid complexity and concentrate on a single issue, which can be communicated in pictures as well as words. Use news stories — such as the campaigns against non-recyclable coffee cups and single use plastics — to bring it home.

3.  Communicate

Employees need the tools to communicate the environmental strategy — and their own commitment to it — with their social network. Games and exercises can be used to equip and engage them. For example, small groups are instructed to prepare an “elevator pitch”, ie a three-minute presentation encapsulating the key points of the strategy. The least experienced employee gets the task of giving the pitch. Another exercise pits employees against a roomful of sceptical “journalists” who question them about the company’s strategy and credentials.

During a training day like this, natural leaders may well emerge who are particularly enthusiastic and committed to the sustainability agenda. These are potential Green Champions who can take on a more active role within the company. Green Champions are responsible for instructing and motivating their colleagues, overseeing the practical aspects of projects and liaising with management.

Green Champions in the workplace

Green Champions are key to achieving behaviour change in staff, which is essential if any in-house environmental strategy is to succeed.

The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has published guidance which describes a typical model for Green Champions in the workplace. A senior manager or environmental specialist identifies a small group of enthusiastic volunteers. In a larger organisation, the Green Champions will in turn recruit teams from amongst their colleagues. The Green Champions will implement schemes drawn up by the manager, doing their best to engage with staff and encourage compliance with new initiatives. They will also feedback information and views from staff, eg on practical barriers to recycling.

WRAP’s guidance lists the management skills needed by a green champion as the ability to:

  • set clear, achievable goals and objectives for teams

  • set realistic timescales for project activities

  • identify and plan resource needs, eg equipment

  • monitor progress and hold team meetings to identify actions needed to correct any problems or delays

  • report progress to management

  • collate information in a standard format for analysis and summary

  • “stand back” from the detail of day-to-day activities to see if key areas are being neglected and/or to ensure that resources are being used effectively.

Bridging the gap between staff and management

Green Champions are responsible for persuading their colleagues that the environmental initiative is significant and beneficial. Without this, the willingness to switch off lights or use the new recycling bins could well be short lived. To achieve this the Champions could organise a company Waste Awareness Day or sustainability seminar. Green Champions will keep their colleagues informed about the progress of their schemes through a newsletter or website, and ideally will introduce an incentive scheme to encourage participation.

So far so good — and there are many case studies to show that this kind of scheme has been effective. Royal Mail, for example, developed a recycling programme based on maintaining regular communication with internal staff across all levels. Green Champions (known as frontline staff) were involved in the design of waste posters and were provided with regular reports on each site’s progress which they could in turn share with other staff members. By July 2016, 48% of Royal Mail’s sites had diverted 100% of waste from landfill.

However, despite the many successes, staff engagement remains the biggest barrier to achieving workplace sustainability targets. The experts have therefore looked more closely at the role of green champions and come to some surprising conclusions.

Sorry, polar bears

The environmental charity GAP (Global Action Plan) has been working with large organisations to help them achieve behaviour change. They found that lectures on polar bears and climate change were failing to achieve the desired effects, so instead focused on issues closer to home that were directly linked to people’s pride in their work.

Staff at Sainsbury’s learned how better management of refrigeration equipment and ovens would improve the quality and freshness of the food. By motivating staff to pull down night blinds on open refrigeration systems, Sainsbury’s has achieved a 5% improvement in in-store energy efficiency.

At Bart’s Hospital, staff achieved dramatic reductions in energy consumption, although their motivation was not climate change but patient wellbeing. GAP shared the results of various studies which proved how patients recover more quickly with greater exposure to natural light. This gave staff an incentive to turn off the electric lights. Additionally, the hospital introduced a daily period of silence which was restful for patients as well as economical in terms of energy usage. As a result of these changes, the hospital trust saved £400,000 each year.

Not just the green and keen

People are more likely to listen to colleagues they know and respect than unfamiliar managers drawn from other parts of the business. The successful Change Champions scheme, run by business service company Commercial, has demonstrated that a Green Champion does not have to be a sustainability expert in order to be an effective force for change. The Champions are recruited at every grade of staff across all areas of the business.

The scheme was originally set up as Green Angels in 2010, then in 2017 the teams decided to broaden their focus to include social sustainability and relaunched as Change Champions. Every few months a new team of approximately five Champions comes together with ideas for a new project. Senior management provides funding and appoints a project manager to support the team. The project is communicated to all the staff at a Change Champion launch day.

To date there have been 17 teams involving more than 100 people. One of their biggest successes was achieving zero waste to landfill: the day when the waste contractors took away the last General Waste skip was enthusiastically celebrated! Through the Change Champion Days, every member of staff is allowed to take a day off work, without using their leave, to volunteer with a community project of their choice.

More recently, the Champions have tackled the problem of single use plastics. Suppliers were invited to switch to reusable packaging — a campaign which received a mixed response. There has been greater success in encouraging Commercial’s staff to use reusable coffee cups by providing each person with a free, reusable cup. For January 2019, all employees have been encouraged to make a number of sustainability pledges — such as car sharing or donating unused clothing, and reducing meat consumption — using the DoNation platform. Every member of staff is involved and more than 180 pledges had been made on the first day of the scheme going live.

Commercial encourages its customers and supply chain to adopt their model. As well as advice and training, they supply their distinctive branding free of charge.

Some top tips for Green Champions

Networking opportunities like Catalyst enable Green Champions to share their successful strategies for behaviour change.

Some of the “top tips” currently being publicised include the following.

  • Use a gamification model that encourages departments to compete against each other, eg in energy saving.

  • Connect with people on a personal level: speak to individuals to find out their reasons for not wanting to change.

  • Celebrate success and recognise achievement (although not through financial incentives which can be difficult to bring to an end).

  • Show employees what they are achieving at the local level, to prove that their efforts count.

  • Empower the Green Champions by giving them responsibility for workshops and projects, while at the same time providing management support.

  • Use imagination and humour, such as posters with cartoon characters, when communicating schemes to staff: don’t lecture. The City of Sydney called its champions Green Ninjas, with an image of stealthy, devoted and somewhat anonymous characters. The green ninjas checked the recycling bins once staff had left the building, leaving rewards for those who did well, and advice for those who needed it, to find in the morning.

For aspiring Green Champions, the Resource Efficient Scotland website offers an free online training course. The course has been well received and is particularly relevant to small businesses. It covers a range of practical topics including: “quick wins” for energy-efficient lighting and heating; waste reuse and recycling; and saving water in toilets and showers. Course participants can move on to more advanced modules on environmental policy implementation, sustainable procurement and environmental management systems. The course also includes a workplace training programme — to create the next generation of engaged, enthusiastic ambassadors for sustainability.