Last reviewed 9 December 2015

Lack of co-operation from colleagues is one of the primary reasons why workplace sustainability initiatives fail, says Caroline Hand. She looks at some simple solutions to overcoming this barrier, illustrated with examples of schemes where staff have been successfully motivated to buy in.

Many people still see environmental concerns as irrelevant to them and will therefore ignore even the simplest instructions to segregate waste, switch off electrical equipment or reuse water. And the blame does not rest solely with the workforce; senior management, focused on the bottom line, may be reluctant to invest in green projects that do not have an obvious and immediate financial payback.

Give reasons

People are unlikely to respond to new rules or instructions if they have not grasped the reason for them. They may comply for a short time, but if they are not really convinced that the benefits of changed behaviour will outweigh the cost, they are likely to revert to their old ways.


The justifications you use will depend on the individuals and their role in the organisation. Senior management are most likely to be impressed by the potential cost savings associated with the scheme. WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has calculated that on average, a business can save 1% of its turnover by implementing a strategy to prevent, reuse and recycle waste. Contract caterers Elior Defence provide meals for soldiers at MOD Bovington. They were surprised when a WRAP study revealed that the annual cost of leftover food on the plates was £11,000. Contract manager Jo Anne Robertson said the findings had changed the way she thought about waste: “We hadn’t expected anything near the kind of monies that were found. It has made me think of waste generation from a commercial aspect.”

Managers responsible for facilities or purchasing need to “rethink waste”, realising that it is composed of materials that they have paid for. In a case study of construction waste, a 10-tonne consignment would cost £1000 to send to landfill but could generate an income of over £200 if metals and plastics are segregated out for recycling.

Employees can be motivated if the financial savings are likely to translate into bonuses, jobs retained or created, or staff benefits such as a celebration meal paid for by energy savings.


Senior managers will also be motivated by concerns about the organisation’s image; every major company now has a “sustainability” page on its website. The new ISO 14001 standard has been devised to involve senior managers and encourage them to consider the full life cycle of their products or services. Successful certification will now require demonstration of concrete progress in reducing environmental impacts, as well as the familiar set of well-ordered documentation.


At all levels of an organisation there will be individuals with a genuine concern for the environment, and they can be readily engaged if they understand the benefits associated with the new scheme. Most people are already aware of climate change and the link to excessive energy consumption. The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management’s (CIWM) WasteSmart course dramatically illustrates the impact of unsustainable resource use by showing a picture of the “three earths” we would need if everyone in the world consumed as much as the average UK citizen.

Keep it simple

Communication with employees needs to be clear, concise and comprehensible. Workers whose first language is not English will need either pictorial signage or translation: the British Library’s toolbox talks for catering staff on waste reduction were translated into Spanish. Colour coding is helpful in encouraging waste segregation; the Co-op uses a simple three-colour bin system which staff can immediately understand.

People are more likely to respond if they are given only one or two things to do rather than a long list of green commandments. Avoid text-heavy posters and wordy emails; instead create eyecatching graphics and memorable slogans. Dairy manufacture Arla created humorous, colourful posters of cows taking a bath to bring home their water saving message. Short, seasonal slogans can be printed on payslips, eg in winter “turning down the thermostat by 1 degree can knock 10% off your energy bill”.

Larger companies may be able to finance an energy saving week, or waste awareness day. For example, service providers Sodexo runs a WasteLess week for its National Health Service (NHS) partner in Manchester. If you are running awareness weeks or a poster campaign, it is worth investing in good quality materials. The Carbon Trust estimates that you will need between 1% and 2% of the total annual utility bill to create a successful energy awareness programme.

Get them involved

Employees are much more likely to participate in a scheme that they have helped to devise. Their suggestions will be realistic, taking into account the constraints operating in their workplace. At Stansted Airport, retailers were able to explain to consultants the limitations on space for recycling bins, and helped to devise a practicable collection scheme. Catering staff at MoD Bovington were throwing away tuna at the end of the week. Their successful solution was to use this in a tuna flan and freeze it. Sodexo catering staff from around the world contributed to a recipe book with good ideas for leftover food.

Interested staff can be involved in a Green Team; they will talk to colleagues and share their enthusiasm for the environmental project.

Sticks and carrots

For those who are not really interested in saving the planet, a simple incentive scheme might be more effective than a talk. Environmental managers can run competitions between teams, sites or departments, with a reward for the team which has saved most energy or recycled most waste. Successes need to be publicised, whether through a newsletter, poster or email. On the negative side, the employee who has left his computer on all night might be embarrassed to see it marked out with a large fluorescent sticker.

Stansted Airport’s recycling scheme used financial incentives: free collection of recyclables, but a higher cost for general waste collections. Similarly, the Welsh Government introduced free reusable cups alongside a 15p charge for using a disposable cup.

If all else fails it may be necessary to introduce some kind of penalty clause into contracts. This is particularly applicable at construction sites where subcontractors may be tempted to put waste into the wrong skip: an action with potentially serious consequences if hazardous wastes are involved.

Changing the workplace environment

The shrewd environmental manager will make it easy to co-operate with the new instructions, and difficult to transgress. To save paper, the aid agency CAFOD took away most of the office printers and adapted the technology so that it was easier to save files electronically. At the same time, they took away all the individual desk bins so that staff had to use centrally placed recycling and general waste bins. MoD Bovington cut waste by eliminating self-service of potatoes and veg — much of which had been left on the plate. One very simple approach is to invest in a recycling bin designed to take only cups or cans, so the recycling is not contaminated with general waste.

Keep them informed

Employees will lose interest in the scheme if they are not kept up to date with progress; senior managers will need convincing that their investment has been worthwhile. The management team at Stansted reports regularly to the cleaning team as to whether their recycling targets have been achieved. Keep posters and displays updated, and ensure that progress is monitored, documented — and celebrated!

Further resources are available for environmental managers who wish to engage their workforce. The CIWM’sWasteSmart Foundation courseis designed to help employees at all levels to rethink waste. The Carbon Trust has published a helpful and detailed guide,Creating an Awareness Campaign – Energy Awareness in your Business.