Turning Employees On to Conservation

Green initiatives don't only benefit the environment. Organizations are finding that these efforts, when driven and supported from the top of the organization -- and aligned with employees' interests and passions -- can also help to boost engagement and satisfaction.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013
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In March 2012, President Obama announced the Department of Energy's EV Everywhere Challenge, based on the desire to make plug-in electric vehicles as affordable and convenient as possible.

Recently, corporate America has joined the effort, launching the Workplace Charging Challenge to increase the number of employers across the country offering electric-vehicle charging. Major companies including Google, Ford, GE, 3M, Chrysler Group, Duke Energy, Eli Lilly and Co., General Motors, San Diego Gas & Electric, Siemens, Tesla and Verizon have taken the challenge, with others not far behind.

This is just the latest in a growing trend for organizations to actively engage employees in green initiatives. From electric-car-charging systems, to reducing energy consumption, to focusing on the minimization of waste, companies around the country are taking steps to engage their employees in and environmentally friendly initiatives with some impressive results.

In Bowling Green, Ky., SCA's Personal Care achieved a milestone in January 2012, when it realized its goal of sending zero waste to the landfill, says John O'Rourke, vice president of human resources at Philadelphia-based SCA Americas, a personal-care products company with more than 2,600 employees at 10 plant and office locations nationwide.

Mike Littlefield is the quality, risk, environmental, health and safety manager at SCA's Personal Care location in Bowling Green. They say the company is understandably proud of this significant achievement, but they note that SCA's commitment to sustainability has been ongoing on a global level.

"We have always had a very, very strong focus on sustainability," says Littlefield, "and had set, as an organization, very aggressive targets on water reduction, very aggressive targets for air emissions in terms of global warming, and very aggressive targets in terms of the type of certified trees or wood products we use in all of our manufacturing processes.

"SCA has always had a very strong focus on being a good community organization," he says. "[We're] a group that really focuses on how we can limit our environmental impact to the communities in which our facilities reside."

It was not an easy process, he says, especially as they grew closer to their goal. "It would have been very easy to throw in the towel and quit and say 'We're at 90 percent, [so] we're happy with that,' " he says. The challenge was well worth the effort, though, he says: "It is a great demonstration of an organization's commitment to its employees and to the communities in which it works," he says. "Nothing speaks louder than taking on an initiative like this."

At SCA, a cross-functional team was established in 2010 to focus on the Bowling Green initiative. "In order for us to reach our goal we had to have strong support," says Littlefield. "Everyone really saw the value in this and they really saw how this could be an initiative that could demonstrate our plant's commitment to the environment."

At Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, a hotel with a shopping center and restaurants, Bob Hester, director of human resources, points to the hotel's Green Team as integral to the realization of its goals. 

"Since its inception," he says, "the Green Team has put the greatest focus on employee education and community partnerships."

The committee meets monthly and has launched such initiatives as a monthly bus incentive program, office-wide implementation of energy conservation and recycling, he says, adding that it's really "a community" effort.

"The committee has reached out to local community partners to create active quarterly beach cleanups and introduce the staff and guests to conversation groups that help maintain the local coral reef species," he says, "which, in turn, affected everything around us."

Like O'Rourke and Littlefield, Hester believes that a local focus works well.

"The effect on the employees has been enormous," he says. "Most are proud to be a part of the movement that is going to help their families and children."

And the greatest impact, he says, has been in the food-and-beverage department. A $13-million renovation in 2011, which launched three new outlets, offered an opportunity to practice sustainability, he says, "from the fish and meat that we buy to working with local farmers for vegetables, fruits and dairy.

"In all of our restaurants we have joined the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program," he says. "As a result, only the freshest, most-sustainable, line-caught fish are featured at Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach."

But, while issues related to energy management and sustainability might seem to fall under the purview of facilities management or other operational areas, HR still needs to drive these efforts to ensure success.

Littlefield points to HR as being a critical part of the process, in two primary areas: communication and training. "I think it's important that HR is driving it," says O'Rourke. "HR really has to endorse and be the champion of initiatives when it comes to greening; I think it's vital. You need to have that alignment to enable employees to go out and do these things."  

Anca Novacovici, founder of Washington-based Eco-Coach, an environmental sustainability advisory firm, agrees. She says the focus of these initiatives has moved away from programs like LEED, and buildings and energy management, over the past few years. She has "seen more and more organizations understanding that employee engagement is the key to having a sustained initiative."  

It's about behavior change, says Novacovici, pointing to studies and articles that have suggested that energy savings through LEED have not been as significant as expected, primarily because facility managers were not trained in operating buildings in a new way. The programs had more of a short-term, project-based focus, rather than being embedded into the policies and practices of the organization.

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"Where we've seen it work best is when you have agreement and sign-off from the top that is reflected in an HR policy," says Novacovici. It's critical that HR be involved in order for the initiative to move forward because it touches on the various aspects of staffing, she notes-including job descriptions and, in some cases, pay or incentives.  

Her perspectives are supported by a recent study conducted by Nicola Corradi, and her colleagues, which appeared in the Journal of Economic Psychology. The study investigated the cognitive abilities necessary for people to implement energy saving behaviors based on the frequently observed gap between "energy saving intention" and "energy wasting behavior." In an article discussing the research, Eco-Feedback on the Go: Motivating Energy Awareness, Corradi and colleagues provide some perspectives that may be useful for HR.

Through their work, they have determined that the following feedback and system requirements should be in place:

*     Nonintrusiveness. The system should not disrupt everyday habits by requiring additional measures and should not require substantial deviation from the user's intended activity.

*     Intuitiveness. System interaction should encourage the correct user input without requiring a manual.

*     Energy efficiency. The feedback system itself should be energy-efficient.

*     Privacy. Devices that personalize feedback should address the possible risks to privacy and protect the user against them.

*     Sustained involvement. The interface should evolve and reward improvements to keep the user enticed and motivated after curiosity about the system wanes.

That ongoing sustained involvement is something that Littlefield pointed to as a key factor in SCA's success. "In my experience in manufacturing," he says, "being able to tie recycling and waste minimization back into a normal part of the manufacturing process is extremely important," he says.

"It's not about having this environmental initiative that's off on its own," he says. "That's a recipe for disaster, in my opinion."


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