Avoid a Sustainability Flop By Ditching ‘Buy-In’

Sustainability need to be championed from the top level, but employees also need to care about it or any efforts will quickly flop. Employee (or community or consumer) buy-in happens when you’re brought-in. It’s not about positioning your strategy, it’s about involving people in it.  Here’s how three different companies, eBay, GoLite and ConAgra, use their employees to contribute and innovate, rather than just execute.  

All three companies began with strategic goals set at the top that projected where they want to be in five to fifteen years. The goals are big, but they signal the company’s potential.  To meet them, the company will need to stretch and innovate.  The goals are just a wish list of what the company wants to achieve–and the wish list doesn’t stand a chance without employee contribution.

When eBay announced its three-year, 15% absolute carbon reduction goal, employees were asked for their ideas on how to get there. Amy Skoczlas Cole and the Green Team she leads received more than 600 ideas for trimming corporate greenhouse gas emissions and operating more efficiently.  Even though it was the C suite that set the carbon reduction goal, employees were brought in as part of the solution. Imagine being asked for your ideas (some of which were acted on) compared to a meeting, intranet email and memos about turning off your computers and using less paper.  Contributive,  inventive, listened to versus corrected and ordered.

When GoLite realized its early social responsibility efforts didn’t count for real sustainability, it brought in an outside auditor to evaluate the company and drew up bold goals based on its current resource use.  With the overarching framework in place, GoLite’s founders involved their team in dissecting the larger objectives and deciding how they would affect each employee’s job. The company goals were refined into department goals and further refined into individual goals. “Setting big goals rallied our employees,” says GoLite co-founder (and now head of sustainability) Kim Coupounas.

ConAgra rewards internal teams for integrating sustainability into operations and for sharing their innovations with other teams.  This year’s winning projects (across five categories) saved ConAgra more than $28 million last year, reduced carbon emissions and water use and diverted waste and packaging from landfills.  One California plant conserved almost 56 million gallons of water by finding a way to reuse water removed from tomatoes during the manufacturing process to supply boilers, cooling towers and tanks. By giving employees the leeway to test new methods and materials, ConAgra benefits from tremendous innovation and knowledge sharing. Imagine the mediocre results if the company stuck with a one-way-fits-all sustainability plan.

I’d love to hear from you. How is your company or others engaging employees in sustainability?

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