Environmental issues have been garnering top-level attention for years - "Get CEO buy-in," is a well worn piece of advice for aspiring corporate environmentalists -- but for many companies, getting the CEO on board is the least of the challenges. Failure to engage the rank and file -- not to mention that all-too-often impenetrable layer of resistance known as "middle management" - has thwarted even the more forward-thinking business leaders from realizing their green goals.
Companies are finding new ways to make green thinking top of mind for employees, both at work and in their personal lives. Wal-Mart has engaged its employee base by asking them to create Personal Sustainability Projects,helping them connect personal and corporate missions to make a difference for their own health and the health of the planet. The PSPs - which range from picking up litter and switching out inefficient light bulbs, to smoking cessation and weight loss - help motivate and energize employees; teach them how to cut out the fat, literally and figuratively; improve their health and morale; and may even reduce Wal-Mart's health-care costs for its more than one million employees. The idea is that employees often connect to the broader concept of sustainability through the prisms of finances and health and wellness, not just saving the birds and the trees.
Other companies are taking different routes. For example, JCPenney enlisted the help of volunteer"energy captains" at each of its 1,000-plus retail stores, asking them to be the eyes and ears on the ground to look for more ways to conserve energy and green their workplace.
Much of this taps into employees' natural desire to be part of environmental solutions, and to be empowered to do so by their employers. A 2007 survey by Adecco, an international human resources company, found that 52percent of employed adults felt their companies should do more to be environmentally friendly; companies, for their part, wanted to highlight their green activities to market themselves and attract new employees. A classic win-win.
But it's not all smooth sailing. Two surveys of workers, one in the U.S. and another in the U.K., found that workers are largely dissatisfied with their companies' environmental achievements. The U.K. survey found that big companies often hamper employees' willingness to take green actions, with those at smaller firms significantly more likely than employees at larger companies to help curb energy use and climate gases by recycling and turning off lights and computers. Stateside, a survey or workers by the Marlin Co. found that 63 percent considered themselves to be greener than their employers.
That's not encouraging. To achieve their increasingly ambitious environmental goals,companies will need to educate, engage, empower, and activate their employees to think and act green. And learn from them, too, recognizing that when it comes to running a leaner, greener business, no one knows where the waste and inefficiencies lie more than those on the front lines. Despite all the oft-repeated dictums about "top-down" and "bottom-up" management techniques,effectively greening the corporation sometimes requires that companies learn how to lead from the middle.
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