Empowering people for the greener good

Every day at the office, employees at your company face choices with implications for the environment and the company budget

Every day at the office, employees at your company face choices with implications for the environment and the company budget. "Am I going to power down my PC during my lunch break -- or leave it running?" "Should I print this entire twelve-page document, single-sided and in color -- or just print the four pages I need, double-sided and in black and white?"

A surprising assortment of factors will influence their decision, and many of them may be based on groundwork you've laid for them.

Yes, there are good technology solutions out there, such as PC-power management tools and print-monitoring software, that can force employees to make some prudent green choices. Ultimately, though, technology can only do so much to combat the kind of wasteful tendencies that become ingrained in employees' daily routine. More often than not, those tendencies result from a company's culture more than a person's aversion to be greener.

Fortunately, companies are finding ways to encourage employees not only to be more mindful of the choices they make but to truly drive change that leads to a meaningful corporate-cultural shift toward sustainability.

"People are inspired and intrigued by a culture that they see as having creativity and meaning and a higher purpose," says Christina Page, director of climate and energy strategy at Yahoo. "You can inspire your employees by tapping into their creativity and desire to make the world a better place."

Waste scales

At first blush, it might seem that the environmental effect of printing a couple of extra color copies is unimportant or that leaving a system or lights or A/C on for a few extra hours is negligible.

Thing is, small acts of waste can scale significantly. Let's say a non-green choice costs 50 cents, be it in paper, ink, watts, gasoline, whatever. If you have 500 employees, and each makes just one non-green choice per day, you're looking at $250 being tossed in the can daily. At the end of the year, that's $62,500 worth of wasted resources (assuming 50 five-day work weeks). That affects your bottom line and your company's impact on the environment.

Planting green seeds

So what are companies doing to foster a greener mindset among employees? Let's look at Fujitsu. The company last year launched an internal program called Eco2Cost, through which the company trains employees on the environmental and financial impact of conservation measures, then encourages them to submit specific proposals to cut waste through reduction, reuse, and recycling.

The program is based on a concept called Mottainai, used by Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. It means "how wasteful that we do not take advantage of the full value of things."

According to Richard McCormack, senior VP of marketing at Fujitsu, employees' proposals aren't ignored, set aside, and forgotten; rather, they've resulted in a meaningful cultural shift where individuals feel empowered to speak up and implement good ideas, resulting in greener, less wasteful practices.

For example, one employee announced to his peers and managers that he would no longer print out color PowerPoint slides for meetings; rather, they were told to bring their laptops to follow presentations. The effort has snowballed, and the result is a reduction in paper waste and expensive color ink throughout the company.

What might happen at your own company if, out of the blue, you told a manager, a VP, or someone higher on the totem pole that you weren't going to print up slides anymore? Or, if you happen to be a VP or manager or atop the pole, what would you think or do if someone who reports to you politely told you to bring a laptop to a meeting instead of expecting print-outs? Sure, it might fly. Then again, without a policy or support from higher up to encourage that kind of behavior, the proposal might never hit the table to begin with, or it might result in some snickering, a definitive "No, you'll do it the way we've always done it," a reprimand -- or worse.

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