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Teaching Sustainability Has Benefits for Big Business

• April 14, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Companies ranging from banks and defense contractors to organic yogurt makers reap benefits by creating a corps of sustainable-savvy employees.

Bill Thomas used to be a climate change skeptic, not believing that humans could have influenced the dramatic atmospheric shift, but two weeks in the woods — and chats with scientists — changed his mind.

“I remember vividly that first day with Dr. Jess Parker; he showed us a chart of CO2 levels increasing about the time of the industrial revolution,” says Thomas, who works for HSBC bank and participated in a 2007 Climate Champions training program. There, a personal epiphany led to a job title change — the former relationship manager for HSBC Technical Services is now group head of HSBC Technology and Services Sustainability.

Teaching employees the science behind green corporate values and how to make their workplaces sustainable isn’t just for “green” show — done right, it’s good business strategy.

“There seems to be a huge growth of interest among companies to not just keep the environmental initiatives within a subset of employees, but to make it a pervasive part of the corporate culture,” says Krista Badiane, who manages the business and environment program at the National Environmental Education Foundation.  And unlike broad, mandated rules — such as carbon caps — companies that create their own initiatives take ownership and credit for sustainable changes, which may well go beyond what laws would have dictated.

By cultivating current workers’ energy-saving ideas and environmental passions, companies can save resources, energy and money as well as boost their eco-friendly reputation. The key is to help employees learn why sustainability matters — for instance, unless it’s slowed, climate change could alter global landscapes and increase natural disasters in our lifetimes. And if employees realize what’s at stake, they’ll find ways to save resources at work — as well as at home.

Worker to Citizen Scientist
In a patch of woods in Edgewater, Md., bordering Smithsonian Environmental Research Center campus buildings, HSBC technology managers are intently straightening a measuring tape wrapped around a mature oak. Phil Clarke, from Portland, Ore., leans in and meticulously gets a reading of its diameter: 94.8 inches. During this weeklong Sustainability Leader training, he’s learning what scientists do and what shape the planet is in. He knows that the measurements taken today — even though what they reveal won’t be known for awhile — will help guide decisions that will keep our world sound for future generations.

His employer, HSBC bank — a global financial services company with 300,000 employees working in 8,000 offices and pre-tax profits topping $11 billion — decided to go carbon neutral in 2005. For the past three years, HSBC bank has partnered with EarthWatch Institute for an international study on climate change’s effects on tree growth, as well as a sustainability education program that trains employees around the world. When workers return to the office after their forest immersion, they find ways to integrate their green education in their spheres of influence.

Clarke and the other HSBC technology services managers from around North America — key decision-makers hand picked for the training — earn the title of Sustainability Leader. A larger two-week program trains HSBC employees from all levels — from cashier to marketing staffer — to become Climate Champions.

Such citizen science training helps corporate employees understand the mechanics of science — that systems are complex, and that there are no easy answers. “You learn what a critical state the world is actually in,” says Annette Fasolino of HSBC’s payment operations division in Buffalo, N.Y.

Having that up-close experience with scientists and ecosystems helps employees better grasp how climate change is impacting, and may impact, the world. “Many of these people go back and question their decisions, and make sure they’re making the most sustainable decisions,” says Thomas.

Cultivating the Grassroots
Though the partnership between HSBC and EarthWatch is unique, other companies are also looking to their staff for sustainable solutions. “There’s no one best program for a company to educate their employees,” Badiane says.

Some companies or groups of motivated employees organize green teams, which promote eco-friendly changes and teach colleagues sustainable alternatives. Initiatives range from banning disposable utensils in the lunchroom to redesigning an operating system to save raw materials. “Ideally, you’re getting some new ideas out of your employees,” says Deborah Fleischer, president of Green Impact, a sustainability consulting service.

Businesses also use social media sites such as Yammer — a private social network for companies — or online training to generate sustainable ideas.

Other companies dangle a carrot — awards and incentives — to get workers to make sustainable choices. Yogurt maker Stonyfield tied facility energy savings (based on energy use per ton of product) to employee bonuses. In this way, the company reduced energy use by more than 22 percent, according to a NEEF report.

To engage workers of all levels, eBay employed competition: a Big Green Idea Contest. To enter, employees identified ways the company could meet greenhouse gas reduction goals; then, employees voted on the top ideas. One idea, the eBay Box — simple, eco-friendly packaging that’s meant to be reused for eBay shipments — has become a useful tool that saves money and resources.

Unfortunately, some companies’ efforts are no more than greenwashing stunts to appear eco-friendly and keep up with their competition. Producing disposable trinkets with “green” logos or launching environmental-focused public relations initiatives while pushing pollution limits does not jive with true sustainability. The companies mentioned here, however, offer genuine solutions that leave a lighter footprint.

Two Kinds of Green
Such engagement can yield significant savings: One North American HSBC Climate Champion noticed that co-workers weren’t shutting down their PCs every night, wasting energy. Now, NightWatchman software automatically shuts down more than 6 million computers left on. During fiscal year 2010 in North America, the software coupled with an awareness program saved 4 million kilowatts per year of electricity and about 900 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which shaved $332,000 on energy bills.

At defense contractor Lockheed Martin, a Camden, Ark., building uses a software system to control lighting and air conditioning, leading to more than $200,000 in reduced costs and savings of 2,332 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to the NEEF report. And at drugmaker Genentech,  green teams slashed the use of bottled water, saving the company $200,000 a year by using filtered water machines paired with reusable bottles, according to a white paper by Fleischer, “Green Teams: Engaging Employees in Sustainability.”

But benefits to a company can’t always be calculated in dollars.

“By creating an engaged employee base, we’re really putting it into hearts and minds of employees, and that’s going to be much more powerful and long-term than saying ‘you must turn off your PC,’” says Sharon Walck, senior vice president of sustainability at HSBC North America.

Investing in and teaching sustainable values to workers also boosts retention, according to NEEF, which is extremely important to large corporations. The foundation says losing and replacing a good employee can cost a company between 70 percent and 200 percent of that employee’s annual salary.

And, Badiane says, “employees who are motivated want to work for a company that has the same values.”

Carrie Madren
Carrie Madren is an award-winning freelance journalist in the Washington, D.C., area who specializes in environmental and sustainability issues. Covering everything from eco-travel to oxygen depletion in the oceans, she has been published in The Washington Post, Maryland Life magazine, The Ecologist, Mother Nature Network, E Magazine, and Bay Journal News Service.

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