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RESOURCES: How to Approach Employee Education on Sustainability

Posted by Jennifer Woofter on April 8, 2009

The following is a summary of The Engaged Organization Corporate Employee Environmental Education Survey and Case Study Findings Business & Environment by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) Business and Environment Program, March 2009

Creating “green jobs” is a timely topic, and leading companies have recognized the essential role that their employees play in aligning daily operations with corporate values regarding the environment and sustainability. Indeed, meeting persistent environmental challenges is now so critical to a company’s success that environmental knowledge cannot be isolated within an organization, but must be pervasive. Or put briefly, all jobs are now “green jobs.”

This is particularly true in troubled economic times because engaged employees are a business’ prime resource in cutting costs and finding innovative ways to reduce the firm’s environmental and social impacts. A survey to investigate this important topic finds that, despite some differences among companies, there are clear trends how leading companies approach internal environment and sustainability (E&S) employee education and engagement. Some of the key findings are:

Environment & Sustainability Knowledge Is Valuable

NEEF’s survey reveals that 65 percent of respondents value job candidates’ E&S knowledge, while 78 percent of respondents believe that the value of job candidates’ E&S knowledge will increase in importance as a hiring factor within five years.

Environment & Sustainability Education Is a Growing Trend

Companies are not only anticipating that the value of E&S knowledge will increase, many are already providing some education to their employees about these topics. Seventy-five percent of companies educate employees about corporate E&S goals and 56 percent of the respondents believe that their company has an advanced or very advanced E&S education program. The survey also indicated that many companies without an E&S education program are likely to adopt one soon.

E & S Approaches Vary Among Companies

The office responsible for E&S education varies among companies. Most companies cover a variety of environmental topics when communicating with employees. The most common topics include general E&S information and actions that can conserve or protect resources. According to survey respondents, the most important motivating factors for employees are concern for the environment and society, support or a mandate from the CEO, company reputation, and job satisfaction.

For several companies with effective E&S education programs, employee education is part of the companies’ culture, often beginning with the hiring process, as in the case of Clean Clothes, Inc. and Interface. Successful programs often tie the education program to the company’s mission and goals and performance evaluation processes. Most of the companies studied stressed the importance of involving all employees in a personal way. For example, Wal-Mart adjusts information to make it relevant to employees’ personal lives as well as their jobs. And companies like Stonyfield emphasized that measuring E&S performance is key to driving progress, as well as education.

Other creative processes used by organizations to influence employees include multi-departmental leadership, employee-led “green” teams, awards, online training, mixed-media communications, and performance incentives. In addition, several companies worked with external partners including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to create successful E&S education programs, as in the case of Johnson & Johnson. But interestingly, companies often used more than one model in structuring their E&S education efforts, and the efforts often extended beyond employees to include suppliers and customers.

Challenges Still Exist

Despite the strong value placed on E&S education, companies revealed several challenges they face when engaging employees, including lack of money, time, resources and executive support. The survey and case studies generally highlighted six needs related to E&S education:

1. Education tools such as case studies, success stories, and training materials to help implement E&S education programs
2. General, as well as job-specific, educational information to raise environmental awareness and to help make the business case for E&S education
3. Credible third-party partners to help companies develop training materials, as well as to make the business case for E&S education
4. Methods to reach out to employees who were not yet interested in the environment or sustainability issues
5. Appropriate indicators for measuring the impact of E&S education, beyond just anecdotes
6. Forums for identifying and sharing models and best practices related to E&S education


In addition to the survey, case studies provide a closer look at formal and informal employee educational methods and programs among companies of varying sizes in different sectors. One of the featured case studies – Clean Clothes, Inc. (brand name Maggie’s Organics) – documents best practices and lessons learned for a small company of 13 employees.

Their Key Lessons:

1. Embed sustainability in your culture and product
2. Foster a culture of learning
3. Involve all employees in problem-solving
4. Use credible third-party information to make the case for environmental improvements
5. Influence the supply chain through education and dialog
6. Make the business case internally as well as with business partners

Some Highlights of Their Story:

– They’ve never had a formal environmental education or training program. Environmental education is just part of what they do, and so is reflected in their products and how they run the business and work with employees. It’s part of the mission, values and founding principles, and therefore it’s important for all employees to be involved in environmental decision-making.

– They also start at the beginning by screening new employees for their knowledge about organics and organic cotton. As a result, they have a corporate culture that attracts employees who are environmentally aware.

– They try to “walk the talk” in the office. They completed an extensive energy audit of the office building last year and now have a programmable thermostat. They also try to do little things around the office – like not using sticky notes and always printing double-sided.

– In the words of their president and owner, Bena Burda, “Maggie’s is small, so there is no single champion or department for environmental education — all employees are involved. And our impact has really spread beyond our 13 employees.”

– As a matter of course, they share their knowledge about environmental practices for apparel production with their partners in Nicaragua as well as U.S.-based manufacturers. And since the apparel industry is under stress, making the business case is becoming an increasingly important motivating factor. As an example, they worked with a sock finisher to switch from chlorine to hydrogen peroxide, and it saved him money.

– According to Burda, the toughest thing is convincing the management of their business partners to listen and to think outside the box. Especially when suppliers are under financial duress, it can be tough to try new methods.

– Their advice for others: Credible third-party information helps make the business case for environmental improvements. Specifically for them, when the Ecology Center included their produce in a Healthy Toy Rating, it was of real interest to one of their larger customers, Whole Foods.

– And finally, they’ve learned that their customers’ comments help, too, because informed customers can stimulate innovative ideas. So they use and suggest a log of customer comments that are regularly sent to all managers.


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