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How to Create a Culture of Sustainability in the Workplace

In my consultation work at Zero Waste Shanghai, a firm that advises and trains Fortune 500 companies on their sustainability practices, we have always insisted on starting sustainability from the inside-out, instead of the other way around. Sustainability is not a trend, it requires small progressive changes to the fundamental way we live and work on our planet.

However, we have observed that companies often make quick and short-term decisions to appear sustainable, yet there are few who actually incorporate long-term socio-environmental practices. Unfortunately, this will usually have a limited impact on the company culture, supply chain, or day-to-day life at the office.

In the last two years, we have witnessed record high levels of ‘greenwashing’ across multiple industries. The benefits of adopting green strategies are not being questioned anymore. But in reality, the day-to-day practices you adopt within your workplace will have a big impact on how far you can go with adopting socio-environmental practices within your business more broadly.

The process of creating a sustainable company starts with an internal dialogue, training, and effective management before it moves to an external one with company stakeholders (clients, community, suppliers, etc.).

And you guessed it … it all starts with a greener company culture.

Developing Sustainable Practices Within The Workplace

Sustainable practices require a strategy, just like other departments of the company, but this is often overlooked. In this article we share some of the internal strategies we have implemented with our clients to create a strong foundation for a green company culture. The following is a priority list of what to look out for when developing sustainability in the workplace.

Figure 1 Photo by Gensler

Internal Communication & Employee Engagement

Tell Me and I Forget; Teach Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I Learn.” (Xunzi)

Throughout the years, we have mostly worked with C-levels from various organizations, and when discussing potential strategies we would recommend two important matters:

  • Keeping a consistent internal communication flow between the team in charge, and the employees to communicate the operational changes and results. 
  • Asking for an occasional involvement of the employees in the implementation phase.  

Why is this behavior change so important and in which ways is this supporting your company? 

According to research by McKinsey about 70 percent of people say they define their purpose through work. Millennials, even more so, are likely to see their work as their life calling. Almost seven out of ten employees are reflecting on their purpose because of COVID-19. Those saying their work is purposeful are six and a half times more likely to report higher resilience.

Another research conducted by Gallup shows that companies who actively engage their employees through meaning and purpose see a 23% increase in profitability, and an 18% increase in productivity.

Sony Electronics put the same principle to the test: They launched a green workplace certification to incentivize their employees to adopt greener practices. The results did not disappoint with saving around $85 per participant with an initial investment below $20 per person. 

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Note: After decades of research and observation, Unilever developed a model for effective behavior change: Five Levers for Change. A practical tool to understand people, their habits and motivations.

1. Waste audit

Figure 2 Photo by Sarah Chai

A waste audit is a process that can be used to determine the amount and types of waste that are generated inside an organization. It can help an organization to identify where materials come from and allow it to determine how they can reduce the amount of waste that they generate, save money, and make more informed decisions.

We recommend using the audit to involve the employees, educate them on the matter and share the larger company purpose. This will create awareness on sustainable practices at work and how they affect the planet beyond the company doors. 

After having conducted a simple office waste audit for a client, not only did we discovered that just by switching away from single-use office items they could save over $10,000, but the entire team also realized the negative effects of poor waste sorting. It was then introduced in the employee orientation document.

Figure 3 Photo by Cottonb.

2. Redesign

Redesign is the process by which we are designing a product in such way that by the end of its lifecycle and returned to the manufacturer, it can easily be disassembled and reintegrated in the supply chain. 

Redesigning a product can be quite challenging, but this principle can also be applied to other subjects with a smaller risk and investment, such as packaging, internal tools, or even an operational process.

An example of this could be to redesign the way a product moves from one stakeholder to the next. One of our clients realized that every time the product moved throughout the supply chain it was getting wrapped in new plastic over and over again. The thought process here was to bring the different stakeholders together and have them think with us on how we could change this wasteful exchange into something more efficient and less wasteful. 

This step is frequently the most overlooked because it is often the most difficult. This being said, it is also the most impactful and important step.

3. Reduce

Reducing refers to reducing the materials used for both the product and the packaging it comes in. Though reductions may appear small at first glance, they can have impactful cumulative effects. 

For example, a case study conducted by Green Business Certification Inc. showed that even reducing the thickness of cardboard packaging can result in exponential savings over time. An American grocery retail store decided to redesign its packaging, in other words, they looked at what could be improved. They decided to reduce the size of their cardboard boxes by as little as 4%, reduce thickness, switch to pouches, transition to bulk orders, and introduce vendor take-back programs.

Additionally, try reducing the use of basic amenities that may cause them to either go scarce or could harm the environment. For instance, you can reduce the use of electricity by switching to solar energy, or wastage of water by hiring a professional such as available on h2obuildingservices.co.uk or on similar websites, who can help to create a water audit for a workplace, detect water leaks, install a water recycling system, along with other services.

The process of reducing also goes through the purchasing department, such as by switching to greener and more sustainable resources.

Figure 4 Photo by GBCI

4. Reuse and repurpose

Reusing and repurposing materials is a creative process and one of the most profitable as well. This is where materials are reintegrated into the supply chain and can therefore dramatically reduce costs on raw material acquirement and production. 

At this stage, we suggest our clients to look for collaborations with partners or stakeholders from industries that could benefit from the wasted materials. It often allows for a win-win situation where one company sells the wasted material (creation of a new revenue stream) and the other company receives the raw materials at a more attractive price and can count on a reliable source. 

For example, have you thought that your waste actually has value and can be sold? One of the most impactful examples in this category is to sell the company’s food waste to a local composting facility. 

5. Recycle

Recycling used to be the go-to solution for companies who aspire to be sustainable. However, recycling is not the solution to the problem – it is merely buying time before the final product ends up in a landfill or incineration. Besides, recycling is an intensive process that requires a great amount of energy, water, and sometimes harmful chemicals.

Recycling in the circular economy can be done in two ways: upcycling and downcycling. 

Upcycling is the transformation of an existing material or product into a completely new one through mending, forging, sewing, and other means (e.g.turning a wooden door into a table).

Downcycling is the process of reducing a material back into its original state and recreating a new product from the raw material (e.g. turning clothes back into yarn to use for car seat stuffing or housing insulation). 

Another example for downcycling comes from one of our clients: they decided to purchase a small machine to turn all the plastic waste from their products back into pellets and melted into containers to be used in the factory and for transportation, instead of buying it new. 

Figure 5 Photo by Galya Greenery

Leadership and Management. 

Sustainability leadership is key if a company aims to be part of this new economic and social transition. Managers may put their employees through outdoor teambuilding activities or environmental documentaries, but if leadership is not actively involved in increating a culture of sustainability, the buzz created around the topic will be short-lived.

Through Zero Waste Shanghai training courses with employees, the number one piece of feedback we received was the absence of company leadership on sustainability initiatives.

The discussion of sustainability starts with upper management and department heads who are responsible for not only monitoring the progress but for maintaining the momentum around everyday sustainable practices. Sustainability is a vast topic and can be understood through different perspectives and opinions. It’s important to start the green journey by asking “what does sustainability mean to you as a company?'”

The Ongoing Shift Towards Sustainability

The need for a shift towards more sustainable and responsible practices in the world is undeniable. Sustainability is no longer a secondary consideration, but an integral part of the long-term viability of businesses and their industries. 

Regulations and expectations will only increase from now on, and the key to success when it comes to this shift is to embrace the change. Or in the words of the wise Confucius: 

“It doesn’t matter how slow you go, as long as you don’t stop.” 

About the author

Alizée CCM Buysschaert is a public speaker and consultant in the Circular Economy, and Sustainable Practices in China. She’s the founder of Zero Waste Shanghai and creator of the green business education platform P.A.C.E. Sustainability. You can learn more about her work on www.zerowasteshanghai.com.


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