October 25, 2014

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The Anatomy of Green Teams: Igniting Change

Empowering groups outside the C-suite to tackle big problems can have big payoffs

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By Kal Stein, President & CEO, EarthShare

The journey towards truly responsible corporations has seen many landmarks along the way so far. One of the most important is the rise of the sustainability officer within companies. The appearance of a dedicated CSR professional—especially those in the executive suite—is a sign that a company has truly begun to grasp the value, both social and financial, of being green.

But what about companies where it just isn't feasible for one person to dedicate themselves to environmental issues? Or those companies that want to tackle more issues than they have bandwidth for at the executive level? One solution: the concept of a 'green team'—a cross-functional, often cross-departmental collection of employees, who unite to solve problems within the company.

What can a green team do?

A green team can have a dramatic benefit on a company's environmental and financial performance. Often, green teams are constructive in realizing reduced costs associated with resources and energy consumption through peer networking, forums, interactive sessions and change management across their departments. Its one thing for the company to decide on a goal of reducing its energy usage by 25 percent, but quite another to convince colleagues to change their habits in order to meet those goals.

Don't they take a lot of oversight?

One of the keys to the success of green teams is that they don't have to be top-down initiatives. In fact, many successful green teams have started without any management buy-in. All it takes is for a group of interested employees to commit to solving a problem. It's that simple.

However, there's no question that the success of any initiative within an organization--and especially those that hinge on changing people's habits--are greatly enhanced by the level of management buy-in.

At Citi, for example, the company blends top-down and grassroots approaches: while the organization of the teams and the initiatives they work on come from employees at a local level, the decision to create a network for the internal green teams to share best practices was a management-level initiative aimed at creating a supportive environment for the teams to grow and new teams to develop.

As the firm's Vice President for Sustainability Communications, Tyler Daluz suggests, the scale of the firm means that any attempt at controlling these initiatives could have easily become quite unmanageable: "We have over 12,000 facilities globally. These teams have been [successful because they have been] organic and grassroots."

So how do I foster a green team in my own company?

Green PuzzleBeyond simply starting a green team, the biggest challenge lies in keeping participants constantly interested, and equipping them with the skills and knowledge necessary to tackle the problems that they've elected to work on. Within larger companies, that may be as simple as convening a regular meeting of all interested parties and bringing in specialists when required. For those seeking to make a difference where resources are more constrained or needing fresh ideas on addressing internal and external challenges, green team networks can be a crucial tool for sharing, learning, best practice ideas and encouragement.

External Forums: EarthShare's Green Team Meetings

Our team at EarthShare began convening Green Team forums several years ago--an initiative aimed at bringing sustainability professionals together to build strong networks of like-minded people to share best practices. Comprised of professionals from companies and institutions such as Marriot, Time Warner, the World Bank, Accenture, United Health Group, and more, this network bring together businesses and communities, regardless of their affiliation with EarthShare, to brainstorm solutions, learn from each other and share best practices.

As my colleague – and EarthShare's SVP for National Business Development and Managing Director of EarthShare NY – Mary MacDonald recently wrote on GreenBiz, "The focus of these meetings is to allow change leaders to meet in a safe zone to discuss challenges (such as lack of buy-in from executive leadership, low employee engagement, budget cuts, lack of information, too much conflicting information, etc.), and crowdsource solutions to those challenges. We also discuss emerging issues in sustainability and the environment."

But what they often become are discussions about how sustainability managers can engage their employees in understanding these causes and taking action. The value of such forums is impossible to overstate. In addition to offering a rare, focused opportunity for sustainability professionals to expand and strengthen their networks, the ability to learn from experts on everything from LEED certification to supply chain sustainability is a major benefit.

As Lauren Wylie, Head of Internal Sustainability at consulting firm Oliver Wyman puts it, "I am fortunate to be a part of a company that recognizes the importance of sustainability at the highest levels. They are open to my ideas and that's why it is important for me to keep those ideas fresh and innovative. Hearing the successes and challenges from other Green Team members offers a unique way for me to validate or modify my ideas and to feel confident that we are moving in the right direction."

Green Teams at Citi

Citi Mets PartnershipCiti also became an active participant in our Green Team meetings because its employees "wanted to hear from other sustainability practitioners in the area, share best practices and talk about some common challenges," according to Daluz. The benefit of spreading the responsibility for sustainability throughout the company is not lost to participants: because no one person is responsible for everything. Companies send team members interchangeably to really maximize the forum – and the participants' time.

For Daluz, that has meant inviting "the person internally who is best for the topic to learn more about the issue or share their expertise."

And because "the agenda is set by attendees," Daluz feels participants don't just make small talk: "We talk about our approach to specific issues and goals, so the meetings are productive."

As for the importance of employee-led green teams, Daluz points out that, while Citi has "had an environmental footprint reduction goal for a few years," the firm realized that "we cannot reach those goals without employee engagement." And in Citi's case, the results have gone beyond even the engagement question and are now actively adding to the bottom line.

The Green Team in St. Louis, for instance, reduced waste and saved the local office nearly $10,000 through a simple excess office supply exchange program. "This initiative might seem small by itself, but if you encourage the replication of successful programs or behaviors across your footprint you realize how meaningful each action is."

Still think pursuing a triple bottom line is idealistic? Just look around. There is immense potentiality represented by your employees. Encourage their passion and their dedication to your organization by giving them the tools and a place to start.

Then watch the change take place.

Previously:

4 Environmental Issues That Matter to Employees – and Employers

Progress or Propaganda? The Corporation's Role in Promoting Workplace Giving

The Virtuous Cycle of Workplace Philanthropy

The Basic Rules of Impact: EarthShare CEO Connects the Dots

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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