News Article
December 29, 2013

Corporate sustainability programs: Getting employees’ buy-in

Employee behaviors can have a big impact on a company’s energy costs. But what does it take to bring employees on board with energy and sustainability programs – to get and keep them engaged and participating? One tool for doing so is a Sustainability Engagement Navigator created by the Johnson Controls Institute for Building Efficiency. By way of a simple group exercise, it helps identify activities in which employees are most likely to take part.


In the Institute for Building Efficiency’s 2013 Energy Efficiency Indicator (EEI) survey, respondents ranked “energy-focused behavioral or educational programs” as the third highest priority (just after lighting and HVAC upgrades) for energy efficency investments their companies planned to make in the next 12 months. Many building projects tackle HVAC and lighting improvements first, as they can have the biggest energy efficiency impacts. Once those improvements are addressed, plug loads become an important component of building energy consumption. The fact that behavioral programs are a high priority shows that building owners are increasingly paying attention to plug loads and are turning to building occupants to help reduce energy use.

Energy efficient investments

The 2013 EEI survey also showed that organizations approach behavioral efficiency improvements in a number of ways. Education and training programs are the most common engagement measures. Thirty-six percent of organizations employed green teams or green champions, while 35 percent used social media tools. Other approaches include creating sustainability games or challenges (22 percent) and installation of green kiosks (21 percent).

Employee engagement

What determines success or failure?

Engaging employees to change behavior toward more energy efficient, sustainable practices is a large and relatively new undertaking, and with so many approaches available, it can be overwhelming.  Often, a small or dispersed group of people in companies make decisions on sustainability practices,[1]  even though research shows that successful programs come from carefully assessing employees’ reasons for becoming engaged.[2]. This is a major reason why employees often lose interest in workplace sustainability programs over time, causing the initiatives to lose steam and fail.  

The reality, however, is that employees care about sustainability. In the 2013 Sustainable Cultures in the Workplace survey, which assessed employees’ attitudes on workplace sustainability, 75 percent of U.S. respondents agreed that employees should be actively involved in making work practices more sustainable.[3]. Employees want to be engaged in the sustainability of their organizations, but they vary in their willingness to go out of their way for such initiatives at work. If program structures are dictated unilaterally, employees may not feel connected to the programs or incentivized to participate. In other words, if a small group of people decide what types of programs to implement without measuring employee attitudes and assessing the organization’s culture, the results are similar to making facility improvements without performing an engineering analysis: There will be some savings, but at the same time money will be wasted because the initiative did not focus on the areas of greatest impact.

Defining what works

To help remedy this problem, the Institute for Building Efficiency looked into best practices in sustainability program engagement within organizations. These best practices were then compiled and presented in the Sustainability Engagement Navigator tool. The tool helps leaders gather employee feedback and prioritizes sustainability practices based on those the employees say they value and feel most inclined to embrace.  The outcome is a sustainability program that fits the attitudes and interests of employees, allowing them to relate to the effort and empowering them to participate.


Driving Behavior Change: Engaging Employees in Environmental Sustainability



December 2013


[1] Abbett, Coldham and Whisnant. “Organizational Culture and the Success of Corporate Sustainability Initiatives: An Empirical Analysis Using the Competing Values Framework.” 2010.

[2] “Working Today: Understanding What Drives Employee Engagement.” Towers Perrin, 2003. 2003. 

[3] Dr. M. Puybaraud (Johnson Controls). Sustainable Cultures Survey results: Sustainable for All. 2013

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