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Tapping "Employee Power" to Curb Global Warming
Mindy Lubber, 9 Oct 07
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Many companies now recognize global warming as a serious threat, and are introducing climate change initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their manufacturing, retail and office activities. In some cases these programs include an employee involvement component, typically with a focus on improving employee behavior around adopting "green" office practices such as energy efficiency. But what about how employees behave when they’re not on the clock?

For most of us, the largest chunk of our global warming footprint is created when we’re not at work, but by driving our cars; heating, cooling and electrifying our homes; and making daily purchasing decisions that affect our energy use. Workplace-based campaigns that encourage taking climate-friendly steps beyond the office represent a potentially powerful opportunity to reduce global warming pollution and introduce sustainable behaviors on a broader scale. And let’s face it: employees have a lot more to gain from changes that lower their own heating and gas bills, than those that improve the bottom line for their employers.

Some companies are already working hard to influence employee behaviors that occur wholly outside of work. Among the examples we can learn from:

  • Sky Broadcasting, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has launched an intranet site at to encourage employees to adopt more sustainable lifestyles. The internal site is an interactive information source that offers advice and incentives to change and track behavior on a voluntary basis. Participating employees get a "carbon credit card" in which they log their carbon reduction activities online and earn credits that can lead to prizes. Another cool feature is that each Sky employee who registers is given an individual, virtual underwater reef on the intranet. The reef grows with each sustainable activity registered, providing a creative visual reward in addition to the prize drawings. For instance, riding a bicycle to work would earn 15 carbon credits and be rewarded with a fish (named "Outofbreathus") on the coral reef. The lesson of "Outofbreathus": humor attracts and motivates employees.
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland recently launched "Your World," an employee web portal that includes a carbon calculator and advice and tips on reducing personal carbon footprints. As with Sky Broadcasting, RBS focused on making its site fun and engaging. The calculator has an impressive 90 percent completion rate, which is easily double the response rate most sites see.
  • Wal-Mart has launched its "personal sustainability project," a voluntary program for its 1.3 million US employees. Through workshops, retreats and off-site tours -- many of them company funded -- employees learn the benefits of carpooling to work, quitting cigarette smoking, and watching less television. Employees are also encouraged to make individual pledges to improve their health, their families, and the environment. About 50 percent of employees in 12 states are already enrolled in the $30 million program. What I like most about the program is its bottom-up, grassroots approach. "Wal-Mart, which is known for its rigid rules, is giving the program an unusually democratic structure," wrote The New York Times.

These programs are a good start. Hopefully we'll see more of them. I'd be curious, too, if there are other cutting-edge programs I'm not aware of.

Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change.

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Wal-Mart's efforts to get its employees to "go green" have less to do with the company's love for the environment and more with its love of money. Teaching employees to carpool to stores which are only accessible by car (and often so far out of town that special roads must be paved just to reach them) is hardly a stellar example of environmentalism. Telling employees to recycle more doesn't mean much when Wal-Mart's products are shipped from overseas and require thousands of miles of shipping. And encouraging employees to "lead healthier lives" isn't about individual empowerment: it's about spending as little as possible on employee health care benefits. There is nothing "grass roots" about this program: it's just another marketing initiative to convey an ethos of environmentalism and employee-friendliness that simply do not exist at this company.

Posted by: Alex Goldschmidt on 12 Oct 07



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