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Budgeting for Sustainability Programs in the Early Years

One of the major pitfalls of sustainability programs is a lack of resources.  (Notice I didn’t say “lack of interest, enthusiasm, or need.)   As with many things in the business world, success often comes down to time and money.   “Wait a minute,” you say. “Isn’t sustainability supposed to save me money?”  Yes, it does, in many ways.  But the future payback does involve some up-front investment.  In the first year or two, it is more an investment of time.  That said, some money should be allocated to get a sustainability program off the ground.  Even if the dollars are not big, how you spend them can make all the difference.

When businesses embark on sustainability planning, they almost always underestimate the resources required to plan what they will do. Sustainability is a broad and complex topic that requires involvement from many people across the organization. Early stage programs demand a lot of time for education, engagement, and assessment. In the first year, the sustainability team’s expenditures will be focused mainly on learning and information gathering.  In year two, expenditures will be spent more on assessing specific types of opportunities and engaging in “quick wins” to get traction.

When budgeting for your early stage sustainability program the following six expenditures should be included.

  1. Educational Resources. The sustainability team members will need to come up to speed on sustainability concepts quickly and concurrently.  Some funds should be allocated for educational resources, including books, subscriptions, and external experts.  Be careful not to spend a lot of money on conferences.  While they can be informative, for early stage programs money is often better spent on engaging the right expert to do education that is tailored to your needs. $1,500 that would be spent on attending a conference can go to pay for an all-day private workshop for your whole team.
  2. Interns. Without administrative and research support, committees will struggle to make progress. Interns are an excellent, low cost way to get some on the ground support for your sustainability committee early on.  There are now an abundance of college and university programs focusing on sustainability. Find one near you and hire an intern or two. They are well suited to conduct research and serve as an administrative coordinator for the committee.
  3. Food. Yes, I said food.  Bottom line, you need input. The more, the better.  Once your sustainability committee in more grounded in what planning a program involves, they will need educate others and get their input.  There is no better way to get people to come to a meeting than to have food.  Budget at least quarterly lunches or coffee breaks throughout the year.
  4. Communication Materials. Another pitfall of sustainability programs is insufficient education of the masses.  Education is not a “one and done.” It must be ongoing and, preferably, available for all employees to refer to as needed.  Depending on what systems exist in your company already, you may need to invest in ways to consistently get the word out.  This can be in the form of voice over presentations, posters, or an intranet site.
  5. Prizes and Incentives. Many early “quick wins” strategies are focused on behavior change.  There are few better ways to get people to change their behavior than to create a contest or competition.  Have some money in the budget in year two for promotional items or gift cards to incentivize the behavior you want and to recognize employee accomplishments.
  6. Audits. Often times, energy efficiency will be a key focus of sustainability programs. Energy efficiency measures deliver a multi-level benefit. They save money while also reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.  There are a multitude of projects that deliver quick payback opportunities.  Plan to put money in the budget for an energy or lighting audit that will zero in on the best places to reap the greatest benefits.

One last Important tip: Once you start engaging in money saving projects, be sure to get management to agree to put a percentage of those savings into to a “sustainability fund.” This will enable the team to continue to grow and make more significant contributions. See our blog on financial incentives for ways to keep the money flowing after the first year of your sustainability program!

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