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“We tried this before”: Tips for Righting a Sustainability Initiative Gone Wrong

When you hear about “starting a sustainability program,” it’s often talked about as if there’s been no attempt to “go green” in the past. Yet a lot of organizations have had previous efforts that just didn’t work out. Maybe it was the big paperless push of 2005. Or a new hire from a few years ago who used to take time out of her lunch break to collect everyone’s compostable waste. However large or small past sustainability efforts were, they can color the face of sustainability for an organization moving forward.

If things didn’t go so well in the past, a new sustainability strategy often meets the resistant attitude of “we’ve done this before and it didn’t work,” To avoid your program being viewed as dead-on-arrival, try these following tips:

Get employee feedback early and often

Early sustainability efforts are often the result of a few individuals pushing for change on their own initiative. Some employees might have viewed such efforts as “do-gooders” seeking to deprive them of their comfort  – liked free bottled water or Kurig coffee K-cups. It’s true that many sustainability projects in successful programs can require changes that don’t sit well with all employees. But by engaging staff early on, employees gain understanding and begin to feel like a part of a positive change process. Understanding why change is needed creates buy in and supplants the feeling of forced change. When you think of projects that may be able to work in your organization, send out surveys to see which ones are popular among your colleagues. Try to have an open discussion session about sustainability at the next staff meeting.

So long as it’s clear that employee input is not only heard, but valued, a lot of the negativity is mitigated. Engagement gives employees partial ownership of the sustainability program, and helps them want to see it succeed.

Move past the “fad” mentality

Past sustainability failures can often be viewed as “a flash in the pan” idea that’s part of a “growing-green” fad. To avoid this, root conversations about your sustainability plan in why sustainability matters and how it fits into your company’s strategic plan. Talk about the market risks and opportunities that surround sustainability and how those apply to your company. Even though the language used to discuss this topic is sometimes mercurial, the very real impacts on businesses are far from that. Your company is not only becoming sustainable because it is the right thing to do; it is necessary to remain competitive.

Talk about “what went wrong” and how this time is different

The worst thing you can do is hide from past efforts that failed. Not only does this invalidate the concerns of your employees, but it makes it seem like you’re unwilling to learn from your mistakes. Instead, talk about any former sustainability projects, and how your new approach is going to be different. Perhaps what you tried before was too narrow in focus, whereas your strategy now incorporates and supports core business objectives. Or maybe your prior project ideas were lofty and ambitious, whereas now you’re trying to introduce measures as a pilot program within just one department.

As you move forward with your new initiative, remember that any past efforts that failed to get off the ground weren’t a waste of time. Instead, they were ways for you to learn what approaches didn’t work for your company. Those lessons put you in a better position to design and implement a workable sustainability strategy now.

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