22nd May 2023
3 Min Read

Why getting employees to make greener choices at work is so hard - and what to do about it

Lindsay Kohler
Lindsay Kohler
People & Change

This article was originally published in Forbes on 30 March 2023

ESG, which stands for "environmental, social and governance" is the hot business acronym making the rounds right now. As ESG grows more prominent in the dialogue with both consumers and shareholders — with a particular focus on the environment— many companies are making net zero promises. More than a third of the world's largest companies now have a net zero target in place, and 84% of companies are planning to increase their investment in sustainability initiatives.

Companies are keen to promote their "greenness" to customers. Or, in some cases, the perception that they are green. On one hand, Patagonia is a shining example of how to run an ethical and sustainable business. They made headlines last fall when the founder announced that he had transferred company ownership to a trust and non-profit dedicated to fighting climate change. On the other hand, many businesses still engage in rampant displays of greenwashing.

There is a lot of work to be done. Unless companies step up their efforts, Accenture estimates that 93% of companies with net zero targets will miss those targets. Ideally, those efforts would be guided by policy changes, such as a recognized system for green labeling, market incentives and more. But companies first need clarity around upcoming policy decisions to feel confident about taking drastic measures such as changing their supply chain.

Until that happens, businesses must find creative ways to get their sustainability house in order. Many are up for the challenge. "We are seeing a shift in the seriousness and the scope of commitments from businesses," says Toby Park, head of energy, environment & sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team. "It wasn't that long ago that green initiatives and green commitments from businesses would be little more than tokenistic. I think it's only now that we're starting to see the most progressive businesses make credible net zero commitments."

Park acknowledged the magnitude of the challenge, and how focusing on internal emissions is partially evading the real issue. "Internal emissions might be trivial compared to the emissions related to upstream supply chain and downstream usage of the products and services a company sells. By far, the biggest share of emissions will be related to the products that they sell, how they're produced, manufactured, and what happens when consumers throw them away."

But there are still actions companies can take to make an impact that do not involve overhauling their supply chain. The Behavioural Insight Team's recently released report "How to build a net zero society," offers ideas that companies can implement to move closer to reaching their net zero goals.

Many of these ideas will fall to a communication team to implement. Tasked with getting employees to change behavior, such as recycling more, they often fall back on education and awareness tactics and then wonder why they struggle to move the needle. It's not a motivation problem — 88% of employees in the U.K. say they would make more sustainable choices if they could — but there are a few barriers.

"There are going to be barriers within the organization that often require a changing of process or maybe a modest investment in new equipment or whatever changes in office design layout," says Park. "And then there are going to be barriers at the individual level for those employees who are being asked to change their behavior."

Barrier #1: Misperceptions on what behaviors have the most impact

"We do find that people generally tend to misdirect their efforts a little bit. There are some common misperceptions about which actions and behaviors are most important. For example, in offices, there will be quite a focus on smaller things like recycling and using double-sided printing and that sort of thing. And, yes, those things matter, but they're small fry compared to employee commuting, work travel, and what food is being eaten in the office," says Park.

When asked where this misperception stemmed from, Park was thoughtful before musing that it could be due to the prevalence of which messages have been pushed by the government over the years.

Creating a central hub of sustainability facts can help bridge the awareness gap. While knowledge alone is not usually enough to change behavior, it is a crucial starting point.

Barrier #2: Lack of credible messengers

There is much research on what makes someone a good messenger. Credibility and authenticity are two key attributes of a trusted messenger. In many organisations, the message around sustainability is often delivered by the most senior person, but not necessarily the best messenger. What's more, it is often company leaders being asked to deliver the message — yet many then turn around and hop on the private company jet. Employees will notice the inconsistencies between what's being said and what's being done, and that difference will undermine the leader's credibility.

Park suggests leveraging networks within organizations to encourage people at every level to be involved in and be champions for net zero activities. Labeling was covered in the BIT report, and labeling can be considered as another form of a messenger.

"The issue is that if consumers cannot reliably identify in a marketplace which is the greener pair of jeans or pack of sausages or pension product or flight, then there is no commercial incentive for businesses to genuinely be green — because consumers can't tell the difference anyway. We need labeling that's truly authentic, reliable and trustworthy."

Barrier #3: Good behaviors aren't visible

An in-depth analysis of many climate change interventions over the years was published last week in PNAS, and it found that the best way to motivate people to take action to stop climate change was by providing social comparisons. The average behavior change observed in the social norm intervention group was 14 percentage points higher than in the control group.

In the workplace, this can take the form of sharing stories of what other teams are doing, creating visible leaderboards of carbon savings, and signposting these examples of good behaviors at critical decision points, such as booking a flight.

Park recalled a very effective example of social norms at work. "The UK government used a league table approach, which provided a social comparison across government departments. This communicated how much energy each department was using with the expectation that they should be reducing their energy consumption, but it also highlighted who was winning and who was losing in that in that league table. That led to a roughly 10% reduction in energy consumption across government departments after just one year."

Barrier #4: Fear of using disincentives

Disincentives in the green space include levies, carbon taxes, and other penalties. For businesses, this would be especially impactful. "A decent strong carbon tax would of course do the job because all of a sudden you can align commercial incentives with green outcomes," says Park.

Teams could consider what non-green workplace behaviors they can put a pseudo tax on and stick with it. For example, traveling by plane when the train is cheaper. Or — and this could be very unpopular with those trying to encourage people to return to the office — but companies could remove free parking to encourage the use of public transit.

Look at alternative paths to influencing change

Park mentions Sky as a great example of taking a novel path to influence change. Sky realized that their internal efforts were important, but that they could have a far bigger impact via the power of their content to change viewers' attitudes, mindsets and behaviors. Therefore, they worked with the Behavioural Insights Team to conduct a review of what education gaps in green actions that television content could fill. "So that's a nice example where a business can take it upon themselves to pull every lever at their disposal to accelerate the transition to a net zero society that is perhaps outside the traditional lens of sort of internal improvements," says Park.

Ultimately, for businesses to reach their net zero goals, they will need to first automate what they can and then look to fields such as behavioral science to help change employee behaviors.

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