By Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact

On the most mundane level, green teams focus on practical issues, such as eliminating bottled water or improving recycling at the office. On the more ambitious front, they can educate individuals to be agents of change and raise awareness of strategic sustainability issues, inspiring innovative, greener solutions.

Sustainable Systems at Work is a new discussion course available to companies looking for a way to engage employees in an organization’s sustainability initiatives and inspire them to take action.

Developed by the The Northwest Earth Institute (NWEI), the program has been piloted by leading companies as Starbucks and Intel–to date more than 100,000 people have completed the curriculum.

Engaging employees from the ground up

“This discussion course is all about engaging employees from the ground up,” said Mike Mercer, executive director of NWEI. “Most organizations are launching sustainability initiatives from the top down, which they should. However, for culture and practices to change within an organization, employee commitment is a must. We believe innovation at its best occurs at all levels, and is driven by shifts in thinking. Our programs drive just that.”

“We used NWEI courses to successfully complement Starbucks commitment to sustainability,” said Ben Packard, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for Starbucks. “We have found that NWEI gives participants a clear understanding of their direct role in the conservation of natural resources. As a result, individuals are better equipped to assess environmental issues and embrace innovative solutions in the workplace and in their personal lives.”

Benefits of the program

According to NWEI, the unique self guided, peer to peer collaborative learning process delivers a range of benefits, including:

  • Acceptance of operational change and edicts employees must adapt to – ie, turning down thermostat or removing desktop printers – resulting in cost savings due to reductions in energy, water and material use;
  • Increased alignment between employee performance and organizational sustainability objectives;
  • Greater numbers sustainability champions from throughout the ranks of employees, supporting top down driven initiatives from the bottom up;
  • An higher level of personal responsibility for utilizing resources more efficiently (turning off computers, lights, paper management); and
  • An increased level of innovation from motivated employee working in the trenches, who sees the broader system and makes suggestions that saves time, material or energy.

Structure of the Program

The NWEI team-facilitated process, which has been refined over the past 16 years, encourages employees to meet for one to one and a half hours per week, for five weeks. Course materials for meetings include articles and book excerpts from leading authors in the field of sustainability. The course starts by presenting the big picture issues of sustainability, presents different views of what constitutes a sustainable business, reviews tools and resources and concludes with a session focused on creating an action plan.

The curriculum looks a bit like what I’d expect to see in a syllabus for a Sustainable Business 101 course, including excerpts from such thought leaders as Gus Speth, Janine Benyus, Bill McDonough and Peter Senge.

It is a nice balance of big picture thinking, partnered with templates to help participants take action at both the individual and organizational level.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bala Cadambi, a technologist at Intel and an active member of one of its green teams. Intel has piloted the program and plans to launch it with 10 groups over the next month, with green team members leading the group discussions.  He believes the program is an excellent tool for engaging the average employee who doesn’t feel part of the company’s sustainability efforts. “It provides a discussion forum that empowers employees to take action,” concluded Cadambi.

Deborah Fleischer is president of Green Impact, a strategic environmental consulting practice that helps companies engage employees, strengthen their relationships with stakeholders, develop profitable green initiatives and communicate their successes and challenges. You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at

Sustainability Consulting Bay Area

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