This blog was written by Daniel Winokur, Leader at LRN and manager of the EcoStrategy Alliance.

Creating a workplace that values and supports sustainability isn’t easy. If you’ve run into trouble, you’re not the only one. When working with our partners, we see many sustainability departments initiating employee engagement programs seeking to deepen sustainability values and formalize them into business-supporting behaviors. But the truth is, many of these programs simply don’t work. They don’t pull the right levers to truly impact employee culture, so they lose out on behaviors that would reduce risk, increase productivity, and lower operating costs.

What’s missing? A cultural commitment to sustainability that is understood and adopted by an entire workforce. However, creating such an environment can be frustratingly elusive to many sustainability leaders. The reason is that the job of managing business ‘culture’ is usually housed in Ethics & Compliance or HR – not in CSR, and almost never in the sustainability department. But that shouldn’t stop sustainability leaders from working on culture anyway, as it’s the most effective lever to repeatedly ease and amplify their work… or undercut it. As Josh Radoff, Principal at YR&G says:

“An unengaged occupant is effectively a saboteur against your sustainability campaign. You can pretty much count on them to gum up the works – whether it’s through space heaters under their desks, Styrofoam lunch containers, or a whole shipment of half pint water bottles for the conference room.”

In order to save you the time and trouble, we’ve grouped together 3 of the most common wrongs we encounter when helping our partners to build a workplace culture that embraces sustainability. And if you’re interested in what does work to counter-balance these wrongs, we invite you to tune in to our upcoming webinar on tools to engage your workforce in better building performance.

MISTAKE #1: Counting on a green workspace to inspire green behavior

Green buildings, especially LEED-certified ones, are wonderful things. They’ve truly moved the needle when it comes to sustainability. But just because your company has built a green building does not mean that a sustainable workplace culture will automatically appear as a result.

Although green buildings are designed to operate more efficiently than conventional ones, many do not perform up to their potential, because their sustainable features are not properly utilized by building engineers and occupants. In 2009, the New York Times profiled how up to one quarter of LEED-certified buildings, fail to perform as sustainably as they were marketed. In fact, last year there was even a $100M class-action lawsuit brought against the U.S. Green Building Council (the creators of LEED), which claimed that LEED certified buildings used on average 29% more energy than conventional ones. Although the lawsuit was later dismissed, one conclusion is clear: well-intentioned design does not guarantee that a culture to take advantage of that very same design will emerge.
As Alec Appelbaum put it in his 2010 op-ed: “bike racks merely encourage cycling to work, and operable windows merely the opportunity to use less air-conditioning.” It takes extra, ongoing work to create a culture where these behaviors really happen.

MISTAKE #2: Hoping sustainability awareness leads to sustainable actions
A good education campaign can and should increase awareness of sustainability. In fact, one need look no further than the National Environmental Education Foundation’sBusiness Case for…Sustainability Education” and its citing of Lockheed Martin, eBay, Baxter and others to see why education is a fundamental piece to engaging employees around sustainable business.

But sustainability education alone isn’t enough to create a business culture that values sustainability, either. The reason is that awareness of what the “better choice” is does not always equal effective sustainability behaviors. Although our society is more in tune than ever with the outcome of our actions, an informed society – or educated employee base – does not always lead to culture change on its own.

And even with a good sustainability education strategy in place, knowledge of environmental innovation is not the same as knowing how to embed sustainable actions into our day-to-day business cultures. Since every business has its own unique environmental footprint, employees may need to have specialized knowledge to turn their sustainability values into money-saving, risk-reducing, innovation-driving action.

MISTAKE #3: Small financial incentives do not resource efficiency make
What about aligning your employee’s economic interest with sustainable behaviors? This can work in some cases – see effective recycling (PDF link) or energy use reduction competitions – but the net takeaway from behavioral economics is that people don’t always act in their own financial interest. This phenomenon has been amply discussed in the media, but perhaps the best proof is what we see in the marketplace: both Google and Microsoft recently pulled their home energy monitoring solutions from the market due to lack of consumer interest. The reality is that people don’t always choose sustainable options – even when they’re aware of them and those options save them money.

Solutions that DO Work

Thankfully, while the three tools above don’t work in silos or at the one-size-fits-all level, there are many more techniques that do create the type of sustainable employee culture change that we’re after, manifesting as better innovation, lower costs, and reduced risk. If you’d like to learn more about those, you can attend our upcoming webinar on Activating Green Buildings: Engaging Occupants and Operators, September 14th.

For more insights, follow Dan on Twitter.