The Impact of Workplace Initiatives on Low Carbon Behaviours

This research, commissioned jointly by the Scottish Government, Defra and the 2020 Climate Group, investigates ‘what works’ in delivering low-carbon behavioural initiatives in the workplace.



This research project was funded by the Scottish Government, Defra and the 2020 Climate Group to investigate what works for organisations aiming to involve staff in cutting carbon emissions. The project included a literature review, 27 interviews with practitioners and 10 detailed case studies with managers and employees in organisations of varying sizes and from a range of sectors. Analysing the case studies using a common theoretical framework has provided insights for business on how best to create successful low carbon initiatives to engage staff and support low carbon behaviours. Guidance to advise and inspire employers based on the evidence from the project is published separately, as is a case study report which outlines in more detail the implementation process and impact of low carbon initiatives within the case study organisations.

Research Objectives and Project Overview

2.1 This research project has been commissioned and funded by the Scottish Government, the 2020 Climate Group and Defra to identify, document and review best practice in reducing carbon emissions at work through influencing employee behaviours. The research should be of interest to managers in all types of organisations because it has generated a wide range of key findings that provide insights for business on how best to create successful low carbon initiatives to engage staff and facilitate behaviour change, and provides examples of how organisations have achieved success in this field.

2.2 The project aims to explore the evidence on what works in delivering low carbon behaviour change initiatives through workplaces, in order to provide good practice guidance to employers.

2.3 Within this broad goal, the specific objectives for the research are to:

  • explore the extent of workplace initiatives to encourage low carbon behaviours, and to characterise these within a classification framework
  • identify 'what works' for each type of intervention, and what its potential impacts might be
  • explore why these interventions work, and isolate their theoretical and logistical elements of success, in order to facilitate replication elsewhere
  • identify success factors relating to how an intervention is delivered
  • identify any evidence on the impact of work-based schemes on employees' behaviour outside the workplace.

2.4 Details of the research methods are provided in the research methods section in this chapter, but overall they included a literature review, 27 interviews with practitioners and 10 detailed case studies in organisations.


2.5 The context for the research project is set by the ambitious targets for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions committed to in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act of 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050 (from 1990 levels). In order to achieve these targets, a shift to low carbon ways of living will need to occur across all areas of society: in the public sector, in the private sector, and among individual citizens.

2.6 Workplaces are important because of the influence they have on people's behaviours. This is because they are one of the three basic 'microenvironments' in which individuals pass most of their daily lives, along with homes and schools1. Workplaces are seen as influential sites for behaviour change for a number of reasons because:

  • as institutions, they have the potential to exemplify patterns of desirable behaviour to their staff
  • as communities of people, they can develop and demonstrate social norms across their staff
  • as single sites with large numbers of people in regular attendance, they represent an effective channel through which to target individuals.

2.7 However, relatively little is known about behaviour change interventions in the workplace, particularly in the context of low carbon behaviours. Examples of the shortages of evidence in the field are:

  • no single-source survey of current business activities in this context
  • difficulties in establishing the impacts of such interventions, some of which are due to the general difficulties of measuring the impacts of projects to change behaviour and their ultimate effect on carbon emissions
  • understanding of the diverse motivations for organisations to engage in running such initiatives, and the potential drivers to increase uptake, is weak
  • identity and role of the key gatekeeper for pro-environmental activities within an organisation is poorly understood and it certainly is deemed to vary by company size among other dimensions2.

2.8 The extensive literature on behaviour among individuals is such a large resource of evidence that it is not necessarily easy for employers and practitioners to find the most helpful sources of information and guidance. In addition, behaviour change principles have been applied in a variety of contexts which may require practitioners to 'translate' ideas from one subject area to another. This can be challenging e.g. borrowing ideas from tackling obesity to encouraging pro-environmental behaviours.

2.9 This need for translation is important because there are relatively few examples of behaviour changes in low carbon management which have been adopted and sustained across society. Recycling activity is relatively widespread but changes to transport behaviours, such as greater use of public transport, are more patchy. Where those examples do exist, they tend to show that effective change involves multiple elements, undertaken by a variety of actors working together to provide complementary support. It is in this context that the goals and objectives for this research project have been defined.

2.10 This research therefore uses a multi-disciplinary approach, drawing lessons from social psychology, behavioural economics and sociology, because this gives the greatest likelihood of being able to analyse 'what works' in influencing behaviour thoroughly. Different disciplines bring different perspectives on behaviour and highlight different avenues for intervention.

2.11 Analysing the success of interventions also requires a clear definition of what we mean by 'behaviour' and the desirability of - and trade-offs between -different outcomes. There are different types of behaviour change. These include starting a behaviour, stopping a behaviour or replacing one behaviour with another. It can involve making a single non-recurrent change such as giving up car ownership or moderating a behaviour e.g. reducing car use. Where new behaviours are adopted or existing ones modified, frequency of behaviour may vary and can range from ongoing repeated activities (such as switching off lights) to infrequent ones (such as replacing heating systems)3. The level of change involved in any behaviour may also range from the very simple to much more complex. The duration of change is also important for long-term impact and sustainability and may relate to the levers being deployed.

2.12 Changing behaviours without changing attitudes and values may not result in behaviour which is sustained over the long-term. This research therefore seeks to identify behaviours which range in variety and scale from small to large in the demands they make on individuals and in the levers organisations use for change ranging from education and encouragement to compulsion.

Research methods

2.13 The research process involved four phases which are illustrated in Annex 1.

A literature review was conducted to identify previous research undertaken on stimulating pro-environmental behaviours in a workplace setting including any existing good practice guidance. This involved a focused search of nine academic databases using search terms agreed with the Scottish Government and supplemented with commissioned reports, think pieces and evaluations from central government and devolved administrations, government agencies and relevant organisations within the public, private and voluntary sectors.

2.14 A theoretical framework was developed drawing on insights from the extensive behavioural change literature principally covering the disciplines of psychology, economics and sociology. The purpose of the framework was to identify and categorise factors which are of key importance in influencing the degree of success in workplace interventions to change employee behaviour. This was used to analyse the findings from the desk research and interviews, and to help interpret and structure the case study evidence. In turn this helped to shape the development of the good practice guidance by illustrating for practitioners 'what works' in achieving behavioural change and how this may vary by organisational context. The framework has been customised with examples of how each factor may apply within the subject domain of this project, but it can equally be applied to other behavioural domains and policy challenges.

2.15 A scoping phase of 27 interviews with representatives of 'intermediary' organisations took place. These organisations consisted of public, private and voluntary sector bodies which work with organisations to help them increase low carbon behaviours. The main purpose of this phase of the work was to identify the range and types of initiatives being implemented by employers to achieve behavioural change in reducing carbon consumption and emissions. This phase of the research was also used to identify likely cases of promising practice where employers or third parties have undertaken some monitoring or evaluation activity to assess the impact of the initiatives which have been implemented. This was an important consideration in selecting organisations to approach in the subsequent case study phase of the project since the intention was to investigate workplace initiatives that were particularly novel and/or successful.

2.16 The intermediary organisations were identified through consultation with the Scottish Government, members of the project Steering Group, previous contacts and internet searches. Each organisation received an invitation to participate by email and a follow-up phone call to identify the most suitable person to interview who was best placed to comment on practices in a range of businesses and recommend potential organisations as case studies. The interviews took place by telephone in July and August 2011 and lasted between 20 and 45 minutes. The findings were analysed using an Excel grid with a mix of pre-coded and open responses.

2.17 Ten organisational case studies were conducted to examine in detail the types of initiatives that employers were introducing to encourage low carbon behaviours among staff. This was done with the intention of identifying examples of good practice and the factors and processes which supported the introduction and sustained impact of initiatives to encourage low carbon behaviours, with a view to providing transferable learning for other organisations. Case studies were selected on the basis of recommendation as examples of innovative and/or successful practice by intermediary organisations and Project Steering Group members. These recommendations were subsequently validated through seeking further information about current practice from the case studies themselves supported by documentary evidence of impact and existing external recognition of success. The following criteria were taken into account in selecting case studies:

  • Location - five of the case studies organisations were solely located in Scotland to ensure that any factors which affect management of carbon use reduction, mitigation or avoidance which are specific to the geography of the country in terms of (transport) infrastructure, climate and culture are captured. The rest of the case studies were located in England or in companies with locations in both countries. Where initiatives were particular to the location of the organisation, this was noted in analysing the results.
  • Range and impact of initiatives - based on the information gathered in the mapping exercise, supplemented by desk research including analysis of awards schemes and competitions which recognise good environmental performance, we identified case studies which best illustrated impact on staff in terms of range of low carbon behaviours which are promoted, use of multiple levers to encourage behaviour change among staff and evidence of impact on greenhouse gas emissions. We sought to include cases where there is evidence of widespread impact on organisational culture and where there is evidence that employee behaviours at home have been affected. Organisations whose activities were primarily focused on changing infrastructure and equipment were not included within the research. Topic areas of interest were specified by the Scottish Government to include organisations which had engaged in a range of initiatives covering transport behaviours, energy use, food supply and reducing waste generation and/or increasing recycling.
  • Sector - the case studies included a range of sectors to ensure organisations facing a range of different challenges in managing carbon consumption were represented. These included sectors which are greater or lesser users of energy in producing goods and services, those with different demands in terms of travel to work and for work among their staff, and organisations where different types of activities are the highest sources of carbon emissions e.g. energy, use of raw materials.
  • Size of organisation - the case studies included three SMEs with fewer than 250 staff with the rest made up of larger organisations. This enabled us to take account of the range of challenges faced by organisations in implementing strategies to tackle climate change depending on organisational size.

2.18 The case studies are shown in the following table:

Table 2.1: Case studies




Aberdeenshire Council

Local government


Wiles Greenwood

Office supplies (SME)



Leaflet distribution (SME)








Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor Hotel






SSE Scottish and Southern Energy

Power generation and distribution


Coca Cola Enterprises



The Commercial Group

Office supplies (SME)


2.19 The case studies involved semi-structured interviews with a customised topic guide developed in consultation with the Scottish Government. The staff interviewed included:

  • up to three senior staff with either overall or project management responsibilities for activities to reduce carbon consumption to identify how these were chosen, implemented and embedded and the results achieved
  • up to three front line employees to find out their level of engagement with and responses to the activities, including the nature and extent of any behavioural change, and in addition:
  • up to two focus groups with four to eight front line staff in Aberdeenshire Council, SSE and BT, which were able to release this number of staff from work at one time and convene them in a single location.
  • All interviews were tape recorded and full notes were compiled.

2.20 In addition, analysis was made of any documentary evidence of impact or evaluations of interventions undertaken by the organisations.

Stakeholder Workshop

2.21 This was convened at the Scottish Government in December 2011. The purposes of the workshop were to:

  • present the theoretical framework, and discuss available evidence presented in the literature review;
  • discuss the emerging findings from the case studies with case study organisations' representatives, policy makers and other stakeholders;
  • help design the shape of the practical guidance in order to meet organisations' needs and maximise usability.

Structure of this report

2.22 The rest of this report consists of four chapters:

  • Chapter 3 summarises the findings from the desk research and intermediary interviews about the extent, nature and impact of workplace initiatives to encourage low carbon behaviours
  • Chapter 4 provides a summary of the workplace initiatives being undertaken by the case study organisations and their impact
  • Chapter 5 uses the theoretical framework of individual, social and material factors to identify 'what works' in encouraging low carbon behaviours among workers, considering which factors are most important in which contexts and why, and whether factors need to be considered in any particular sequence
  • Chapter 6 presents the conclusions, lessons learned and policy/practice recommendations.

2.23 The full case studies for each organisation are available separately and an accompanying short guide to good practice for employers and practitioners is available as a separate document.


Email: Jonathan Waite

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