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.



  • There is limited guidance available to support organisations in helping employees to adopt low carbon behaviours and the evidence on which much current guidance is founded is not clear. This reflects a lack of evaluation of low carbon initiatives and difficulties in distinguishing between the impact on behaviour and the impact on carbon emissions, combined with lack of research which compares the relative effectiveness of different projects and techniques to encourage behaviour change.
  • There is most evidence of employer initiatives to reduce energy use and recycling and less evidence of employer projects to change transport methods and low carbon food consumption.
  • Practitioners interviewed estimated that between 20 and 50 per cent of staff participate voluntarily in low carbon initiatives when organisations implement them.
  • The factors commonly identified as affecting the success of initiatives are:
    • Senior management commitment and leadership
    • Giving staff ongoing feedback about the performance and impact of initiatives
    • Gaining individual support from workplace champions or informal ambassadors to drive change.
  • Additional success factors included: providing information, advice and guidance for staff with suitable infrastructure and equipment to facilitate behaviour change; demonstrating what desired behaviours look like; offering incentives and competitions where needed; and developing personal responsibility.
  • Evidence from the literature review shows that most organisations engage with low carbon management due to the appeal of the associated business case founded on improved market reputation, sales and/or customer retention, reducing operating costs and meeting regulatory requirements.


3.1 This chapter seeks to use secondary sources to map the range of activities undertaken by employers to reduce carbon consumption and to outline any initial evidence about the relative impact of different initiatives and the critical success factors that have made them effective. It draws on a literature search and 27 interviews with representatives from organisations which provide advice and support direct to employers (see Annex 3) for which the methodology is described in Chapter 2 of this report. The findings cannot be regarded as fully comprehensive and representative but they do combine evidence from published sources and contemporary experience from organisations with expert knowledge of the activity taking place across a range of employers.

3.2 The weaknesses of the existing empirical literature mean that it is not possible to single out particularly effective interventions based on published studies. Similarly, the volume of literature does not necessarily reflect the relative effectiveness of different factors as there is an insufficiently comprehensive evidence base on which to draw and only a limited number of factors have been considered within existing studies. The lack of reported evidence about what works and why makes the task of summarising the evidence on workplace behaviour change more difficult and it is hard to establish whether the apparent theoretical basis for a given intervention is more a reflection of researchers' assumptions than of the organisations' approaches themselves.

Types of initiatives being implemented

3.3 Much of the behaviour change research relating to sustainability has explored the behaviour of individuals in a home setting. As other recent reviews of the evidence have found4, there has been a limited research focus on influencing the environmental behaviour of employees in a workplace context. Four types of initiatives were of interest to this project:

  • reducing energy consumption;
  • reducing carbon emissions from travel and transport;
  • encouraging consumption of food with a low carbon footprint;
  • reducing waste creation and increasing recycling.

3.4 In terms of activities covered, there is most evidence of employer initiatives to reduce energy use and recycling and least evidence of employer projects to change transport methods and low carbon food consumption. Practitioners from intermediary organisations confirmed that most employer activity was focused on energy efficiency and least activity focused on food sourcing.

3.5 Examples of the most common employer activities to change energy consumption include switching off lights/computers, recycling and use of efficient light bulbs5. Practitioners noted that common initiatives included:

  • providing information on consumption to improve employee awareness
  • using incentives, rewards, reminders and penalties to break existing habits and instil new behaviours. These sometimes involved using material symbols or incentives such as stickers or chocolates on computer monitors which were switched off
  • appointing energy 'champions' and eco-committees to encourage others to change
  • ranking teams according to their energy efficiency
  • offering home energy checks to staff.

3.6 Around half of employers were reported in one survey to encourage use of public transport and around a fifth were trying to reduce business travel6. In terms of travel-related initiatives, practitioner interviewees noted that car-sharing, travel plans and cycle-to-work schemes were most popular with employers. A variety of mechanisms were used to encourage participation including:

  • incentives and rewards such as subsidised bike purchase schemes and additional annual leave to employees who cycled to work
  • restricting car-parking space, or allocating it only to car sharers
  • providing low-carbon company cars
  • providing shuttle buses between train stations and offices in larger employers, and reducing flights and other travel between office sites
  • support to help staff to work from home.

3.7 Efforts to source food sustainably appear to be least common and no evaluation of projects on this topic was found. Practitioners reported that most initiatives focused on encouraging caterers to source local food produce. Other strategies included:

  • providing more vegetarian food
  • substituting tap water for bottled water
  • providing advice to staff on smarter food shopping, food storage and uses for leftovers, mostly in larger organisations.

3.8 Common waste reduction measures reported by practitioners included:

  • removal of individual waste bins
  • reducing use of plastic bottles, cups and spoons
  • using recycled instead of virgin paper.

3.9 The literature showed that most employer activities and projects are likely to involve attempts to reduce the negative effects of behaviour rather than stop the behaviour itself (i.e. recycling rather than reducing consumption or promoting public transport rather than avoiding travel altogether)7 and small scale changes which are easy to implement, especially in SMEs8. This was corroborated by practitioner interviewees who stated that evaluations usually find greater uptake of 'easy' behaviours.

Level of employee participation in low carbon activities

3.10 Employee participation rates in voluntary activities varied, but were estimated to be quite low. One interviewee stated that it was reasonable for companies of more than 2,000 staff to expect 10-20 per cent of staff to take part; another estimated usual participation levels of between 20-50 per cent of staff. In some cases interviewees focused on participation in the implementation of schemes and in some cases they focused on employee participation in projects once they were running. Factors affecting participation also varied, but lack of staff time was viewed as a particular problem.

What works: evidence on initiatives and success factors

Successful initiatives

3.11 Although it is not possible to single out particularly effective interventions based on published studies, practitioners cited two low carbon initiatives as commonly successful in engaging staff and reducing carbon consumption. These were:

  • workplace travel planning, which could include asking employees to draw up and commit to a plan for a low carbon journey to work. This can be demanding in terms of planning and building staff engagement but has a relatively powerful impact on reducing carbon emissions
  • basic energy-saving initiatives which provided clear cost benefits, such as switching off lights and computer monitors.

What works: critical success factors

3.12 Overall, it possible to identify some common success factors cited both within the literature and by the practitioners interviewed, in addition to factors only cited by practitioners. Practitioners identified a wide range of success factors that they believed provided causal explanations of more successful employee engagement or overall impact of the initiatives they had seen used in workplaces. They identified these factors as being of common importance regardless of the subject matter or topic of the particular project. These are:

  • provision of ongoing feedback to staff on performance and impact of initiatives which demonstrate clear cash savings
  • use of workplace champions to engage staff and change norms of behaviour and organisational culture, also including competition between teams
  • senior management commitment and leadership.

Providing Feedback

3.13 Several studies9 have highlighted the importance of collecting and monitoring workplace data relating to sustainability. Two aspects of monitoring and measuring change emerge as being particularly relevant.

3.14 First, it is important to provide feedback to staff about the impact of environmental initiatives on specific outcomes10. Lack of feedback about the impact of changes, and a lack of perceived control over sustainability in the workplace, were identified as key barriers to sustainable behaviour11. Second, performance measures (e.g. carbon emissions, energy consumed) should be communicated at a level meaningful to staff rather than at an organisation level12. This helps to illustrate how individual behaviour can make a difference13. Provision of feedback on impact, particularly in terms of cash savings generated was also cited by practitioners as a major success factor for effective initiatives.

Workplace champions

3.15 Several of the research studies report the effectiveness of workplace champions as employees with a role and responsibility for promoting low carbon activities and changes. For example, a literature review and consultation with stakeholders about communicating on the sustainability agenda found that having a named individual within the workplace with responsibility for promoting resource efficiency was effective in improving resource use14. This is because champions can be effective at publicising performance and at challenging established work practices due to their understanding of the impact on environmental performance12 and maintain employee interest and engagement over a period of time15. Further evidence suggests that face-to-face engagement of employees by champions is more effective than web-based methods16. It is also likely that contextual knowledge of an organisation which can take into account the existing culture and social norms is important in building momentum among bottom-up approaches and tailoring initiatives for specific workplaces17. Practitioners emphasised the role of champions in ensuring that employee ideas and suggestions are clearly invited and acted upon as well as engaging staff with different kinds of characteristics e.g. role and personal background. This is because widespread engagement of staff in low carbon initiatives was regarded in itself as an important factor in helping to change workplace norms and cultures. Champions may also have a role in stimulating competition between teams, which practitioners believed was important in generating a dimension of social motivation through team identification. Schemes which secured higher participation from staff had gained commitment from local managers, but also engaged with a broad a range of staff - both during implementation and in the day-to-day running of the project - so they were not seen as a purely top-down process.

3.16 The evidence also suggests that there may be differing effects between different champions depending on their approach and commitment to the role. For the majority of employees 'green' behaviours are extra-role activities which can compete with other (higher) priorities for time and attention18. As a result, individuals may not all devote the same amount of effort to the role19.

Engagement and commitment of senior managers

3.17 The engagement and commitment of senior managers is reported to be a critical success factor in initiating and sustaining workplace initiatives to encourage low carbon behaviours20. This is primarily because they are custodians of resources that are required to make projects successful. In SMEs, organisational cultures can be particularly dominated by the owner-manager21 and one study reported that pro-environmental activities in SMEs stemmed from the personal beliefs of directors and managers22. This was echoed by practitioners who stressed the importance of senior management commitment and the appointment of a manager with dedicated responsibility for environmental issues.

3.18 According to case study research, senior managers must be visibly involved and lead by example in order to demonstrate required behaviours to employees and persuade them to perform them12. Most employers in a survey believed championing 'green' initiatives through senior managers was one of the most effective ways of promoting sustainable workplace behaviour5.

3.19 Practitioners believed that evidence of senior management commitment should take the form of including low carbon management principles within an organisation's overall strategy and regularly reviewing organisational practice. They pointed out opportunities to link low carbon initiatives more closely to Corporate Social Responsibility policies and brand identity. However, some interviewees stressed that managers 'practising what they preach' was the most important factor, as some organisations publicise their environmental policies widely but do not embed them fully within management practice.

Other Success Factors

3.20 In addition to the factors identified in both the empirical literature and from practitioner interviews, further critical success factors were identified by practitioners and these are now summarised below. The first two points were generally considered to be most important.

  • Provision of supporting infrastructure and equipment: the equipment recommended as most useful by practitioners was energy monitors because they provide tangible and visible feedback on performance. Some practitioners suggested providing teleconferencing facilities and bicycles for travelling to work as examples where infrastructure/ equipment was important for success. However, practitioners noted that changing infrastructure without staff engagement was potentially problematic, and that staff needed to be properly trained in the use of any specialist equipment.
  • Providing information, advice and guidance: practitioners believed this was important particularly in terms of explaining how projects and initiatives worked in practice but noted that it was usually insufficient on its own to generate change, stressing the role of feedback on performance and incentives to accompany it. Several practitioners emphasised the importance of ensuring information was not patronising and was easy to access. The evidence from the empirical literature suggests that face-to-face communication from peers in the role of workplace champions may be an important medium for providing information, advice and guidance.
  • Provision of suitable incentives: practitioners stressed the need for incentives and, consistent with psychological theory, pointed out that the incentives offered must be ones valued by staff, simple to understand and, ideally, relatively cheap for the organisation. They recommended financial incentives or the chance to gain additional holiday as likely to be most popular and successful. Some practitioners believed that targets for low-carbon behaviour should be linked to staff appraisals, but could not provide examples of this change being made. A minority of practitioners noted that using external incentives rather than seeking to change individuals' fundamental values may not bring about a sustained change in attitudes. However, most believed that incentives were essential. It is not clear whether incentives are required simply at the point of initial engagement or whether they are required on a long-term basis to sustain behavioural change.
  • Developing a sense of personal responsibility: several interviewees mentioned the importance of individuals taking ownership for their actions and the possibility for building impetus for change from connecting 'green' behaviour to personal values.
  • Use of inter-staff competitions: this factor is likely to be important because group dynamics and collaboration are likely to engage initial employee interest and help sustain momentum. They may also add an enjoyable social dimension to the activities. Public recognition of team performance is also likely to reinforce desired behaviours.
  • Capitalising on 'moments of change': practitioners who discussed making and breaking habits talked of the significance of catching staff at 'transition' points, such as starting in a new role, which could serve as a trigger point for reflecting on and changing existing behaviours. A number mentioned the importance of including low carbon behaviours as part of the induction process.
  • Demonstrating what alternative behaviours look like: practitioners stressed that it was important not to assume that workers know, understand or can imagine working in a different way or adopting different behaviours. Providing examples of these which are as concrete and tangible as possible and providing support for staff to understand and try out new behaviours with constructive feedback, where necessary, was important to change habits.

Why businesses engage in low carbon activities

3.21 The evidence presented above has highlighted the key role played by senior managers in the effectiveness of environmental management practice. This raises the question of why organisations engage in low carbon initiatives in the first place, and what the key rationales are that appeal to senior managers.

3.22 The evidence suggests that messages encouraging employers to develop a low-carbon workplace should be based around a business case, in part because many businesses are still reported to view sustainability as distracting from their core business14. One survey of 1,500 managers found that there was some scepticism about environmental issues at work, and that this increased with seniority: 54 per cent of directors were identified as cynics about carbon management and their ability to reduce their carbon impact23.

3.23 However, there is conflicting evidence about the extent to which messages should focus explicitly on 'green' messages or on other factors, such as cost saving. Suggestions for business relevant messages include focusing on the reduced costs and increased benefits of a low carbon workplace. CMI (2009) suggest that a focus on costs is likely to resonate with managers better than messages about carbon emissions, which can seem more abstract and not directly related to business.

3.24 Effective cost and benefit messages are reported to include:

  • an enhanced reputation (e.g. with consumers) and as a potential marketing device24; practitioners believed that brand image was more important to larger organisations
  • creating competitive advantage and green market opportunities21
  • reduced operating costs and increasing margins25; pressures on staff time increasing the attraction of reduced commuting time26
  • keeping one step ahead of legislation and taxation, especially for SMEs21.

3.25 On the other hand, some argue that focusing on non-environmental messages to influence behaviour does not create an identification with or loyalty to specific 'green' behaviours27. An example of this is found in the planned behaviours of consumers participating in a focus group, undertaken by IPPR (2009). They found that consumers were motivated to take on more 'green' behaviours by the message of money saving. However, there was evidence of rebound effects in that some consumers would then transfer the money they saved to other (more) carbon intensive behaviours, such as flying. Although this research was not undertaken with businesses, it highlights the need to ensure that there is also some understanding about the reasons why changing behaviour is important so that changes in behaviour do not result in unintended consequences. This is also echoed in guidance on developing values around sustainability, where engaging individuals through appealing to extrinsic values of status, cost saving or profit is argued to reinforce those values, making it subsequently harder to challenge them28.

3.26 It is likely that some degree of targeting of different kinds of organisations is needed, based on evidence that employers engage with the low carbon agenda for different reasons and are in different states of readiness to make changes. Larger organisations are more likely to have measures for calculating and managing their carbon footprint and practitioners reported that bigger organisations were more advanced in adopting low carbon management principles, since they were better equipped to absorb infrastructure costs and appoint dedicated managers. This suggests that some smaller organisations might need to be convinced that environmental management activities are relatively easy and time investment in undertaking them will pay off. Some evidence reports that financial savings may not be a primary motivation for SMEs in engaging in activities such as recycling, but the activities must be at least cost-neutral compared to landfill disposal and facilities must be provided29. Practitioners took a stronger view and emphasised that cost saving was a strong and important incentive to SMEs, though they also emphasised that some leading examples of SMEs with successful low carbon initiatives had made such changes on the basis of commitment to environmental sustainability, not profit or costs. Public sector organisations were found to be taking the lead relative to voluntary and community sector organisations and private sector companies so messages to engage the private sector may need to be developed23, 30.

3.27 Organisations which are growing are more likely to have carbon management practices in place. The benefits of implementing these initiatives may need to be identified and sold more clearly to organisations which are stable or declining in size31. This is reflected in the views of practitioners who expressed strong concerns that the economic context may be having an adverse effect on take-up of initiatives. Interviewees believed that financial pressures could cause firms to lose sight of low carbon initiatives as they focused on short-term issues, despite the potential for longer-term savings from initial investment.

3.28 Many practitioners felt that larger firms were generally more advanced in adoption of environmental initiatives. Some interviewees linked this to the relative level of workforce education and felt it could be important to organisational willingness to engage in low carbon behaviours. Some reported that for lower skilled, lower paid workers, incentives and sanctions could be important levers in addition to simply awareness-raising activities.

3.29 Overall, these findings are not consistent in their assessment of employer motivations for promoting low carbon activities. This reflects the diversity of the business community, the likelihood that many organisations have multiple, mixed motivations for engaging in change and the difficulty of tailoring messages by trying to categorise businesses simplistically. However, it is likely that for the short-term at least, business engagement is likely to be cost-sensitive where it is not required through regulatory compulsion, and some consideration needs to be given of how to balance messages based on ethical principles of sustainability and/or profit and costs.

3.30 This concern with business engagement is reflected in a relatively large number of good practice guides identified during the literature search relating to sustainability in the workplace. Most of these are concerned with energy consumption, low carbon transport, waste minimisation, reducing water use and green procurement. However, the focus of such guides is on engaging organisations with low carbon activities, not employees within organisations. Some of the messages may be applicable at the individual as well as organisational level, but given the relative lack of theoretical rigour in the literature, it is also not certain how well-founded the guidance is. Much of the advice within good practice guides consists of key pointers or issues that employers need to consider, but there is often very little description or detail of e.g. how to 'engage and/or consult with employees'.

Overcoming challenges to encouraging low carbon behaviours

3.31 Practitioners identified that the most common challenges that organisations face in promoting low carbon behaviours among staff include:

  • Lack of capacity or willingness to invest in resources (both time and money). This reinforces the need to develop initiatives which are simple and effective and the added value of external resources, but also the importance of shifting management beliefs as they are often the decision-makers about resourcing priorities
  • Challenging staff attitudes and values, requiring effort both to generate interest and to tackle scepticism about climate change. Practitioners felt that employees should be provided with educational opportunities about their responsibilities in environmental management, but that environmental goals should also be portrayed as consistent, rather than competing with, wider business objectives.
  • Difficulties of overcoming habitual behaviour, and in encouraging staff to adopt new practices which points to the need to capitalise on moments of change
  • Lack of leadership and co-ordination making environmental initiatives harder to implement and to sustain over the long-term. This points to the need to mainstream and integrate environmental initiatives as part of broader organisational priorities around branding, bottom line and or corporate social responsibility principles, and the need for committing resources to co-ordinate projects.

3.32 The relative difficulty of these challenges varies according to organisational context but some practitioners commonly noted force of habit and resistance to change as particularly important obstacles. Suggested ways of solving these challenges included:

  • Taking ownership of initiatives, often through appointing a dedicated leader, as a way of allocating responsibility and driving change
  • Development of appropriate incentives and penalties
  • Active engagement of staff at all levels by demonstrating the difference that low carbon behaviour could make, being open to staff suggestions, highlighting the competitive advantages of these practices, and offering support or mentoring to make changes.

Challenges of evaluating behaviour change initiatives

3.33 Much of the literature that covers environmental behaviour in the workplace is based on opinion, rather than evidence of what works and why. There are inevitably multiple definitions of what constitutes success and 'effectiveness', including intermediate outcomes such as scale of sustained impact on employee behaviour and overall carbon emissions reduction, but these are not always distinguished clearly in the literature and there appears to be very little research using a multi-level methodology which considers both behavioural outcomes and impact on carbon emissions.

3.34 Those papers that seek to explore environmental interventions and their outcomes often fail to consider the impact of other organisational factors on the success of an intervention and tend to lack theoretical underpinning. For example, the research about what is effective tends to be based on employers' views of what has worked; these self-reported assessments of effectiveness tend not to be based on objective evidence, and the majority of employers do not collect data about their environmental impact, or measure and monitor any changes5.

3.35 Similarly, practitioners interviewed reported that some but not all organisations attempted to monitor and evaluate their initiatives. Types of indicators used included intermediate outcomes such as the volume of recycling, and overall outcomes in terms of reduced carbon emissions. It was more common to measure overall carbon impacts or intermediate outcomes than changes in employee behaviour. This may be important because it is common for organisations to make changes to infrastructure simultaneously with encouraging behaviour change, and in these cases measuring employee behaviour may be important to identify the relative impact and contribution of changes. Practitioners reported numerous barriers which inhibited employer evaluation activity including:

  • complexity of measurement, with some outcomes being much easier to measure than others. For example, organisations tend to be able to track changes in their overall energy use, but often find it more difficult to disaggregate this data to measure savings in particular areas.
  • difficulty in identifying concrete links between initiatives and changed behaviour, because of difficulty in attributing causality for individual behaviour
  • difficulty in distinguishing contribution of behavioural change from that of improved technology.

3.36 Evaluation problems can also be caused by lack of data or relevant benchmarks, although many practitioners reported that organisations they worked with did attempt to benchmark their carbon emissions against similar firms. However, SMEs in particular view measurement activities as an unwelcome administrative burden. Several practitioners also highlighted the lack of qualitative data to assess behavioural change, because carrying out detailed research takes time and resources.

3.37 There is scant research which compares the relative effectiveness of different types of interventions and considers a wide range of factors in determining success. Most of the research is relatively small scale. Overall this suggests that the evidence which maps our understanding of environmental behaviours among employees at work is at a very early stage of development. We need much greater understanding of 'what works', how results are achieved and why and how this might vary in different organisational contexts.


Email: Jonathan Waite

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