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.



  • Across the case studies, organisations of all types engaged in a range of low carbon initiatives, rather than a single initiative in isolation, especially where the projects were relatively straightforward.
  • Case study examples show a range of projects of different scale and complexity. Those schemes which are easier to implement, such as recycling and energy saving techniques, were more common than challenging changes such as transport policies.
  • Organisational motives for change included:
    • Personal commitment of senior managers to protecting the environment
    • Commercial benefits from increased business, linked to customer pressures and building a positive environmental brand
    • Pressures of regulation and cost savings
    • Taking advantage of 'moments of change' such as relocation
  • Case study organisations do not tend to compare the impact of their initiatives with those of other organisations or to use standardised methods of measuring impact. Organisations contemplating implementing low carbon initiatives may benefit from access to common guidelines on the costs and benefits of these schemes.


4.1 This chapter examines the range and impact of low carbon initiatives that have been implemented in case study organisations. It begins with summaries of the main activities in each of the case study organisations followed by discussion of the impact of the initiatives and an overview of the different types of low carbon activity across the case study organisations.

Case study summaries

4.2 Annex 4 provides brief summaries of the activities at each of the case study sites. Fuller versions of these cases are available separately.

4.3 It is important to note that the qualitative research methods used for this study focus on understanding how low carbon initiatives operate in a workplace context and case studies have been chosen to illustrate a range of different activities. It is therefore not possible to make generalisations about how typical the approaches used by organisations in this research are across the wider population. The summary of low carbon activities does not necessarily encompass all the initiatives that the organisations were using, as the research focused selectively on those of particular interest due to the subject matter or methods of implementation.

Organisational motives for change

4.4 Organisational motivations for change encompassed four broad triggers:

  • Personal commitment of senior managers to protecting the environment
  • Commercial benefits from increased business, linked to customer pressures and building a positive environmental brand
  • Pressures of regulation and cost savings
  • Taking advantage of 'moments of change' such as relocation.

4.5 Managers from some of the case study organisations voiced a moral imperative for their activities, couched in a belief that encouraging low carbon behaviour is the 'right' thing to do. As such, engagement in low carbon activity was often driven by the personal beliefs of key individuals, for example in the case of managers at Wiles Greenworld, Edinburgh Grosvenor and EAE. Some organisations also felt they were morally obliged to seek to minimise carbon emissions due to the potential impact of their operations. InterfaceFLOR, Halcrow and SSE noted that core business activities could have detrimental impacts on the environment so it was necessary to reduce or offset these effects. EAE and Commercial similarly felt their industries were responsible for a high degree of waste and so needed to mitigate these outputs.

4.6 Potential commercial benefits from low carbon activities were a factor leading to their adoption for EAE, Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor, Commercial, Wiles Greenworld, InterfaceFLOR and Halcrow. EAE and Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor are affected by the tourism industry and Commercial and Wiles Greenworld provide office supplies to other companies. All four companies believed there was a general trend in their sector towards engagement in low carbon initiatives and therefore there was a need to at keep up with, if not improve upon, the schemes of their competitors. The salience of environmental issues in office supplies is the sector's association with waste e.g. paper, print cartridges, cardboard, while in the tourism industry there were concerns about the negative effects of environmental damage to tourist attractions. In both sectors corporate customers, rather than private individuals, were the key triggers for low carbon activity motivated by client pressures. Similar pressures were described at Halcrow. In particular there were high demands from public sector customers for low carbon management to be built into contracts. Some of Halcrow's initiatives were developed for these contracts and then expanded across the organisation.

4.7 For some case study organisations regulation was a motivation to pursue low carbon behaviour initiatives, although to a much lesser extent than commercial and moral reasons. Coca Cola Enterprises (CCE) discussed the impact of the Climate Change Levy as a reason to become more energy efficient. Regulation was also discussed in general terms as a motivating factor by Wiles Greenworld.

4.8 Cost pressures played a part in some schemes. This was most notable in the case of Aberdeenshire where the Worksmart flexible working programme was primarily marketed as a cost saving initiative. At Halcrow, restrictions on business travel were also mainly driven by a need to reduce travel costs. Overall it is interesting that few organisations cited cost as a major factor and most comments regarding cost were restricted to observations that schemes were not particularly expensive or in some way paid for themselves by making savings which offset upfront costs. This varied significantly depending on organisational context and each workplace's current financial position and performance. It is likely that cost pressures may be more important among the wider business population.

4.9 'Moments of change' or points when normal patterns of business activity are disrupted, have been important in a number cases. For an organisation, the most obvious example is a change of premises. Changes of premises played a major role in the Halcrow and EAE initiatives. Both organisations were committed to low carbon management but the change of premises provided a stimulus to act on those inclinations to a greater extent.

4.10 Other organisations had similar moments which sparked initiatives. At Commercial the director who instigated much of the low carbon activity attended a talk by Al Gore which encouraged her to take action. At CCE a visit from the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment who enquired about the site's waste strategy led to an intensification of efforts on waste.

Types of low carbon activities

4.11 Of the four areas of low carbon activity covered by this study (i.e. energy, waste minimisation/recycling, transport and food) most activity was focused on the first three. Most of the case studies had implemented projects in two or more of these areas. There was less evidence of initiatives related to food, with only two organisations taking action in this area. The focus on waste processing and energy use, and the lack of activity in the area of food, supports the evidence on the popularity of different types of initiatives reported by the scoping interviews and literature discussed in Chapter 3. It is likely that this is because many workplaces do not provide catering for staff.

4.12 Within recycling and waste initiatives, by far the most popular approach was to increase the provision of recycling facilities and take steps to raise awareness of those facilities. A number of cases also changed the distribution of waste and recycling bins to encourage recycling, for example removing individual waste bins from beneath desks in offices and placing recycling bins in locations where staff congregate. In general, fewer organisations focused on re-use or waste reduction with only three organisations explicitly mentioning initiatives in this area (Halcrow, Coca Cola, InterfaceFLOR). These included efforts to encourage re-use of cardboard and other packaging.

4.13 Energy initiatives were dominated by schemes aimed at encouraging employees to reduce energy consumption by switching off lights, computers and other electrical devices. Approaches to this varied but often involved providing information and reminders, attempts to embed a 'norm' of switching off equipment along with steps to make it easier, for example by having easily accessible single power switches. In addition to this, installing infrastructure such as low energy lighting and motion sensors attached to lighting was fairly common. Finally, several case study organisations introduced energy monitors and energy audits to make staff aware of the levels of energy being used.

4.14 Among the transport initiatives, organisations have adopted a number of schemes to shape employee behaviours related to both commuting and business travel. Providing training on fuel efficient driving is one of the most popular initiatives, usually aimed at drivers of company vehicles in organisations with a sizeable commercial fleet. Fuel efficient driving training was often combined with methods to reduce carbon emissions more generally, for example by purchasing low carbon vehicles or installing a biofuel pump for both private and commercial use. A smaller number of organisations put specific restrictions on business travel, including discouraging travel, limiting air travel and encouraging public transport use for business travel.

4.15 To encourage sustainable transport methods when commuting, organisations commonly supported cycling through providing money towards equipment as well as facilities for cyclists such as cycle racks, showers and lockers. Direct restrictions on how people commuted to work were much rarer, with only two organisations introducing policies which restricted car parking (Halcrow and Scottish and Southern Energy [SSE]).

4.16 Initiatives on food procurement were rare among the case study organisations. Although not focused on employee behaviour, the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor have introduced a policy of using locally sourced food. To a large extent the absence of food-based initiatives is due to many of the case study organisations having no onsite catering facilities.

Reasons for relative levels of popularity among different initiatives

4.17 The most common initiatives were those which are generally most straightforward to implement, in particular increasing levels of recycling and encouraging staff to switch off electrical appliances. These initiatives tend to cost very little money and time to implement, though achieving a high level of compliance may require a high degree of persistence as well as giving some thought to potential barriers to behaviour change. Additionally, awareness of these kinds of initiatives is likely to be high because of the long history of public campaigns encouraging individuals to recycle and reduce energy consumption.

4.18 Among low carbon initiatives on waste, re-using materials and reducing waste production received much less attention than recycling. Even at companies where re-use took place, for example Edinburgh Grosvenor and Commercial, interviewees focused less on this than recycling. This is likely to be because re-use initiatives require more effort to implement and awareness of techniques involved may also be lower.

4.19 The popularity of fuel efficient driving initiatives may be at least partially due to their potential for cost savings in organisations with sizeable vehicle fleets. Changing individuals' transport and commuting behaviours to more sustainable methods is known to be challenging and therefore, unsurprisingly less common among the case study organisations.

Impact of the initiatives

4.20 Broadly speaking there are three main levels at which organisations measured the impact of low carbon initiatives:

  • Level 1: some organisations have attempted to measure the impact of schemes directly on behaviours. For some types of initiatives this is relatively easy; for example, it is relatively straightforward to count the number of people cycling to work according to the number of bike racks used. Other types of transport behaviours may be more difficult to monitor and require staff surveys.
  • Level 2: the second level of impact measurement uses intermediate outcomes, for example, the amount of waste being recycled or reductions in energy use.
  • Level 3: the third level of impact assessment monitors overall change in carbon emissions.

4.21 Overall, schemes in the areas of transport and energy appear to produce the largest cost savings, although we must be cautious in interpretation because figures are not necessarily comparable across organisations of different sizes and in different sectors. A number of organisations have found it difficult to disaggregate the impact of behavioural changes from infrastructure changes, particularly where they only calculated their overall carbon emissions.

3.21 There is some evidence of spillover effects from work to home behaviours, most commonly in fuel efficient driving and recycling, but also noticeable that the attraction of personal cost savings sometimes led to employees adopting fuel efficient driving techniques at home before using them in the workplace. It was less common to find changes to choices of transport methods. This also varied depending upon the geographical location of the organisation and the availability of public transport options. More extensive spillover effects were found where organisations had used educational approaches to changing employee values and attitudes, rather than simply applying a corporate policy (see Chapter 5 for further discussion).

4.22 Typically case study sites have invested in additional infrastructure such as energy efficient lighting or low carbon vehicles at the same time as encouraging behaviour change. As a result when indicators such as energy usage fall, it is difficult to establish whether this is due to behaviour change or infrastructure change. This was particularly noted by EAE where eco-driver training was accompanied by regular improvements in the fuel efficiency of vans. Some measures are easier to disaggregate than others. For example, increases in recycling can be almost entirely attributed to behaviour changes.

4.23 Equally it is sometimes difficult to 'scale up' the impact of measured behaviour change into a carbon impact, as this often relies on assumptions about the carbon impact of previous behaviours. For example, at Halcrow, efforts at calculating the carbon impact of individuals taking public transport to work had to be based upon assumptions that each journey via public transport saved a car journey of three miles by car. These figures are therefore only approximate.

4.24 There are also challenges in comparing impact of initiatives between case studies. The cases come from very different industries with different scope for making carbon savings. The organisations did not collect the same kind of information with the intention of making it comparable. Finally the schemes have been implemented over different periods of time, and changes in indicators have consequently been measured over varying periods of time.


Email: Jonathan Waite

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