How to Make Your Workplace More Sustainable: Grass Roots Approach

A corner office
Photo by Trent Bigelow.

Welcome guest poster, Mary Reilly, of  Reilly Green Associates,  a Six Sigma™, facilitator and green sustainable consultant. (Six Sigma is a business management strategy. For more information on Six Sigma, see here.)   I had the pleasure of meeting Mary at the Jumpstart Conference in NJ and was totally fascinated by her.  I asked her to write an article for me utilizing her specialty of Six Sigma™ with sustainability.

Many companies that are now touting sustainability got their green start from concerned employees. Most of the employee teams started with small, but well planned projects. If you would like to move your company in a green direction, go for it, but do it with a plan. This guide, derived from Six Sigma™, will help you gain buy-in, increase credibility for yourself as well as sustainability endeavors, and enjoy the project as it rolls out. (This is specifically for small projects.)

1. Know what you (and your team) want to accomplish: The more specific, the better chance you will have of accomplishing your goal. While rolling it out, be careful not to enlarge the scope of the project. You can always take on more later.

2. Write a list of all stakeholders: all people who will be involved, whose agreement you need, who might be threatened or who could help you on this.

3. Have a plan to win over each of the stakeholders. This will most likely involve different forms of communication for different people.

4. Have a plan to promote your projects: Company newsletter, word-of-mouth, and lunch programs are all means of promotion as long as they are within company policy.

5. Establish steps to the process: and identify what should happen and who should do it.

6. Anticipate possible problems: and prepare to handle them.

7. Show the savings/costs of the project: Calculate a baseline (“before” costs) and then the resulting savings. There is nothing like cost savings to win the hearts and minds of business people.

8. Make it easy for people to succeed with your endeavor: for example, are the recycle bins easily accessed (if you are doing recycling)?

9. Tell your direct supervisor after you have given this some thought and before you do anything. Although you may need his or her help, make it clear that this project will not cause more headaches for him/her. Also, it will not take away from your work time or the work time of others involved. A clear plan will give upper management confidence that this project will go as planned.

Example: One group decided to start a “Coffee mug” campaign where they would ask all their compatriots to use a ceramic coffee cup instead of company supplied paper cups.

They let their boss know after they had done some of the planning and the boss was cautiously supportive.

The group knew that the person who ordered the cups might feel left out if she were not involved, so they included her in the initial group. Not only was she happy to be invited, but she was able to give the team cost information about cup costs.

The money spent on paper coffee cups before starting their project was $400.00/month for the whole office (160 people). The team used this number to compare the amount spent after the project to calculate the savings.

The team launched the project by holding a lunch time information meeting. Their boss had helped them secure the room and the team served cookies to attract their co-workers. Although the cookie idea sounds corny, it worked; the cookie lovers became first adopters of the cup campaign.

The team then went around to their coworkers during lunch and breaks asking their fellow workers to use ceramic cups and forgo paper cups – at least for a trial period. Most of their co-workers were willing to try it and brought in their own cups to use for coffee, tea and water.

After a month, the cost of paper cups had been cut in half. When the Green Team presented their findings (and their savings) to management, management supported the project by purchasing cups with a “Waste Not” logo on it.

The results: savings to the company, less waste, and the employees were recognized for their good work and on to the next project. Furthermore, the team grew as more people wanted to become involved in a worthwhile, successful project.

mary reilly

Mary Reilly has successfully facilitated corporate adoption of sustainable practices, lowering costs and improving employee engagement. Using Six Sigma, Adult Learning techniques, and group dynamic tools, she has helped her clients cut process time by 40%, improve sales by 25%, improve leadership, and of course, embrace a green culture.  You can contact Mary at  To learn more about Mary visit her website.

If you wish to guest post on Green Talk, give me a shout. Anna

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  1. 1


    Hey Mary!

    Great ideas—and presented with great clarity and ease. When I have my own company with 160 employees I’m going to make sure only
    ceramic mugs adorn everyone’s desk….:)

  2. 3


    Ms. Reilly shows in her example how something as simple as bringing
    your coffee cup to work can impact our environment and a company’s bottom line. I applaud her efforts and will utilize her ideas to make
    my jewelry company as sustainable as possible.

    • 4

      Green Talk says

      Regan, that’s great about your own efforts. Any ideas of how you would like to make your own company sustainable? Anna

  3. 5


    It’s great to have new ideas and so important to get ALL the stakeholders informed and hopefully on board. I love the coffee mug example — and who would have thought how much money it would save?!

    • 6

      Green Talk says

      Gail, I agree with you. People thinking going green costs money. Simple tasks can end up saving company money without having to spend any green. Anna

    • 8

      Green Talk says

      Ira, that is a good question. Perhaps suggestions to put bins in a lunchroom or in the outside halls for plastic bottles. Also, suggesting that people bring their own refillable bottles to work since recycling is the second defense to reducing our waste. Anna

  4. 9

    matt polsky says

    Looks useful for the purpose intended, with some good ideas. I already forwarded your steps to my son, who is trying to implement a green team project at work.

    My only comments are that while I think a plan is worthwhile, as things “never go according to a plan,” and there is a lot of (and this term isn’t as pejorative as it is perceived) irrationality out there, there should be some room for improvisation and even going outside company policy–if necessary and done with savvy. Sometimes the company policy is part of the problem.

    Chaotic Matt

    • 10

      Green Talk says

      Matt, any suggestions or ideas on how to go outside the company policies? Have you implemented something yourself that illustrates this concept? Anna

  5. 11


    All good – you could also include a checklist of questions (not that you’d publish the list, that would be a differentiator for you.)
    I’m thinking questions like:
    Do you want to start tracking carbon footprint?
    Does your company do sustainability reporting?
    Is facilities and/or operational efficiencies represented?
    Is there any manager who can benefit from Green reporting?
    Does this manager understand the different venues available?

    Go Girl!

    • 12

      Green Talk says

      Beth, great group of questions. Mary and Beth, could you elaborate based on your experiences what you have found to be the answers to the above questions and how to bring the team around if you are faced with an arms in the air type response. Anna

  6. 13


    This is in response to Matt: I agree that there are people who don’t understand the importance of sustainability and may offer resistance (in the form of a different opinion and unwillingness to get their own coffee mug.) That was the case in this story, in fact, but that why small, employee projects are so important. If they hear it from their co-workers as well as other avenues, there is an improved chance of making an impression. Sometimes one has to try several times before making an impression, which is what happened here.

    Also, that’s why a well planned approach is so important. It’s true that there needs to be room to change, but the better planned the roll out is, the more flexible the project can be without losing credibility. It would be interesting to hear how your son’s project at work goes.

  7. 14


    Ira, I agree with Anna’s suggestion and wanted to offer more information.

    You bring up a good point; Often, the employer does not own the building and does not control the waste management. In that case, it is doable to start recycling, but the project becomes much bigger since there is now an entity outside the work group (which is the building management). It’s usually best to start with a small program that has a high chance of success. The team can then build on their success and take on bigger projects.

  8. 15


    Gail, we were shocked at the savings – it was way above our expectations. There are a lot of savings in sustainability, both large and small. When you begin to learn about it, one wonders why all businesses aren’t sustainable.

  9. 16


    Beth and Anna,
    These are excellent, sophisticated questions. Beth, by the way, has been part of the Carbon reporting for S&P and is an expert in that field.
    Company’s that measure their carbon foot print and reports on sustainability would bhe in later phases of Sustainability from a cultural perspective. The phases are:
    Phase 1: “Forced” into action for regulatroy reasons
    Phase 2: Finding early benefits (Savings/PR) in sustainability, but still doing it out of requirement; the feeling on sustainability at this point is that the benefits and challenges are equal.
    Phase 3: The company as a whole is educated and has adopted a sustainable mindset
    Phase 4: The company is proponents of sustainability – they promote it proactively.
    My article is focused at employees who work in Phase1 and Phase 2 organizations, but I believe small organized groups can have an influence on the company.

    I know of one group that hired a CSO (Cheif Sustainability Officer) which is to say the organization as whole went from phase 2 to Phase 3. He found small green groups all over the company that had started sustainability efforts. it’s my belief that these small groups were influential in bringing the whole company around to the next phase. Small groups can have a big impact!

  10. 17

    matt polsky says


    As far as suggestions for going beyond company or organizational policy, sometimes the culture sends out mixed messages and it’s necessary to struggle with ambiguity. It should not be done cavalierly and done stupidly.

    Have I had to do this? More than once.

    Part of the idea of skunkworks is to go outside the company culture, but there’s also a feeling that it’s better for the company in the long run.


  11. 20



    Rumblefish Jewelry has implemented only using recycle
    14kt and sterling silver. We also used recycled boxes and
    packing material. Our Limited Edition collection is made with
    vintage elements.

    We would like to do more – I would like to find a supplier of
    recycled chain. I would like to have our gift box be made from
    recycled material also.

    Why do you ask any suggestions would be appreciated…

  12. 22


    Thanks for the great info Mary! Our grassroots community group, Sustainable Cherry Hill just started a Green Business task force and one of their goals is to provide a well researched resource list for our businesses. I will definitely be suggesting your article to them. Hope to see you guest blogging more (maybe on our blog…!)
    .-= Lori Braunstein´s last blog ..FRESH: New thinking about what we’re eating! =-.

    • 23

      Green Talk says


      That’s great what you are doing in Cherry Hill. I would love a post from you as well as to how your efforts are going since it would be very inspirational for other towns. What are some of the sustainable ideas you are doing? Anna

  13. 24

    Jerry Flach says

    I am also a skunkworker and while more traditionally in the past with regard to technology projects it does fit in advancing sustainability goals as these need to be implemented in every facet of our lives. I have worked in some very challenging and narrowly focused environments but found I could advance innovative goals by collaborating with people outside the company, create more sustainable relationships in some cases then the internal environment offered and advance shared goals including for the benefit of the company itself. For example these were market data vendor user groups and still current for me the Project Management Institute where together myself and a hardworking team of volunteers are able to influence programs and the facilities where we hold events to require them to recycle, to provide healthier food choices, to reduce service packaging. I think the biggest hurdle is consciousness raising; as all these initiatives raise us up and I am grateful to be working with you all on shared goals with a God Speed!

    • 25

      Green Talk says


      Can you give us some more examples how you have instituted change not working within the system? I think this would be helpful for people who experience challenges in their own workplace.

      Also, can you explain the technology project aspect? Anna

  14. 26

    Randi Cohen says

    Nice article, clearly written. My workplaces (which are less typical businesses and more hospital-like settings) solve the coffee-cup problem by simply not providing cups at all. When it is more convenient to bring your own cup for beverages and rinse, rather than keeping a small office stocked up with disposable ones, pretty much everyone goes with the ceramic mug approach. I don’t think it was the intention of the VA to promote sustainability but this reward structure does work!

  15. 28


    It is heartening to hear that people are taking the initiative at work to become more sustainable. We need more people with Mary Reilly’s
    expertise to teach us how important and do-able it is to go green!

    • 29

      Green Talk says

      Donna, I absolutely agree that we need more Mary Reillys in our world. Taking simple steps in the office environment can easily be translated to the home. What is one of your favorite steps for the office? Anna

  16. 30


    Great Post. Improving the workspace is important. I always thought one of the best ways to reduce carbon emissions was to promote companies to encourage their employees to work from home one day a week. This saves people travelling to their office, which is one of the single largest sources of emissions. Not all people could do it of course, but many of us have work that we could happily spend a day a week doing at home. Not to mention the extra efficiency you can get from the peace and quiet. Or the time you save not having to commute. There’s loads of reasons really…


    Brendan @
    .-= Brendan @ PlentyWays´s last blog ..Google PowerMeter – Tracking your energy usage. =-.

    • 31

      Green Talk says

      Brendan, as I sit here in my PJs!!! I absolutely agree. Can you tell me about your last blog post about power meters. Can they be used in the office place too? Anna

  17. 32


    Hi Anna,

    Sure thing. That last post was about Google PowerMeter, which is a new project those wonder kids are working on. It works in collaboration with the electric utilities to grab their data on how much energy you are using and present it in a nice intuitive graph, that is updated in real time. I think in many ways it will be a game changer as Google have a knack of making complicated things simple and thus providing wide spread interest and adoption.

    Energy monitors, of course, are not new. You can get simple products that simply clip on to the energy supply unit in your house and can measure the amount of energy that is flowing. Depending on the appetite you have you can then do various things with this information. My colleague Sam set up a computer to post the data to a graph on the web which he can view at any time. You can read a string of blog posts about his escapades here:

    The good thing about Google PowerMeter is that it will simplify the whole process. And obviously this ties in with your blog post because once you can measure your energy usage, its a lot easier to reduce it as you can actually observe the affect of your actions.

    Brendan @
    .-= Brendan @ PlentyWays´s last blog ..A day in the life…of my electricity =-.

    • 33

      Green Talk says

      brendan, what will Google come up with next? When is it scheduled to be rolled out. Do you have a suggestion for an inexpensive power meter for furnances? I want to see how much a particular geothermal unit is expending in the winter. Anna

  18. 34


    Not sure what’s next for Google PowerMeter. Its available now on the energy providers we listed on our blog.

    How does your furnace work – Is there an electrical cable leading into it? That’s generally what energy monitors require to work as they can measuring how much electricity is passing through.
    .-= Brendan @ PlentyWays´s last blog ..Win a Solar Panel Competition =-.

    • 35

      Green Talk says

      Brendan, it is all electric since it is part of the geothermal system. Re Google, are most of the utilities using it? How can someone like me use it? Anna

  19. 36


    Google Powermeter is just on a few energy utility providers at the moment. Its traditional for Google to launch a product slowly with a long drawn out beta phase. It will be gradually be extended to more energy providers but for now the only way to get it is if you have your energy supplied by one of the companies we list on our blog post here:

    .-= Brendan @ PlentyWays´s last blog ..Forbes magazine announces ExxonMobil as its Green Company of the Year =-.

  20. 37


    Another great article from Anna. This just shows what people can do when they put their minds to it. If just one employee has a good idea then they should push together and present to the management. This will not only help the environment but will also bring the team closer together.

    I will certainly be scouring my office to see if there are any things that can be done better. If every office in the world behaved like this then I think we would be well o our way to cleansing our Planet.

    Keep up the good work Anna.

  21. 38


    My old workplace had many committed staff working on a variety of planed projects, however, it still required a total commitment for ALL staff not just a few. This is the challenge and a tough one because some staff just do not care and think of work environment as separated from home. Getting the message through takes constant discussion and reminders.


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