Six Steps to Teaming Up with Employees for Sustainability

How a Sustainability Committee Advanced a National Park’s Environmental Leadership Program

Businesses, communities, governments, educational institutions and others are working hard to develop and promote environmentally sustainable activities and programs. As a National Park sustainability committee chair for more than 20 years, I learned from experience that the key to success is gaining “buy-in” from employees. Once employees are on board, the organization’s environmental goals are much easier to achieve.

I believe that any organization’s environmental efforts can be amplified by establishing a sustainability committee. This committee approach collectively utilizes the perspective and energy of individuals involved in different departments to create a synergy of vision and effort that can help meet the environmental leadership goals of the organization. By harnessing the passion and expertise of employees, many of whom are likely already championing their own efforts to reduce the environmental footprint of their daily activities, the committee can more easily tackle the organization’s goals and address challenges.

Our team at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, which was nationally recognized for developing a comprehensive Environmental Leadership Program, was comprised of representatives from each organizational work unit. This “representative” format provided individuals with operational insight into the actions and activities of their individual work unit. Each member provided focused input on how best to reduce the environmental footprint of their respective work unit’s activities. They brought the best perspective on where improvements could be made and how best to achieve goals within the constraints of labor and budget allocated for their work unit.

We not only achieved the organizational goals with this “let us find the best way to green our activities” approach, but equally as important, it was rewarding for the individuals involved. This grassroots approach also helped to nurture employee buy-in much better than typical top-down directives that are often so large in scale that field level staff have difficulty relating to it on a personal level.

In summary, here is how our sustainability team functioned and developed goals in identified categories.

  1. Pictured Rocks implemented a very successful biobased fluids substitution program in the park’s vehicle operation and maintenance shop several years prior to establishing the Sustainability Team. We replaced petroleum-based hydraulic fluids, greases, spray lubricants, parts washer fluid, diesel additives, 2-cycle engine oil, and bar and chain oil with more environmentally and employee friendly biobased products. This program provided a solid anchor from which we launched additional sustainability initiatives. We built on the program’s successes by expanding it to include high hazard products such as toilet bowl cleaners, paint strippers, and graffiti removers. We then went on to replace other cleaning products and chemicals with biobased alternatives. The employees evaluated the effectiveness of the biobased alternatives while at the same time directly benefited from the use of less toxic products.
  2.  Using the established biobased substitution program as a model, representatives of each operational department collectively developed an organizational and work unit “greening plan” with long term and annual (achievable) goals. The first step was gaining personal buy-in from employees in each of the departments on the development of organization and work units goals. Periodically, the team held progress meetings to review the goals, track progress, and work to address challenges. At the end of the year, we again reviewed goals, documented accomplishments, and developed new goals based on the successes of the previous year. The team then redefined outstanding goals not fully achieved or implemented, to be included in the next year’s goals. Finally, we distributed the annual work plan to employees and posted it on the park’s website at both the beginning and end of the year.
  3. We established these initial key goals and areas of focus:
  • Toxic Product Reduction – reduced the toxicity of products by replacing them with biobased alternatives.
    • Vehicle maintenance products
    • Building maintenance products
    • Custodial maintenance products
  • Utility Metering – to better understand and control utility usage
    • Improve meter monitoring program
    • Install meters where none existed
  • Electrical Energy Conservation
    • Perform a “Right Lighting” evaluation of facilities to determine appropriate levels of lighting
    • Consider “Night Skies” friendly lighting to reduce wasted light and protect night skies
    • Progressive conversion to low energy lighting (from incandescent to CFLs then LEDs)
    • Develop photovoltaic power systems where appropriate
    • Install timers and occupancy sensors
  • Water Conservation
    • Eliminate leaks in systems and fixtures
    • Install low flow toilets, urinals and showerheads
  • Fleet Activities
    • “Right Size” vehicle and equipment fleet to match typical uses of each vehicles. For example, don’t buy a 4-wheel drive truck because you occasionally launch a boat. Consider sharing special use vehicles for those occasional uses.
    • Promote the use of biobased oils, fluids and lubricants in vehicles and equipment.
    • “Green” shop activities with biobased fluid substitutions to reduce impacts of petroleum-based products on employees and environment (hydraulic oils, lubricants, greases, cleaners and degreasers).
  • Facilities and Grounds Care
    • Today, there are even more options for facilities than when I was in the Park Service. It is exciting to see the growth of readily available plant-based products. They range from insulation to plywood and flooring , to parking lot paints and reclaimed asphalt made with soy for streets and parking lots
    • “Green-Up” grounds keeping activities with biobased fluids and lubricants
    • Zeroscaping and reduce mowing areas is an opportunity to utilize soy-backed turf

4. Publicize – Let your employees, community residents, and other stakeholders know what you are doing by developing an environmental leadership web page. Wrap or use signage to showcase “green” vehicles and equipment as well as develop and post site bulletins and posters highlighting activities and efforts.

5. Measure, Honor & Celebrate Milestones – Our sustainability committee met quarterly so we reviewed and measured our progress as well as the gaps. Implementing an award or other recognition program is always a plus for employees and the entire organization.

6. Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk – I used soy-biobased products and followed other sustainability practices at work as well as my home. Sustainability is a 24-hour-a-day mindset! Since retiring from the Park Service, I have led my county recycling program as well as consulted to the United Soybean to coach governments, businesses and others across the nation on how to adopt soy-biobased products for sustainability programs. Using the products in my own home and vehicles has allowed me to lead by example, including assisting a local high school class that wanted to “biobased” one of their project trucks in partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee.

In conclusion, we found that our organization’s sustainability initiatives could be achieved when an engaged committee, representing all facets of our organization, worked together to develop and accomplish progressively achievable goals. Today, it is great to have even more resources to boost the work of sustainability professionals and sustainability teams. Check out the American Lung Association’s Biobased Academies for Facilities and Fleet Professionals at

Sustainability is a 24-hour-a-day mindset says Chris Case who uses biobased products at home as well as recommends them to sustainability leaders across the country.

This case study is provided for information only. The United Soybean Board does not endorse, promote or make any representations regarding any specific suppliers mentioned herein.