Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

EC 012: Setting up a Green Team at Work

23 min read


For the next podcast, I wanted to talk about setting up and improving an environmental (eco) green team at your work. This is one of the early activities you can do to improve sustainability at your job, or within organizations you work with.

I discuss my own experiences with creating and maintaining green teams at different facilities and within different formats. I also cover the tips suggested by the City of Portland’s Green Team Guide.

If you are listening to our podcast and reading our articles, and you don’t have a green team yet, then YOU are the person who needs to be setting one up! Don’t wait for someone else to do it. You are the person to do it, so take ownership and take action after this podcast.

Relevant Links

City of Portland Green Team Guide

US DOE Energy SWAP Challenge – Hilton vs Whole Foods

Sign up for 90 Day WASTE Walk Challenge

FREE 1-hour WASTE Walks Course on Udemy


I wanted to talk to you guys about green teams. It’s one of the first early activities you might consider when you’re trying to drive sustainability at your company or organization. You could do that first or you could perform a WASTE walk. I’d probably recommend the WASTE walk first just to get some momentum and some quick wins, and then find out who’s interested, and they could become potential green team members. But if you go the other route and try to get a green team first and then plan some WASTE walks, that will work as well.

Speaking of WASTE walks, we still have the 90-day WASTE walk challenge that is going on, started October 1. Go to our website,, and look for the link on the right that says 90-day WASTE walk challenge. It’ll basically give you details on the checklist of how to go through and conduct a WASTE walk and that will take you through completion of a WASTE walk through the end of the calendar year.

Just a little bit of background on my experience with green teams. Around 2008, I was involved with an ISO 14001 team down in Melbourne, Florida. As part of the team, they had created an ongoing team to maintain the ISO 14001 certification. I was only there probably about six months before I ended up transferring locations, so I didn’t get a chance to really get as much done as I wanted to, but what I did set up was green belt projects around reducing electricity, reducing paper usage, which ended up taking us into our shipping area, and reducing landfill charges through better signage around our trash receptacles. The interesting thing with that team that I liked was that there was representation from different parts of the buildings, and this is a multi-building facility. We would have assemblers and technicians, we would have managers, we had engineers, and operations support team members representing each department and their location. We had different buildings, so we at least had one person from each building and they were the advocates for the things we talked about in the green team and any communications that we had, so I really like that model.

I wasn’t quite sure how people were selected, if they were volunteered or volun-told to go there, or if they had shown interest and wanted to be involved, but I think my recommendation for that would be that people opt -in on their own and that you know that they’re interested because they want to do something good and make a difference, not because they feel like they have to be there.

After I transferred, we had set up a global sustainability team at our corporate headquarters, and that was a slightly different type of team because we were trying to plan out activities across multiple sites. Some of the activities we worked on were putting in a data infrastructure so we could do greenhouse gas reporting much easier, and basically gathering in the utility data and automate that. That’s where we created the go-and-see event structure, which is the foundation for what I’m calling the WASTE walks.

Then we actually conducted events, the go-and-see events that I’ve talked about before. Also, I was the one who led a Six Sigma project to reduce electricity in the large building we had, and that ended up saving over $300,000 a year. That was more of a corporate-wide green team and we had representation from different parts of that corporation, but just a little bit different than within a single facility. I think the model that never really got set up but I would’ve liked to see is have that corporate team and then have each facility with its own green team, and then have communication between the green team leaders back to corporate and likewise the other way around. Never really got to that point. Maybe it’s something we still will continue to work on.

There’s also another team that got set up called the Green Workplace Community of Practice. Basically, that became a forum for employees to come together and talk about ideas, learn about new things going on in the community, or learn from what is going on at other parts of the business. That team got together and set up an Earth Day fair and they did that for a couple of years, but it really wasn’t like a working team where they were actually going and implementing changes. There was some improvements recycling done at the corporate headquarters, but most of the people were just coming, attending, getting a free lunch, and learning about what’s going on.

When I transferred to the location I’m at right now, I still remained involved in that, and so that was interesting to be involved as a remote employee working for a networking group based out of the headquarters. I think that’s good to have is people on a team that are not in that location, especially if you’re trying to set up a corporate-wide initiative or a corporate-wide team. That was very much driven by employees and they’re the ones that set it up. I came in later when I had come to that facility. Just a couple of really engaged and motivated employees that decided they wanted to set up this team.

When I arrived at my current location, one of the first things I did was get together with people who I thought might be interested in setting up a green team. I had a list of people who had attended some of the presentations from that Green Workplace Community of Practice, and that’s the list I started with. I basically set up a meeting and invited them all and said, “I’m thinking about starting a team. I want to see who’s interested.” Same thing, we tried to do free lunch tickets to get people to show up. A lot of the activity we started with was getting some knowledge and history about what had been done in the past. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I wanted to capture what was done, maybe communicate out the successes they had done, because there was quite a bit of activity, and just really, like you would do in any kind of Lean activity, is go and understand what’s been going on and here are the successes and the struggles that they’ve had and not just jump right in and say I know what I’m doing and this is what we’re going to do. Hopefully, I did a good job of trying to extract that information out and really listen.

One of the first things we tackled with that team was going through a sustainability certification with the county. That actually worked out really well. We had a list of items that we needed to complete in order to become certified. I think there’s like 80-some criteria and we had to have at least 50 of them to get a gold certification. That really allowed us to do a broad evaluation of our facility and give us some goals and things to accomplish and work on. So if you have an opportunity to get an assessment completed or go through a checklist or actually go for a certification or at least assess where you’re at, I think that’s a great way to kick off a green team.

One of the things I found very useful when getting started with this green team was I found a guide that the city of Portland had put out. I’ll explain that here, on what their recommendations are for setting up a green team. I’d highly recommend that if you’re thinking about doing that, or even if you have an existing team, that you go through this guide and look for some of the tips and advice they have and see what things might be helpful to you.

Later on, we actually went through and got the gold certification, which was great. That momentum, we were able to carry that on to kick off a Green Belt project. In the other site, I jumped right in with the Green Belt projects. At this location, eased into that. Again, this one was we’ve got a project going on with electricity reduction and it’s going pretty well. We didn’t get one of the big projects we thought we would get implemented, but now we’re going to Phase 2 and our Plan B and really digging into some specific opportunities, so that’s been a good project.

Another thing was rolled out was a green bag session. I modeled this after a brown bag lunchtime lunch and learn type of format that people bring their lunch, and it’s usually held around lunchtime, 11:30 or 12:00, and for 30 minutes, you come in and sit there and eat your lunch but listen to a topic. The intent with this green bag was that you would learn about an environmental topic. I also wanted to try to get some engagement with other employees, so all the talks were given by employees, and so really trying to find employees who have a specialty or a real strong interest in things like electric cars or commuting to work or biking to work or composting at home or putting in organic gardens at home, education that they’ve taken, renewable energy education and courses they’d taken locally, and having them share why they did that and what they learned and how to get more information. I think that has gone over really well, so that’s something I would encourage you to set up something like that. The hard part’s just finding enough people who have those interests, but it also allows you to really get out and communicate and network with people in your company.

Another thing we did was continue the Earth Day fairs. We’ve done that two years in a row and that goes over pretty well. It connects you with the community. You’re bringing organizations and nonprofits that have an environmental focus and you’re trying to get them in front of your employees so they can connect up with groups or learn something that they can take back to their home to improve. Some of that momentum that we’ve had has actually trickled back to our corporate office as well. So even though I’m not in the corporate office anymore, it is making a difference, and so you can influence and drive change outside of your four walls.

Let’s talk through this city of Portland Green Team Guide. Basically, the city of Portland has a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and they also have a Sustainability at Work certification program, and so this came out of that same effort for people to get a certain certification level, they need to have a green team, and so the guide was created to help those teams, but it’s free and available to anybody to use. Let’s talk about the steps that they recommend you go through.

The first step is actually starting and creating the green team. The second step will be setting goals. The third one is measuring success. The fourth is keeping staff and the teams engaged. And then the fifth one is marketing your accomplishments.

For starting up a team, you need to figure out why the company should support the green team. Some key things you might look at are cost savings by reducing costs associated with many of the wastes we’ve talked, about like water, air emissions, toxins, solid waste, and energy. Attracting and retaining talent, so improving employee morale, giving them better satisfaction about the company they’re working for, getting them engaged in some of these issues, and then attracting new talent to the company because they see that this company is trying to do the right thing. Customer expectations, so maybe your customers are looking to see what are you doing for your sustainability program. Could it strengthen your company brand, maybe increase market share by eventually seeping its way into products and services that you offer.

Maybe there’s regulatory compliance issues, so how do you keep your company ahead of legislation and new rules and laws that go into effect. How do you get your company thinking the right way? instead of just saying how do we comply with existing rules, but how do we go way beyond that and do it for the right reasons and not let the rules dictate where we go, but how good can we get. And then also aligning your business practices with the values and ethics of your company so that you show that your company’s walking the talk and not just saying, yeah, we care about the environment, but here are specific examples and here’s a whole team of people working on this and helping to drive that culture.

Those are some reasons that you can get buy-in from the management and leadership of your company to support the green team. That support can show up in many different ways from just financial support with free lunches and investment in some education or implementing some of the proposed improvements that come along, sending out email newsletters to show support for some of the initiatives.

The next thing then is finding likely team members. I mentioned how I got the list to start mine, but other times, as you reach out to people, you say, “Do you know any other employees you think might be interested?” kind of the refer a friend approach. Eventually, you’ll get at least a core of people identified fairly quickly that you can get started with and it doesn’t take very many people. If you can get a handful of people, maybe three to five people, that’s a great start, so don’t think you have to have 10, 20 people. And then have a kick off meeting to talk about what are the benefits, why are we doing this, what are the logistics in terms of how often we meet, how much time it is. Is this volunteer time? is it the company and their managers giving them time, or do they need that commitment? do they need to go back and talk to their management? really just having open dialogue and saying, “What do you guys think? is this something that you’re interested in supporting? who else can we bring in? what questions do you have? what concerns do you have?”

Probably, a lot of times, you might have to say this is outside of your normal work hours, but if you get the right people, they might be willing to do that. That’s why it’s nice to be able to at least incentivize them with lunch tickets or a pizza or something too. Bring in some kind of food or snacks or something to make it a little easier for them to attend.

The second one would be setting goals for your green team. Think about what are the baseline metrics that you want to gather, and if you don’t have that data, how do we go off and get that data. Again, I would start with the WASTE acronym. Water usage. If there’s any air in missions or permits that you have, capturing that. Solid waste or landfill tonnage. If there’s any toxic materials that you guys dispose of, getting weights and dollar amounts on those. And then energy, how much energy do you spend on electricity or natural gas or any kind of other gases or sources, and really establishing a baseline so that you can, later on, show how you’ve made improvements on that.

It’s also going to help you prioritize which areas to focus on. If you look at it from a cost standpoint or a usage standpoint or maybe regionally, there’s concerns about water or certain chemicals that, politically in your company, those are the right things to go after. So you’re trying to figure out where are we at in and which things will help us prioritize our starting point, and then coming up with some initial goals for reduction in each of those areas that you’re going to focus in on. There’s a whole lot of discussion about what the right goal would be, but just sitting any kind of goal as a first step. It’s probably not right, so don’t get hung up on trying to get a perfect goal started. Just get something on there, maybe a 10% goal, and if you don’t achieve it, oh well, but at least you’re moving in the right direction.

In the WASTE walk training, we also talked about the impact ease matrix. Look at where are the easiest opportunities to go out and change something. Don’t go after something very complex and difficult like going after shutting off a piece of equipment that is really difficult to maintain and it’s old and it does waste a lot of energy, but it’s politically not something that would be easy to implement. Go after stuff like shutting off lights and improving recycling and maybe like a coffee cup reduction campaign. Something that is not too difficult, that you won’t have a lot of pushback, everyone agrees that’s a great thing to do where it won’t take a lot of effort, but you can see some progress. That really gets the momentum going with your team. You don’t want to have six months of planning and no activity because you will lose people very quickly.

That’s another time to maybe go in and say let’s just do a WASTE walk and let’s get this momentum started, get the team members to participate, and then what they observe and what they see will spread through word-of-mouth. The Green Team Guide has some documentation about the dumpster dive or the waste sort that you might find pretty useful. They recommend going in and doing the trash audits and really understanding where the waste is going today.

And then if there’s any other type of certification or criteria available, then you can use that as a starting point and say our goal is really to just assess where we’re at, and we’re going to use this checklist or this guide to follow through on that. That will also give some direction and some focus for the team.

The other thing that I tried to do with the most recent green team is align the team with the scorecard of the company. When I looked at where I think the green team could support, here are the things I came up with. Each year, we publish a corporate responsibility report, so one of the things I said is our green team is going to help strengthen the brand by doing these things. When customers come around, hopefully, they’ll notice some of the improvements we’ve made, and it gives visitors and customers a better sense about who we are as a company. And then also aligning our employee behaviors with the company values, so showing that not only do we say that we’re ethical and that we care about the environment, but we’re doing it and we’re practicing and we’re improving these areas on a regular basis. That really gives some credibility to the program and really backs up what we say.

Specifically, on the scorecard itself, there are actually metrics that I think we have an impact on. Attracting, retaining, and engaging employees. Having a good green team can help, like I said, bring in better talent that may not have considered your company before but now is noticing some of the stuff you’re doing. Retaining the existing employees who maybe were on the fence about leaving or going somewhere else, and now they’re, “Maybe I’ll stick around and see where this goes.” And then just engaging employees. If you engage them in green team activities that speak to their passions and their interests, they’re going to carry that excitement and motivation into their other normal job, and there are studies that show increased productivity as a result of that. So there’s employee productivity gains from keeping people around, bringing in better talent, and motivating the ones that are there.

We also have an environment, safety, and health metrics. Some of the items on that list are related to plan around energy reduction and community outreach. Those activities out lined up with some of the checklist items we were working on, so that was a benefit. And then reducing operating costs and litigation risks. As we reduce electricity spend and reduce what’s going in the landfill, our costs will come down and that’s obviously going to make the company more profitable. And again, we’re not just barely getting by on some of the rules and criteria that we have to hold to, but we’re hopefully now moving beyond that and just really trying to get out ahead of any of those issues. So we’re not even worried about passing an audit or getting caught not doing something. We’re way beyond those levels.

The third one is now measuring your success. Here’s where you start to review results, track the results. Even if you’re not doing anything, you’re starting to keep an eye on stuff and each time you’re reviewing the monthly metrics, you can start to ask questions about what do we think’s going to happen next month? Do you think that that level is going to be the same? Should it go up? Should it go down? And then, at the end of the month, say what happened? were we right? Were we wrong? If we’re wrong, why were we wrong? What can we learn about that metric, like electricity or solid waste?

We also want to start thinking about how do we normalize these results by usage, by volume of product or volume of services we provide, or by number of employees, or by square footage so that if things change on those bottom metrics and our usage goes up or goes down, we can normalize it to say are we really making a difference or not. If we open up a new part of the floor and bring in more employees, we don’t want that to wipe out our improvements. We need to look at overall usage, but you also want to look at normalized usage by some of those key drivers to see maybe our total usage went up, but per employee, we actually have gone down and vice versa. If, all of a sudden, numbers go down but your per employee stayed the same or when up, it may be because there was a layoff or something and now people are being less efficient and more wasteful, and so it’s a good way to track both those metrics.

The guide provides some tools for improving your landfill solid waste usage, reducing paper, improving commuting by alternate sources like biking, walking, and public transportation, reducing energy, and reducing water, so you can check those out in the guide as well.

The next one was keeping green teams and staff energized. They recommend rotating leadership around, which is something we definitely need to do to try to get fresh ideas in there, to not make it stagnant, to mix it up a little bit. Also recommended forming subcommittees. Maybe you have a couple of employees go off and they’re focused on energy, and another group’s focused on recycling and composting, and another group’s looking at water, that type of thing. Kind of like what I mentioned with the Florida facility, that we had projects going on in each of those areas, and then we had a project leader who was going through Green Belt training, and then working on their project, and then we had some people who were helping with that project.

They recommend giving recognition for team members, so when you see successes and things go well, to try to give them good recognition, something that they would appreciate. Don’t just stick with something generic or standard, but actually find something that they would enjoy and value. Another opportunity might be paid time off or they get some amount of time off for participating in the team so they’re not always just volunteering their time. Say, “For all the work you got done, we talk to your managers and they said you can take Friday afternoon off,” something like that. You can be very creative with ways to get people to recognize the effort that they’re putting in.

Also, they recommend to have peer to peer green teams where you can actually go out and talk to other companies maybe in your community or in your area and share best practices, talk about issues and frustrations you have. Maybe do tours back and forth with each other and get advice and suggestions from them, having basically that fresh set of eyes approach. There’s something called the Energy Swap which the US Department of Energy put out. There’s a couple of videos about that. They did a TV series where they had Hilton and Whole Foods switch places and go in and basically do a gemba walk or a WASTE walk at the other person’s facility to identify opportunity, so maybe that’s something you want to consider doing.

You also want to think about ways to get the staff involved, so can you participate and go to each of the different staff meetings that go on each week and give an update about the green team? are there blogs or internal sites you can use to send out information? is there a bulletin board where you can post information and flyers and updates? I actually have the luxury of two really large ones that I’ve filled up to the brim with content. It’s probably overwhelming, but there’s plenty of stuff to put up there and I try to keep it updated every month or so. It’s maybe not in the best location. It’s in one of the side exists and entrances, but at least I have something.

Maybe there’s an employee newsletter. One of the best employee newsletter ideas I’ve seen was called the Stall Street Journal or the Stall Street News. I don’t know who came up with this. I don’t know if someone in our company did or they got it somewhere else, but basically when they wanted information communicated to people in the facility, they would post it up in the stalls in the bathroom or over the urinals. You’re almost going to hit every single person at some point within a month, and there’s not much else you’re doing in the bathroom, so you’ve got a captive audience to be able to read through a couple of updates and things. So maybe if you don’t have something like that already, that might be something you want to set up. Maybe it’s the Green Street News or I’m sure someone will come up with something creative.

Also, consider an annual sustainability event like an Earth Day fair where you bring in organizations and have them there for an hour or two and have employees flow through and sometimes you get free goodies. But really, it’s there for them to learn about maybe the solar panel installers in the area or about the bus routes in the area, how to get bus tickets, how to get rebates on changing out their refrigerators or getting rebates on LED lights, things like that. I mentioned the green bags as education sessions or bring in external speakers or experts to talk about local topics or things that might be of interest to employees. You could also set up time to have a film viewing of maybe some sustainability documentaries that might be of interest to your employees.

They also threw out the green team MVP awards. Maybe every month or every quarter or once a year, you have an award given out to the person who’s the biggest advocate and doing the most amount of work to try to create some competition with other employees. Hopefully, they’ll say I want to win that award next year. And then just coming up with games or competitions or challenges where you can involve as many employees as possible. It’s nice if you can track, within detail, different areas and their usage of water or energy, but even without that, I think you can create some really good challenges around that, and that’s an area I need to start working on a little bit better.

The last part was marketing your accomplishments, so getting any successes on the company website, getting it into your annual sustainability reports, or if there’s any kind of recognition programs within your county or certifications like Energy Star or LEED certification, something where you can get an award of some sort and then publicize that. That can really kickstart some efforts. That’s an often overlooked thing is there is actually a lot of stuff going on that’s good and no one’s really capturing that or documenting what was done or calculating the savings and showing the benefits to the company, so that might be a first place to start is just capture what has been done and it’s communicate that and give people credit for it and share that with employees because a lot of them probably have no idea what’s going on.

Let me know what you think. If you have questions or thoughts or you have tips or you’re stuck somewhere, let me know. I’ll see if I can help you out. I’m not an expert by any means. I’m still learning. Especially with trying to get participation, still kind of a struggle. We’re making progress, but it’s just really a handful of people and I really want to build that up, so maybe if you have some tips for me or advice on how to do that, I’d really appreciate it.

I’d like to thank Tiff Kramer for suggesting this post on green teams. I had overlooked that, but it’s hopefully a good topic and it’s one of the early things you can do to really get some momentum going. If you don’t have one, I really encourage you to think about how to get one set up. And again, on this post, we’ll have a link to the Green Team Guide from the city of Portland. I’d encourage you to download it, read through it. It’s got a lot of great information in there, and then let me know how it goes and see if you can get something started with your teams. Good luck.

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