Getting buy-in to environmental changes within organisations can be challenging for SHE professionals. Even though most employees support environmental measures, their behaviour can sometimes contradict this. How then can we improve the engagement with employees on environmental matters and better influence their decision-making? James Pomeroy suggests that the way we communicate, engage and influence decision-making is key to getting employees involved in environmental change and making more sustainable choices. 

The engagement issue

Employee involvement is key to making sustained improvement in your environmental performance. The decisions they take, the ideas they share and the energy that they bring are the key ingredients to an effective and impactful corporate environmental programme. Individual actions also have a role to play at a national level. In January we learnt that the adoption of energy efficiency in UK homes has contributed to cutting energy demand by 103 TWh.[1] But getting employees to adopt environmental behaviours and habits is not easy and here are some reasons why it can be challenging.

Firstly, many of us struggle to make the connection between our actions and their global environmental impact. The scale of the global environmental issues we face can be daunting and leaves many people with a sense of helplessness: What real difference will my individual actions make? We are also not rational and our choices and actions often don’t follow our stated intentions. Although most people support environmental causes, individual decision-making often contradicts our intentions. Many environmental choices are also habitual and once a pattern of behaviour has formed, it’s difficult to break, especially if the negative repercussions are not experienced immediately. Although this contradiction is deep in our make-up, there are things that SHE managers can do to influence employee’s decision-making and develop eco-habits.

Finally, we need to think about how we communicate environmental challenges. While we have become accustomed to framing safety messages in a personal, positive and even light-hearted way, much environmental messaging focuses on the negative and has an instructional tone of voice.

Focus areas

The first place to start is to identify what actions and behaviours of your employees that have an environmental impact which you want to change. While this may appear obvious, employees often receive a vast amount of communications within organisations and so we need to carefully select the environmental actions and behaviours that we want to focus on. The adage of less is more applies here. It’s best to focus on the things that have the greatest environmental impact. Many environmental impacts within organisations can only be significantly influenced by design, procurement or process change, so it’s important to select environmental issues that employees can influence. At Lloyd’s Register (‘LR’), we identified four themes of our environmental behaviour that we wanted to change:

1.     Waste generation and recycling

2.     Energy use and decarbonisation

3.     Transportation: Low carbon transport

4.     Water conservation

For each theme, we identified a series of behaviours and actions where employees could make a difference. These included some simple eco-behaviours, such as reducing water use and avoiding printing. While these are important, the environmental impact of these actions is diminished compared to an employee’s commuting choices or business travel. We therefore also decided to focus on some more challenging but significant environmental challenges such as travel and reducing single-use plastics. Each theme defined a set of simple, everyday actions to reduce environmental impacts​ and make a difference.

Making it relevant and fun

When planning a campaign on behavioural change it is important to consider some of the unique challenges about environmental matters and why previous attempts have failed. Unlike many safety issues which often have a personal and immediate impact upon the individual, global environmental challenges are complex, daunting and involve long-time impacts that may not appear to affect individuals personally e.g. rising sea levels, species extinction or deforestation. Many employees struggle to relate to these topics and don’t recognise how their actions and behaviours could make a difference.

It’s also important to think about the tone of voice and how we present a message that will gain the necessary interest, engagement and action. This is important because many environmental messages are framed in the negative. When a message is overly-pessimistic or has a preachy tone, it further disengages employees that are not naturally drawn to environmental affairs. It’s important therefore, to make environmental messages engaging, fun and wherever possible light-hearted.

To make our campaign inclusive and light, LR’s environmental campaign was entitled ‘Green Shares’. To make it recognisable, we commissioned a marketing agency to create a campaign with a cohesive identity, brand and theme, including a mascot. Four episodes were created, each targeted to address the environmental behaviours we wanted to influence.

The content of the campaign included animations, posters and screensavers. Each of the four episodes included a set of memorable and simple environmental actions and behaviours.

When developing the content, we focused hard on the audience: What did we want them to do differently and how could we communicate this simply? When we communicate EHS messages, as professionals we often say too much and over-complicate the message. It’s helpful therefore to remember the infamous Magic Number 7, the work of psychologist George Miller. The so-called Miller’s Law reminds us of the limitations of our working memory and most of us can only remember 7 ± 2 things. Therefore, we need to keep messages short, concise and focus seven things. Here, for example, are the four behaviours that make-up our ‘Save Energy’ episode:

Turning information to action

Our environmental behaviours and actions apply to work and our general life. This is important because if we want to deliver sustainable change, we will need to adopt another element of the safety culture approach by changing the behaviours in and out of work.

Once the actions and behaviours have been developed and communicated, it is then necessary to consider how to help employees make the right choices. This is particularly important because there is an inherent contradiction with our environmental statements and actions. Even though over 90% of us say the environment is important to us [2], studies show we are still failing to make even small changes in our behaviour that will reduce our impact. Behavioural psychologists call this the intention-behaviour gap – the difference between intention to change our behaviour and our actual actions. Many great environmental campaigns fail to have any meaningful impact because inadequate attention has been given to understanding how we make our everyday choices. When considering why individuals are failing to take-up our messages, EHS practitioners would be wise to look to the world of behavioural science and the concepts of Nudge theory developed by the Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler. [3]

Before exploring how EHS practitioners could apply Nudge theory, it’s worth considering some important principles that underlie it. Firstly, humans are complex, irrational and our behaviour often contradicts our commitments – what we do often differs from what we say we’re going to do. We also like a sense of control, even though most of the time our behaviours are driven by sub-conscious and thus we’re not really in control at all! Many of us also fool ourselves into believing that we think and act independently, yet our behaviours are heavily influenced by those around us. This is called the herding effect. Finally, we need to recognise that most of our decision-making is sub-conscious and that how we think and feel about options is highly dependent upon how information is presented to us. In summary, while our behaviour is irrational, it is predictable, and if we want employees to make environmental choices, we need to consider these factors.

Nudge theory helps address these contradictions and encourages us to make more sustainable choices. It involves a subtle way of influencing behaviour without restricting options, offering incentives or imposing punishments. It’s a form of behavioural science that involves campaigns that target our will to follow the herd or making subtle changes to influence our decision-making.

Green Nudges: Gentle Nudge in the Green Direction

Green Nudges use the Nudge concept to shape our behaviour towards more sustainable decision-making. Many of us may have unconsciously experienced Green Nudges as while they are not necessarily new, they are being more widely adopted now. They entail a variety of techniques and have been shown to support wider environmental change programmes. [4] There are five principles that underlie Green Nudges:

  1. Opt-in as the default
  2. Make the green way, the easy way
  3. Design will influence choice
  4. ‘Framing’ supports better choices
  5. Feedback systems reinforce eco-behaviours

The first type of nudge is called the Green default and involves making the greener option the default choice i.e. opting-in. We are prone to stick with the status quo and for most us, change is difficult. Economists refer to it as the status quo bias. With green nudges, the Green choice is the default. Examples from business include energy suppliers defaulting customers onto to renewable energy tariff or opting-in customers for electronic billing rather than printed copies. Within the workplace, opting-in could also be used for always purchase carbon offsets when booking corporate travel or setting-up office printers to the eco-print default.

Green design is the second Green Nudge and involves the use of subtle changes to the physical environment to influence behaviour. The changes are made to the ‘choice architecture’, using subtle nudges that influence individual’s decisions at high speed. Because much of our everyday decision-making is spontaneous and habitual, small differences in the environment can have a significant impact on our behaviour. For example, within a canteen, simply removing unhealthy foods from eye-level and bringing forward more sustainable options has been shown to improve their take-up. Similarly, reducing the plate size at buffets considerably reduces food waste. Colour symbols have also been used, such as placing green footsteps on the floor that direct people to the recycling bins have been shown to significantly improve the rates of recycling. Conversely, a series of bright red footsteps placed in a lobby area that point people to the stairs has been shown to increase the number of people opting to walk the stairwell. The key thing with green design is that none of these triggers remove the choice; and this is important because we feel a loss of control when choice is removed. The removal of choice is an issue for environmentalists because it can often result in a backlash against the behaviour that we’re promoting.

Ranking of information is another form of nudging and involves framing information so that individuals are aware of the relative ranking of the product. The most obvious example is the EU’s energy efficiency labelling scheme. Any labelling must however, be clear and simple to understand. For example, the difference between an A+ and an A+++ rated appliance can be difficult for consumers to understand. Within a workplace, the use of simple nutritional and environmental labelling schemes for food would subtly influence consumer’s choices.

Feedback systems, the so-called Green Loop, provides information to consumers that influences their behaviour. The most common example of these are smart meters that provide real-time information on energy consumption. There are other, more subtle ways to use feedback systems to influence employee’s choices and decision-making. For example, an energy company sent bills which compared each customer’s usage with their neighbours’. The bills contained messages such as “Last month you used 15% less electricity than your efficient neighbours”. This programme led to a 9% drop in energy usage. Within the workplace, similar techniques are used to notify office users who left their office equipment on. The tone of voice and inclusiveness of the message is, of course, key. These nudges work because our behaviour is herd-like and driven by a desire to imitate our peers and morally fit it.


Making sustained change in individual behaviours and actions requires a well-designed and executed communications campaign. The messages must be concise, engaging and simple to action. It is also important to consider the barriers that users may experience in opting for the environmental choices and decisions. The use of Nudge theory can help us identify and address such barriers so the environmental change programmes have the desired impact.

Written by James Pomeroy for The SHE Show North East, 5th March 2019, Newcastle United Football Club.

Please note, the views expressed by the original article author are theirs alone and do not necessarily represent those of Washingtondowling Associates Ltd or The SHE Show and therefore we take no responsibility for the content or accuracy of this post.  



[3] . Learn about Nudge theory here: Nudge

[4] Schubert, C., Green nudges: Do they work? Are they ethical? Ecological Economics, 2017, vol. 132, issue C