Ask Annie

7 steps to a greener (and smarter) workplace

December 14, 2012: 11:09 AM ET

Helping the planet can also boost the bottom line, says an executive at super-green -- and highly profitable -- Patagonia. Here's how.

A Patagonia factory

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: My company is putting the finishing touches on our plans and goals for 2013, and my boss, who runs the division where I am a brand manager, has given me a big, vague assignment: Make our business run "greener" in the year ahead. This will be on top of my regular job. I'm pretty excited about the possibilities (in fact, I sort of volunteered to do this), but I'm also not sure how to proceed.

We've already done most of the easy stuff, like switching from incandescent to LED lighting and recycling as many materials and supplies as we can. So my boss says he wants me to "take it to the next level." The thing is, previous efforts to shrink our environmental footprint have fallen by the wayside because people here seem to be all gung-ho at the beginning and then gradually lose interest. Do you or your readers have any suggestions for keeping coworkers engaged in going green? — Call Me Kermit

Dear Kermit: Interesting question, and one that Vincent Stanley has pondered for the past four decades. A vice president of outdoor-gear maker Patagonia, Stanley has been with the company since its launch in 1973. He is co-author (with founder and CEO Yvon Chouinard) of a book you might want to check out, The Responsible Company: What We've Learned from Patagonia's First 40 Years.

"Even in our company, some people are more strongly committed [to protecting the planet] than others," Stanley says. "But we've found that the most skeptical or resistant colleagues eventually get won over by seeing other people stick with it and succeed at making real change."

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Stanley suggests tackling the process in these 7 steps:

1. Don't create a bureaucracy. You have a lot on your plate but, by giving you this task on top of your regular job, your boss is following Patagonia's model (inadvertently or not). Stanley says that the greening of the company has been successful in large part because "we wanted the reduction of environmental harm to be part of everyone's job" — rather than give staffers "a reason to make environmental considerations secondary because someone else would handle them."

2. Start with your natural allies. "In any company there are always a few people who are already interested, or who are more committed than others to making change happen," notes Stanley. It sounds as if you're one of these, so maybe you know a few others. Once you enlist their help, he says, "you'll find you get more allies as you go along."

3. Quantify the benefits of going green. "It's a myth that taking better care of nature is at odds with business excellence, but what if your peers, or higher-ups, believe that? Concentrate first on taking steps that clearly save money," Stanley suggests.

Since you mention that you've already done some of this, what your boss calls "taking it to the next level" probably means moving on to "a second tier of action that takes a bit of investment to pay off long-term, like installing low-flow plumbing fixtures and solar panels, for example," Stanley says. "LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certification for 'green' buildings has proven conclusively that the investments a company makes in these things does pay off." The nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council has information you can use to build your case, including data on lower operating costs, higher asset values, and eligibility for tax rebates and other financial incentives in hundreds of U.S. cities.

4. Invite coworkers to brainstorm. "Organize a get-together with people from all levels of the company and ask them to talk about what environmental impact your company, or your division, has now," Stanley says. "What's the best thing you're doing for the environment now? What's the worst? In this era of social media, what's the biggest environment-related risk to your reputation? What do you do that you would not want to be known for?" The ideas you gather will give you a starting point for the next step.

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5. Figure out a list of priorities. To get people on board and keep them interested, a few early wins are crucial, so begin with changes that will be relatively easy to make quickly. "Decide what you'll do first, how much time and money you'll spend on it, and who will be involved," Stanley says. "Define what initial success will look like. Then write that down on one page you can circulate among your team." For each subsequent task, set clear goals and time frames.

6. Share what you learn. "If you set up a place to talk about challenges met and solved — especially if you're honest about mistakes and setbacks — it becomes a story people follow," Stanley says. "And if you put something in writing on a blog or a website, it becomes much less abstract and removed. It builds a snowball of support."

At Patagonia, Stanley launched the Footprint Chronicles to track the environmental impact of the company's products and operations, and to report on improvements as they were made. "It started out as something we were doing for our customers," he says. "But it turned out to be popular with employees, and even with suppliers, who started jockeying to be mentioned in it."

7. Keep going. One side benefit of reporting on how your green efforts are going, Stanley notes, is that "talking about the details makes clear that this isn't usually a quick or simple process." But if you stick with it, he adds, "the company will get smarter." In trying to meet environmental targets, "your people will have to pay attention to all the business fundamentals, and this will result in a less wasteful organization. You'll start to spot money leaks you could not see before."

The Responsible Company includes five checklists of exactly where your company might be leaking money right now. The lists, which could spark some useful ideas about where to start your green campaign, are also available on Patagonia's web site. Good luck!

Talkback: Has your company tried to reduce its impact on the planet? What helps get employees engaged in the effort, and what doesn't work so well? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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