The Four ‘Natural Laws’ of Creating Sustainability Ambassadors

Culture change toward sustainability, safety or even quality isn’t quick or easy. Yet, environment, health and safety managers are often expected to lead these cultural transformations with minimal staff and resources. Leveraging Employee Ambassadors can build a community of excellence within a company’s workforce. But where do you start and how do you grow the movement?

The Starting Point

In the book, “The Tipping Point”, Malcolm Gladwell laid out the case that any social movement could be “tipped” toward adoption if you could reach out to the right people, with the right message, for the right reasons.

  1. The right people:  We all have ‘go-to’ people on our work teams. Some of them are ‘connectors’: individuals who are formally and informally well-connected in and outside the organization. Some are ‘information brokers’: employees who pay attention to the details and are keen to share their knowledge. And some are ‘persuaders’: charismatic individuals with powerful negotiation skills. Engage these people first in your sustainability or safety culture movement as they are an essential leverage point.
  2. The right message:  The right message is one that resonates with us. How it resonates depends on the way we see the world.  Studies show that individuals who value discipline and authority, tend to respond to a call-to-duty message, which asks them to do the ‘right’ thing for their families, children and social group. Individuals who value freedom and individualism tend to respond to a call-to-action message that focuses on their personal goals and aspirations. Individuals who value equality, and service to others, respond to a call-to-imagine message asking them to help create a better world. And individuals who value interconnectedness and understand how systems relate to one another, respond to a call-to-service message asking them to help restore vitality and balance to the world.
  3. The right reasons:  People buy into why we do things not what we do, according to Simon Sinek, the author of “Start with Why”. Therefore, situating your sustainability or safety movement in the context of what is important, helps people to understand why you are embracing these programs at this time. Maybe it’s because your competitors have better quality products and you want to maintain job security within your company. Or maybe it’s because the lack of a safety culture is causing injury or death among coworkers. Glue your reasons to the context and people will be more likely to buy in.

Growing the Movement

Once you have your Ambassadors on your side, you are not done yet. Roughly, 15 percent of your staff needs to adopt your program before everyone starts to opt in. This is where the Four Natural Laws come in. These Natural Laws can create the momentum to reach the tipping point to shift the system.

  • Law #1: Have a holistic plan and put “why” at the center.  As I mentioned above, people buy why you do things not what you do. And the ‘why’ needs to be at the center of your plan. Ingersoll Rand’s  ‘One STEP Forward’ program, for example, is a key component of the company’s sustainability engagement strategy. STEP stands for: Sustainable: contributes to a better world; Transformative: supports you in living your values; Encourages others: inspires your colleagues, friends and family; Personal: connects to something that is meaningful to you.
  • Law #2: The plan should inspire the thinking, feeling, willing, social side of associates.  One size does not fit all.  As I noted earlier, different things resonate with different people. That is why FUJIFILM ensures its safety program offers multiple ways for associates to be involved.
  • Law #3: People join because they crave ‘belongingness’ and want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Consider the wisdom of the crowd, which says:  “If everybody else is doing it, I should too.” So it is important to create intentional awareness around your program. The more people see others doing it, the more they will likely opt in. This is why Ingersoll Rand uses awareness-raising activities like a resource library, sustainability success stories, lunch & learns, a sustainability tips calendar, sustainability quizzes, employee recognition and engagement surveys.
  • Law #4: Structures and rules can be barriers or enablers for sustainability ambassadors. Align yours to enable.  Individual sustainability ambassadors can coalesce into groups of sustainability ambassadors with groups of supporters to those ambassadors. However, this can only happen if the systems in place support and are not barriers to employee involvement.  Leadership, decision, communication, recruitment, measurement and reward systems and organizational structures can put up barriers or pave the way to the adoption of your systems. This is why reinforcing systems such as: safety committees; see-think-plan-do processes; safety organizational structures; daily, monthly, annual and random audits; task assessment reports; quarterly meetings with senior management on safety; and personal pledges all reinforce adoption of the new safety culture at FUJIFILM.

The bottom line is that like the diffusion of a drop of dye into a glass of water, there are natural laws about the way that sustainability and safety movements grow. If we start in the right place and consider these natural laws, over time, we can tip the system toward our new sustainability or safety culture.


To learn more about how to use sustainability ambassadors to create an engaged culture, join me for the 2013 EHS Management Forum on Oct.23-25 in Montreal.  

About Kathryn Cooper

Kathryn Cooper is President of the Sustainability Learning Centre, a learning and networking hub for sustainability. You can learn more at

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