Omaha, Nebraska

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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


 

Over 1,700 sustainability coordinators, faculty, students, and staff descended into Nashville, TN this week for Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s (AASHE) 8th Annual Conference & Expo. This year the theme was Resiliency and Adaptation, taking a hard look at how we can be resilient in the face of climate change and how we can adapt to the changes that are already being observed across the country, from increased numbers of severe weather events to animals moving their habitats north. There are even impacts that include where I live in the Midwest.

If attendance is an indicator of the importance of a topic, then behavior change is definitely one of the more important conversations that happened this week as adaptation and resiliency were discussed in depth. The sessions where employee and student engagement were connected with behavior change were overflowing with attendees. In the past there has been a big emphasis on technological and an organization’s structural solutions, but now more than ever the sustainability profession is talking about the importance of each individual’s choices – that is, their behavior. There are currently gaps in the industry around how to effectively create a culture of sustainability among an organization’s faculty, students, and staff. People are hungry for this information.

There are many questions, studies, and pilots of new products and programs. By trying new programs with proper monitoring and evaluation, people are beginning to get a better understanding of how best to engage in the creation of sustainable culture. Colleges across the country such as the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Minnesota, and American University in D.C. are engaging students in a variety of ways.

One great example of innovation occurring in creating a culture of sustainability comes from the University of Minnesota. They developed five key green measures that help organizations inventory existing sustainability behaviors and identify motivations and barriers to sustainable behaviors. After an initial assessment, the GreenFive are used to help identify the best combination of programs and outreach that will help foster a culture of sustainability.

One of the questions I asked over and over of the speakers and product developers was “How long is this behavior sustained after the program is over, or after participants sign on once to create an account?” At this time, no one could say for certain. However, in programs that ask participants to track individual behaviors such as recycling a can or making a trip by bike instead of car, speakers were sharing that it is relatively easy to get people to sign up initially, but to get them to sign back on more than once to continue to track behaviors was a challenge.

Since we work with organizations specifically on behavior change, we were honored to have been selected to co-present with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) on their very successful Live Green Pledge program. The room was packed with 75 attendees eager to hear how the UNMC pledge program was helping people “Make it Stick”–to actually change their habits for the long term. The way this pledge program is structured is not just as a tool that gets people to change one behavior once, but as a tool that helps foster long-term sustained positive behavior change.

Over 1,700 total students, faculty and staff have participated in UNMC’s Live Green Pledge. This is a simple to deploy, yet sophisticatedly designed tool using the best environmental behavior-change psychology to help increase the success rate of participants. Our research has shown that between 70%-85% of pledge participants are still engaging in the positive behavior one full year after they took the pledge. No one else at the conference had evidence of sustained behavior change a year after participating in a green competition or other pledge program.

Fortunately so many bright people from across the country are working to find the best ways to foster sustainable and thriving organizations through culture and behavior programs. As Verdis continues to use our pledge, we will continuously improve it as new research comes out about behavior change programs

The AASHE Conference and Expo provides a great forum every year to advance best practices, research, and ideas that are helping create a brighter future for everyone.

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It is summer in Omaha, which means it’s also commuter challenge season. This year we have the opportunity to participate in two challenges: First is Activate Omaha’s well-established and highly popular Bicycle Commuter Challenge, which runs for five months and is singularly focused on biking. New to the fray is Metro and MAPA’s Metro Commuter Challenge, which asks participants to carpool or take the bus from July 9–August 3.

I have mixed feelings about participating in these challenges.

On the one hand, it draws great attention to a few excellent and sustainable means by which to commute. In Omaha, approximately 96% of commuters move about alone in their traditionally-fueled vehicle. That’s preposterously high and clearly shows why the quality of our air is declining*. These programs also get people thinking about their commute and how they might pursue a more sustainable, healthier and less expensive alternative to their normal, lonely drive.

On the other hand, as someone who often commutes by bus and bike, I almost feel like I’m being punished by having to log every trip. Maybe we should consider asking the other 96% to log how many miles they travel, how much they’re spending on gas, and what their emissions are. As someone who used to almost exclusively commute alone in my car, I can reasonably assume that most people don’t track the financial or environmental impact of their commute. Doing so might open a few eyes.

The timing of the Metro Commuter Challenge is interesting in light of the Brookings Institute report that was released yesterday, which found that 76.2% of jobs in Omaha are accessible by public transportation, but only 28.5% of metro-area workers can get there in 90 minutes or less. Yes, you read that right: 90 minutes. How long is your commute? And we wonder why more people aren’t using public transportation in Omaha.

Metro's system provides access to 76% of Omaha businesses

To Metro‘s credit, they’re doing a great job with the ridiculously low budget they have. And the access figures referenced above are right on par with what Brookings found when studying the service provided by 371 transit authorities nationally. That doesn’t make it right, it just makes it normal.

The Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (yes, two separate entities…the hospital and the university) are particularly interested in seeing Omaha’s alternative transportation landscape improve. They’re expecting a major pinch on their parking infrastructure in the next five years, and we’re excited to be helping them think about how they can minimize that pressure without immediately defaulting to building new surface lots or structured parking. Both are helping fund and participating in the Midtown Transit Alternatives Analysis, further evidence of their commitment to improved transit in the area.

When all is said and done, I’m happy to participate in both of these challenges, and I truly hope that it’s one small way that we can continue to improve the alternative transportation landscape in Omaha. But if that #11 bus doesn’t show up once more, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Onward and upward.

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*Special note: The June 8, 2012 Omaha World Herald article regarding Omaha’s air quality included this list of “Things you can do to lessen ozone:”

gas up your car and mow your lawn after 7 p.m.; stop filling your vehicle when the nozzle first clicks off; and avoid using gasoline-powered small engines. In other words, sweep your driveway and rake your leaves rather than use 
a leaf blower.

Seriously!?! No mention of getting out of your car and walking, biking, bussing, carpooling, working from home or otherwise limiting single-occupancy vehicle trips. While I’m pleased the Herald covered the story, it’s ridiculous that the reporter didn’t offer better options for Omahans to make a difference.

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I’m spending some time decompressing from CleanMed 2012 earlier this week; reflecting on what I learned, who I met, what I saw and how it changed me. From what I could tell, the conference was yet another rousing success. Attendance was high and everyone there was extremely engaged, passionate and knowledgeable. That’s great news for an industry that has such a big impact on the environment.

I was still suffering from a 2011 Aspen Environment Forum hangover, which distorted my view a bit. I found myself constantly comparing CleanMed to the Aspen Environment Forum, which is completely unfair and misguided.  They are two totally different animals geared towards achieving very different objectives.

At the Aspen Environment Form, nearly every session and subsequent conversation was really high-level, which is to say the focus was more about theories and ideas and less about strategies and actions. That’s not to say there weren’t tangible takeaways from Aspen. There were, but I found myself thinking about ideas that were pretty tough to wrap your head around: how can and will the earth’s population growth impact our lives, or why Gross Domestic Product is a bad measure of how our economy grows and what a new, better metric should include. It was big, heady stuff, and in most cases I couldn’t necessarily put much to use right away. I loved it nevertheless and hope to get back there soon…it’s Aspen, after all!

CleanMed = Implementation + Networking

CleanMed, on the other hand, seemed to focus on two things: implementation and networking. Sessions (at least those that I attended) zeroed in on what healthcare facilities should be doing and how they should be doing it. Topics ran the gamut and included such concepts as greening the operating room, reducing water consumption, composting, safer chemicals, energy conservation, employee engagement, etc. etc. A lot was covered, and it was the brass tacks of greening a hospital. I found myself taking copious notes on many tried and true strategies for success. It was, in most cases, really rich content that is immediately applicable in our work.

The other focus was networking. During the two and a half days, over nine hours wasn’t “programmed”. Such an approach allowed attendees to dive a bit deeper in their conversations. We were able to share stories about what was working, what wasn’t, and generally kick around ideas about how to be more effective in our work. Every time I spoke with another someone, the conversation was always meaningful and illuminating. Time after time, I was impressed with everyone I talked with, regardless of where they were from or what their job title was.

Major Takeaway #1: Mission Alignment

One theme came up time and time again: sustainability initiatives align with their nearly every organization’s mission to improve health. Many unintended consequences of running a healthcare facility negatively effect human health. To name just a few (and there are many): air pollution, food insecurity, aggravated pre-existing conditions, increases in infectious diseases, obesity, and death. Yes, even death. There are clear connections to all of them, and it was refreshing to hear so many healthcare professionals not only acknowledging those connections, but also strategizing about how to lessen their negative impacts. One shining example was Jeffrey Thompson, CEO of Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I was thoroughly impressed with his vision and tenacity for greening their hospital.

Major Takeaway #2: Energy is King

The sessions that drew the most attention were typically focused in some way on reducing energy consumption. This is no surprise given the industry’s operational requirements (you can’t exactly send everyone home at 5pm and shut everything down). Hospitals have more than 2.5 times the energy intensity and carbon dioxide emissions of commercial office buildings, and the EPA estimates that a $1 savings in a hospital’s annual energy costs equates to an increase of $20 in annual revenue, based on a 5 percent net operating margin. Not a bad exchange rate.

Further underscoring the importance of energy efficiency, energy costs are going nowhere but up, which presents a significant risk to a hospital’s bottom-line. And oh, by the way, the majority of the energy being purchased is emitting some pretty unhealthy stuff, which is contrary to the mission of these facilities (see takeaway #1). The good news is that there are so many opportunities to conserve energy, and many of them require no investment whatsoever.

Major Takeaway #3: From Greenhorn to Green Expert

The differences between where hospitals are in their sustainability journey is pretty stark. I met several people who were just getting their initiatives off the ground while others had been taking strides for several years. The greenhorns were busy developing strategic plans and picking low-hanging fruit while the green experts were contemplating the installation of a co-generation plant onsite. Despite the varied levels of experience, everyone felt there was more to do in their institution.

Finally…

When it was all said and done, I was really glad that I went. I have fifteen pages of notes that either reinforce what we’re already doing or are full of new ideas, new strategies and new approaches to greening the industry. I’m really excited to sit down with our friends at The Nebraska Medical Center (and anyone else in the industry that’s interested) to talk about where they want to go next.

The healthcare industry is in flux right now (for a variety of reasons). As it evolves into its new state of being, it’s clear that many in the industry are looking at sustainability as a means by which to achieve their organizational objectives. The connections are clear, the mission-imperative is there, and the business case is rock solid. Which makes me wonder, if you’re a leader and decision-maker in the healthcare industry and you’re not seriously contemplating how to take advantage of the opportunity, what are you waiting for?

 

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How do you get people to change their behavior so they act in a more environmentally-friendly way? This is a question that we frequently get asked by our clients who are attempting to shift their organizational culture and motivate employees to reduce the amount of energy and resources they use. As with anything behavior related, there is no simple explanation or answer. Behavior is complex and so is changing it. However, one thing is clear based on research in this field—in order to change and sustain behavior, it’s important to move beyond traditional approaches that strictly focus on boosting awareness and fostering a positive attitude about the behavior.

AWARENESS + POSITIVE ATTIDUE ≠ BEHAVIOR CHANGE

It is a common misperception that simply informing people about why a specific pro-environmental behavior is important and fostering a positive attitude about the action will directly lead to engaging in and sustaining the behavior. Research has repeatedly shown that general awareness/knowledge and positive attitudes do not highly correlate with environmental behavior change. For example, employees frequently report that they feel it is important to conserve paper (i.e., have a positive attitude). They also claim that they are aware of the positive benefits of double-sided printing and that it’s an option at their workplace (i.e., are generally aware and knowledgeable). Yet, they still do not duplex print at work. But why is this?

As with any behavioral explanation, it depends on the situation and could entail a myriad of reasons. Assuming double-sided printing is available on all machines, it may be that people don’t know how to actually select duplex, and they want to avoid looking foolish or incompetent if they try and fail. People may also think that no one else in their department is duplexing so why should they do it, or they may perceive that their efforts really don’t make a difference given the total amount of paper used by the organization.

Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons, the aforementioned example demonstrates how many people often fail to adopt a pro-environmental behavior even if they see it is as important and are keenly aware of the benefits. This is not to say that generally educating people and trying to instill positive attitudes about environmentally-friendly behaviors are unimportant—these elements are definitely valuable. However, in conjunction with disseminating benefits information and promoting awareness about the behavior, it is critical to also include details and tactics that address human nature, social influence, and any perceived barriers connected to the targeted action.

TIPS FOR INCREASING THE LIKELIHOOD OF BEHAVIOR CHANGE

There are multiple strategies that can be employed and details to consider when trying to promote and sustain behavior change. Having said this, I’d love to talk about them all (yes, I am a behavior nerd). However, for the sake of this blog post, I will only highlight a few (five to be exact) that research has shown to be particularly effective and that take into consideration human nature and perception, as well as social influence.

1. Provide Clear Procedural Instructions: Lack of “how-to” knowledge tends to be one of the most significant barriers for people who are generally willing to engage in a specific pro-environmental activity. Regardless of how motivated people are to perform a given behavior, they typically will refrain from trying it out if the process to complete the action is not clear. In light of this, it’s important to always provide clear procedural steps about how to complete the behavior even if the action appears to be relatively simple.  For example, with the double-sided printing situation discussed earlier, it would be beneficial to post step-by-step instructions on how to select duplex copying near all of the applicable copiers.

2. Model the Behavior: In addition to providing static “how-to” instructions, it can also be beneficial to have someone demonstrate the actual behavior. People are typically more willing to try something when they observe someone else do it first and can subsequently test out the behavior at their own pace and in a “safe” environment where they won’t feel publicly embarrassed if they fumble in their attempts. Video recording someone going through the steps of completing the behavior and making the file accessible online for people to independently view at their leisure is often an effective approach. Referencing the duplex example again, an IT person could video record someone going through the on-screen motions of selecting double-sided printing on their computer. Following promotional efforts that note the availability of the video online, an employee could then access and view the video via his or her own work computer, rewinding as necessary to catch each step.

3. Communicate the Norm: Even though individuals are generally unaware of it, they are strongly influenced by what the majority of people around them are doing or what is perceived to be common behavior. Considering this, if a survey or structured observation indicates that a targeted behavior is generally supported or exhibited by a majority of people in an organization, it is highly beneficial to incorporate this fact into all educational efforts. Communicating this “norm” will strongly influence people who are not engaging in the behavior; the more these individuals perceive themselves as not being a part of the majority, the greater the probability that they will adopt the behavior. Granted, there is a caveat with this behavioral tip. If less than half of the group supports or demonstrates the target behavior, do not advertise this since it will often have a counterproductive effect. This strategy is more about capturing the remaining few that are still not engaging in a targeted behavior versus trying to promote a behavior that is only exhibited by a small minority.

We recently worked with The Nebraska Medical Center (TNMC) to incorporate this strategy into the organization’s Lights Off campaign, which was focused on motivating people to shut off the lights when leaving unoccupied rooms and workspaces. Based on an initial survey of the organization, we found that an overwhelming majority of employee respondents agreed that it was important to save energy at work by shutting off the lights. This “normative fact” was then incorporated into TNMC’s promotional efforts. Mixed with other strategies, such as placing reminder stickers above light switch plates, this approach of communicating the norm helped significantly increase the percentage of employees who regularly shut off the lights.

4. Leverage the Consistency Principle: Generally speaking, people like to act in a consistent manner. Keeping this in mind, it can be very beneficial to ask people to sign some type of informal pledge form indicating that they will engage in the targeted behavior. By signing a pledge and demonstrating an initial level of commitment, there is a good chance people will actually follow through with the behavior due to a general tendency to be consistent with what they have previously promised to do. To further increase accountability and the likelihood of follow through, it’s also advantageous to publicize the names of pledgees in some fashion (assuming you receive their permission). Periodically thanking them for agreeing to engage in the behavior can also help serve as reminder of their commitment, increasing the likelihood that they will follow through and continue engaging in the behavior.

We leverage this consistency principle by creating an online pledge tool for our clients. This tool allows people to select and commit to a few simple pro-environmental behaviors. The name of each pledgee is then placed on a digital wall of honor and grouped with other departmental colleagues who completed the pledge. Automated emails are also periodically sent out to pledgees thanking them for their participation and tactfully reminding them of their commitment to engage in their selected behaviors. An example of this online pledge tool and the wall of honor can be viewed on the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s green team website, entitled UNMC LiveGreen.

5. Provide Feedback: People inherently like to know how well they are doing at something and feel successful. Consequently, providing consistent feedback about progress and advertising the collective impact of people’s efforts can be incredibly beneficial in motivating and sustaining behavior change. In fact, providing individual and/or group feedback is often more effective at sustaining pro-environmental behavior change than providing incentives—a topic I plan to discuss in more depth in my next blog post (in a nutshell, incentives can be great at inciting behavior change, but they often stink at maintaining it).

To view an example of a feedback mechanism that we use with our clients, check out the Omaha Public Schools’ (OPS) tracker tool on the OPS Green Schools Initiative website.  This feedback tool helps OPS visually demonstrate the district’s progress toward its sustainability goals, such as increasing the district-wide ENERGY STAR rating and reducing the total amount of waste produced. Feedback is also provided at the individual school level via quarterly snapshot sheets that are provided to each school, highlighting the progress they’ve each made toward OPS’ overall sustainability goals. As a result of integrating school-specific and district-wide feedback mechanisms with other behavioral strategies, OPS has been able to significantly reduce the amount of energy and resources that the district consumes.

HARNESSING BEHAVIORAL INERTIA & MIXING STRATEGIES

As noted previously, changing behavior is hard. Sometimes really hard. However, this can be viewed as a positive (I realize you may think I’m crazy at this point). If we can get people to change, they will often maintain that change simply due to behavioral inertia—their innate tendency to keep on acting in the same way. In essence, once they make the change, their natural inclination to remain consistent can set in. To promote this initial change and set the stage for maintaining the behavior (i.e., behavioral inertia), it is important to keep in mind that basic information and awareness campaigns are often insufficient at provoking and sustaining behavior change. People typically will not change simply because they are aware of the benefits of the behavior and generally have a positive attitude about it.  In light of this, promotional and educational efforts should incorporate research-supported strategies that take into account social influence and human nature and perception. However, even with some of the more effective strategies that I’ve mentioned, incorporating just one additional strategy is often not enough. Integrating several of these strategies tends to produce the best results and increase the likelihood that people will not only make the change, but also sustain it—the true goal of any campaign focused on promoting environmentally-friendly behaviors.

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I’m a huge fan of UNMC’s Science Cafe, and it’s not just because we’re working with UNMC or dig hanging out at the Slowdown. Science Cafes present a great venue for some legitimate and thought-provoking discussion that is 100% based on science. While past topics have piqued our interest, tonight’s topic was what we really love to dream about: “What Climate Science is Telling Us”.

And lo and behold, our good friend, Dr. Andrew Jameton was the featured lecturer. Among many other endeavors, Dr. Jameton is one of the founding members and current board president at City Sprouts, the oldest community garden in Omaha and an organization we’ve supported in the past.

Although Andy led with a disclaimer that he isn’t a scientist (he’s a philosopher), he did  a great job explaining the science of climate change with a variety of charts and graphs. Educating the public on climate science is not easy, but Dr. Jameton’s unassuming and non-combative approach proved the perfect touch for the warm crowd that had gathered. He only vaguely touched on the moral and ethical elements of the anthropological causes though. I left feeling like there was a deeper conversation that was warranted, but it’s a conversation that’s best in a group of a few rather than a few dozen.

All in all, the lecture was both informative and thought-provoking, and I’m really tempted to sign up for the course Dr. Jameton co-teaches: Climate Change, Sustainability and Public Health. And I could help but daydream just a bit about the cheers of the holiday season…the similarities between the good Dr. Jameton and jolly ol’ St. Nick are nothing short of striking.

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