How to Build a Green Culture

Insiders — and not just those at the top of the organization — can instigate cultural changes without disrupting the current corporate culture.
Jennifer G. Irwin September 26, 2017

Harness change agents on the road to sustainability.

How can your organization develop a greener or more socially conscious culture without tearing apart the existing culture?

Past research suggests a major jolt or top-down initiative is required for significant culture change, invoking the “unlearning” of existing cultural norms. More recent research suggests that insiders — and not just those at the top of the organization — can instigate cultural changes without disrupting the current culture. These insiders instead introduce new cultural tools and ideas, adding them to the current culture of the organization by working carefully to create opportunities for learning and experimentation.

Researchers Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Jennifer Irwin (both of University of Oregon's Lundquist College of Business), Karen Golden-Biddle, and Jina Mao (both of Boston University) explored three organizations that were able to build sustainability into their existing cultures by creating “liminal spaces” — places or events within the organization, but outside of the daily pattern of work.

Harnessing the Power of Change Agents

Change agents used these liminal spaces to allow other employees to experiment with new ideas, such as sustainability. Employees then transferred these new ideas and tools into their daily work, which helped the ideas to spread throughout their work groups and eventually the organization.

For example, one organization brought together a group of designers to brainstorm about how they could make their products green from start to finish. Designers were encouraged to come up with outrageous ideas – and several of the ideas were implemented. The success of these new, green products spread the idea of sustainability as innovation, rather than sustainability as regulatory hazard.
This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews with change instigators at three very different organizations, as well as other employees who experienced these sometimes subtle change efforts. From the interviews, the authors developed a model of how cultural change can be initiated by organizational insiders.

Making the Green Shift

The researchers identified a number of factors important for culture change towards a more sustainable, CSR-driven culture to be successful: Managers trying to shift their company’s culture towards sustainability and greater social responsibility should:

Change is Good

Striving for better corporate citizenship and more sustainable practices doesn't mean uprooting a firm's existing cultural infrastructure. Every-day situations and ad-hoc moments are opportunities for growth and change; these aspects can be layered onto existing corporate values to produce a forward-thinking approach to sustainability and CSR.
Howard-Grenville, J., Golden-Biddle, K., Irwin, J., and Mao, J. 2011. "Liminality as cultural process for cultural change."Organization Science. 22.2: 522-539.  

Additional Resources

Reports and Articles

NBS's Embedding Sustainability Working Group reveals four key lessons on how to successfully embed sustainability into your organizational culture.

Maya Fischhoff
Topic Blog

Does embedding sustainability shape corporate culture, and if so, how can we make sure the impacts are positive? A call to practitioners.

Stephanie Bertels
Reports and Articles

This report identifies eight key challenges facing South African managers and opportunities for researchers to contribute implementable guidance.

NBS