Going Circular: PwC’s staff engagement success story

As part of edie's engagement month of editorial content, Matt Mace takes a closer look at the innovative behaviour change approaches being adopted by PwC as the professional services firm seeks to mobilise waste reduction efforts of thousands of staff members to deliver a closed-loop organisation.

The success of specific behaviour change initiatives is notoriously difficult to measure. But when you’re in a lift with an employee, who has only been in the role for six months, discussing a fictional ‘critter’ that you have created to personify recycling and waste reduction, it is fair to say that the project has been a success.

This is the scenario that PwC’s head of corporate sustainability Bridget Jackson found herself in just weeks ago. Jackson has nurtured the aspirations of the firm’s procurement and facilities departments and sculpted an all-encompassing sustainability project that has successfully eliminated waste and strived to embed circular economy principles at the heart of company decisions.

Through divergent thinking, far-reaching awareness campaigns and the creation of unofficial closed-loop mascots, Jackson and her sustainability team at PwC have been able to embed circular thinking across key waste streams – as well as previously hidden ones – in a way that has mobilised a workforce of “waste vigilantes” across its UK business.

As a professional services firm, PwC often provides sustainability guidance for its clients. The FTSE 100 auditor’s London premises in Tooley Street will often host some 6,000 staff members – some of which are contractors. Efforts to drive down key footprints such as carbon and waste rely on a successful implementation amongst the employees, and the London office is littered with waste reduction methods.

Many of these methods were introduced by Jackson and her team, although the ideas they were built upon existed before her arrival. As Jackson explains to edie, the desire to begin closing loops emerged before circular economy was beginning to emerge as a viable business model.

“I created the sustainability team and the board brought me in in 2010,” Jackson says. “On day one, my job was to transform the firm and make it a leader in sustainability – that was my remit. About two years ago, I sat down with the board to examine the 2017 targets. I’m a real forward planner and I wanted to see how we would hit them, and how we would tell the story.

“This was the point that the circular economy narrative was becoming very strong in the marketplace and I pooled all our efforts together and it became Going Circular about two years ago. The principles and targets were already in place but we re-engaged other areas of the company when this movement took off.”

Under Jackson’s guidance, PwC set lofty goals in relation to waste management through the new ‘Going Circular’ initiative. A Decoupling goal that aims to halve the amount of energy used and waste produced, while improving company growth by 50%, was joined by an ambitious target to recycle 100% of the waste that the company generates.

Shooting for the moon

Jackson reveals that she has an “emotional attachment” to that 100% target; even though PwC may struggle to hit it. The company is on track to hit the energy and waste reduction targets – largely enabled by large-scale building retrofits of the head office and a Charing Cross restoration project – but the recycling and reuse target is proving a bit more tricky.

So far, PwC recycles or reuses 85% of the waste it produces, generating £500,000 for the firm annually in the process. Driving closed-loop practices across operational waste such as glass, paper and food has proved simple enough, but delving into the more intricate – and easier to miss – waste streams has found areas that just aren’t market ready for a holistic, closed-loop approach.

Failure to hit such a goal could dishearten most, but for Jackson, the journey to zero waste has been “exhilarating” and has allowed the company to push beyond the realms of what it thought would be possible when she was hired in 2010.

Jackson uses the adage of “shooting for the moon and landing for the stars” for the firm’s recycling target. Delving into the new waste streams she is trying to remedy, it becomes apparent that when Jackson was reaching for the moon, PwC’s hidden waste streams came into sight.

The 100% target has been hindered by external food packaging brought in by employees on their lunch break, alongside previously overlooked areas such as laptop bags. The company will shortly begin working with suppliers to boost the recyclable content of the laptop bags that it purchases, while biodegradable Vegware food and drink packaging is also offered to its 22,000 UK staff members.

Use and disposal of ‘Vegware’ eco-friendly packaging products is where confusion amongst staff begins to arise, and where PwC’s internal campaigns begin to take a mind – and creature – of their own.

Interact with PwC staff members, and before long you’ll likely be introduced to Verity Vegware, Burtie Bundle or Larry Leftovers.

These caricatures promote PwC’s waste goals in a non-intrusive, non-lecturing manner, designed to boost conversation and increase behaviour change amongst the staff. The personification of PwC’s waste ambitions has allowed members of staff to drive the waste agenda through a bottom-up approach.

The characters have also been accompanied by various videos that outline the firm’s closed-loop waste measures to inform and inspire. The videos, which are sent out through newsletters to the staff, cover some of the more innovative methods that PwC has introduced to cut waste, including how the firm uses cooking oil from its contracted caterers to create bioenergy to power to offices.

Jackson notes that the biofuel concept was cooked-up as part of the firm’s efforts to be awarded the UK’s first BREEAM Outstanding certification. The certification was introduced in 2008 and the More London office was the first office building to achieve the “Outstanding” rating in 2011. Only buildings that score higher than 85% under BREEAMs performance assessment are awarded the rating and PwC’s offices racked-up and impressive score of 96.31%. Less than 1% of UK new non-domestic buildings have achieved an “Outstanding” rating to date.

At the time, PwC wasn’t using cooking oil in large enough quantities to make any real impact on energy use. As the desire to secure the first BREEAM Outstanding rating grew, conversations with caterer suppliers also accelerated to the point where all waste cooking oil that the contractors produced is now sent to PwC to be used to power the office.

These kinds of agreements with suppliers are fast becoming the norm at PwC. The group’s 50% reduction targets were set with a 2017 finish line, and Jackson says that the year ahead will place a big focus on creating partnerships with the right suppliers that agree with the closed-loop ethos taking shape at PwC.

When no choice is the right choice

Jackson implores suppliers to think circular and is pushing the agenda onto all members of staff. PwC has tried to cut down the amount of time that staff members spend thinking about how waste should be disposed and treated.

“Wherever possible, we have chosen to choice edit,” Jackson says. “We have PIR motion sensor lights and daylight adjusted light systems so we don’t have to ask them to do those behaviours, where possible we will do that with circularity as well.

“Our people aren’t there to do [circular] things. We do have an education and awareness programme which is separate, but we try to limit the amount of decisions where they have to think about sustainability. Travel is a behaviour where they have to make the decision – but we have a big campaign about that, the other is about what they do with their waste.”

Choice editing is essentially the process of controlling or limiting the options available to individuals to drive the circular economy. It is a growing concept among businesses, particularly in the area of plastic waste. Last year, London department store Selfridges decided to rid its stores of all single-use plastic water bottles as part of a campaign to reduce pollution of the oceans. Although aimed at consumers rather than internally, the retailer has encouraged others to bring their own water bottles to the stores.

For PwC, choice editing has already been introduced for certain recyclable items, such as new recycled office-grade paper, and an update to machinery means that double-paged printing is now the default option.

The year ahead will see Jackson work tirelessly to untangle the loops in PWC’s Going Circular initiative. Around 10 to 12 projects will be trialled in-house, aimed at uncovering the next solution to troublesome waste hurdles, including uniform badges and the aforementioned laptop bags.

For now, Jackson is revelling in the positive impact that the initiative has had on PwC staff members. The internal engagement methods have captured the interest of staff members in a way that paper grades and food packaging lectures can’t. Times spent in the lift are more enjoyable than ever.

“It is the first campaign I have done where every week somebody from the organisation writes to me and says ‘what you’re doing is fantastic’,” Jackson said on stage at edie’s recent Sustainability Leaders Forum. “Everything else I’ve done has not resonated this way, but they love the stories about us buying product with recycled content, sending our furniture onto charities, refurbishing IT and selling it on.

“It’s the first time I have unleashed something that people are regularly writing to me about – it’s a tangible example that waste and recycling is something that we all seem to really care about.”

edie’s engagement month

The month of February sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to engagement, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to drill down on the best way to bring the people you want on the journey with you.

From consumers to clients, investors to employees, ensuring your key stakeholders are on board and engaged can mean the difference between success and failure. edie’s engagement month will explore some of the most effective methods being used to drive positive behaviour change.

Read all of edie’s engagement content here.

Matt Mace

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie