Build a stronger sustainability program: Takeaways from the Earth Hour movement

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Building a successful sustainability program is no simple task – requiring a well-thought-out strategy and dedicated resources. But creating your program is only part of the challenge – communicating your sustainability message and engaging your audience (including employees, clients, and shareholders, among others) are also integral parts of a successful sustainability program.

JLL’s Susannah West, Sustainability Director in South Asia, uses global grassroots movement Earth Hour as a case study in sustainability engagement and identifies four key takeaways that you can apply to your own sustainability program.  

How do you convince individuals that collectively they can make a difference? The answer might be simpler than you think – create a symbolic event that could become a movement. And so Earth Hour was born in 2007 as an event where residents of Sydney, Australia could raise awareness about the need for urgent action on global warming by turning off their lights for one hour.

The movement spread rapidly, from 2.2 million people in a single city switching off their lights in that first year to record participation in 2015 – when 172 countries and territories, 1,400 landmarks and 7,000 cities switched their lights out. Earth Hour is proof that a simple act can create awareness and drive engagement, across audiences and borders.

So what can we learn from Earth Hour to build stronger sustainability programs, improve how we engage with people on sustainability and ultimately drive behavioural change?

    • Communication is key. It’s the first step in driving awareness and engagement. People need to know what your sustainability program is trying to achieve and why. You need to repeat your message and get creative with how you reach your audience- whether through email, noticeboards, meetings, intranet, or other means. In its first year, Earth Hour ran an extensive print, TV, radio and digital media and communications campaign to get people and businesses in Sydney involved (bolstered by support from WWF, an ad agency, and Fairfax media – a major Australian news corporation). The need to communicate applies to all awareness campaigns.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t over-complicate your call to action– particularly early on. A strong, simple call to action  streamlines the communication process, allowing you to keep the message clear and straightforward. Earth Hour was created around the simple act of switching your lights off. Making it easy for people to be involved can significantly increase participation and results.
  • Don’t be afraid to start small. Don’t be afraid to start with symbolic actions that by themselves may not have a huge impact on your sustainability objectives. Symbolic events can be really useful for getting buy-in from your target audience and building a foundation for future efforts. Capturing the imagination of and engaging your audience is a critical step in any staff awareness or behavioural change. An event like Earth Hour can be used in your organisation to gauge whether people are likely to support broader sustainability activities.
  • Support from influencers can go a long way. From the outset, Earth Hour tapped into star power with endorsements from celebrities like Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. The City of Sydney Council and New South Wales state government along with corporations like Coca-Cola also lent their support.  Endorsement by influential people throughout the organisation (not just the senior leadership team) gives your initiative legitimacy and a better chance of success.

How has Earth Hour – or another grassroots initiative – inspired your organization’s sustainability program? To help celebrate the 10th year of Earth Hour, which will be held on March 19 from 8:30-9:30pm local time, comment with your best Earth Hour tips.


Susannah West is JLL’s Sustainability Director for South Asia, and she is based on Singapore. Susannah has over 15 years’ experience in the energy and sustainability industry, in both technical and commercial roles. She is passionate about improving the built environment and works with a wide range of clients to help them achieve their sustainability objectives.

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