Green Dilemma: Are top-down or bottom-up initiatives more effective for Corporate Sustainability?

Aug 20, 2020 · 5 min read

The concept of top-down and bottom-up initiatives is used to illustrate two styles of thinking, from economic development in Africa to product design at multi-national companies. Although somewhat clichéd, they can provide a powerful visual representation of different policy approaches for organisations. The relevance of this concept extends to corporate sustainability; companies have grappled with how they can make meaningful progress on sustainability initiatives, as the solutions are often complex and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Top-down sustainability initiatives have traditionally been favoured by companies: these are system-level changes that are driven by policy directives from senior management or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) teams. There are merits to this approach; each office worker doesn’t monitor the energy usage of their building as it wouldn’t be an efficient use of their time and this is typically the responsibility of the facilities management team (or equivalent). If the CSR team wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of energy usage at the office, working with facilities management to install LED lights or switch to a renewable energy provider could be system-level changes they could make to achieve this. Furthermore, CSR teams are also likely to have deeper sustainability expertise than the average employee and have the resources/ budget to implement such changes.

To continue with the same example, what happens when employees are working remotely (as has been the case for much of 2020)? Although not in the office, employees continue to use energy at home (technology equipment, lights, air-conditioning etc.). Should companies exclude the energy used by employees during working hours just because they aren’t in the office? Given the long-term trend is towards increased remote working (either on a full-time or part-time basis), this is just one example of the challenges companies will need to address to make meaningful progress on sustainability.

A new way of working calls for a different approach to corporate sustainability. Bottom-up initiatives influence employee behaviour through policy changes; these initiatives are inherently dependent on the rate of employee adoption, but if the goals and strategy of such initiatives are communicated effectively (i.e. the what and the how), the results can be powerful. For employees working remotely, system-level changes aren’t likely to reduce their energy usage; instead, a behavioural change is required. CSR teams can provide guidance on how employees can reduce energy consumption, such as installing energy-efficient lights or unplugging chargers when not in use. Better still, companies could provide incentives to employees to create a “greener” home environment, such as employee recognition or a monetary contribution towards energy bills for employees using a renewable energy provider.

A top-down sustainability initiative could include implementing or upgrading video conferencing and collaboration technologies to reduce the frequency of business travel. Many companies have recently undertaken this in some form due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Accenture identified collaborative technologies as an effective way to reduce its carbon footprint back in 2012. Business travel accounted for 77% of Accenture’s UK & Ireland carbon footprint, and in 2013, carbon emissions decreased by 6.37% and flight bills by 9% as a result of its investment in the prior year (equating to a CO2 saving of 688 tons for business travel).

However, the strategy employed by Accenture to achieve a successful sustainability outcome was not limited to top-down initiatives. They also introduced My Travel Summary, a personalised online tool for employees to understand the cost and carbon impact of their business travel. Accenture was particularly focused on creating a cost-conscious culture at the grassroots level, but a climate-conscious culture is a natural extension of this. Including carbon footprint comparisons with other employees (by business unit or location) and recognising/ rewarding the top performers are among the methods companies can use to incentivise behavioural changes. If designed correctly, gamification can be an effective sustainability strategy for organisations.

Bottom-up initiatives could also be employed to positively influence the behaviour of other stakeholders, including suppliers: for example, Innocent Drinks started such an initiative ten years ago with their Spanish strawberry farmers. A high concentration of strawberry farms near Seville were putting water resources under severe pressure, impacting the nearby wildlife. Farmers for Innocent and the University of Cordoba spent four years researching irrigation equipment and water management approaches; the outcome was the development of an app called Irri-fresa for farmers to calculate optimum daily irrigation times, which cut water use among farmers by up to 40% (1.7bn litres of water saved in 2015). Innocent could alternatively have chosen a top-down approach by setting a maximum threshold for the water used by its strawberry suppliers. It would likely be time-consuming for Innocent to engage in detailed research/ app development across all raw materials and suppliers, so top-down initiatives may be more suited in some circumstances. However, Innocent’s approach demonstrates the benefits of treating suppliers as equal partners for corporate sustainability initiatives, and lessons can be learned from this about the relationship between management and employees.

Changing employee habits is typically more challenging than the delivery of centrally managed projects; the progress of the latter is easier to track and the implementation is managed by an assigned project team (with the necessary knowledge and resources). This may explain why CSR teams have generally favoured top-down sustainability initiatives; however, the case studies have demonstrated scenarios in which bottom-up initiatives can be an appropriate complement or substitute.

Communicating the goals and strategies of sustainability initiatives to employees is a critical component of success, but so too is designing and tweaking incentive structures that will drive positive outcomes. Scaling a corporate sustainability framework across the employee base will help to mobilise employees who have historically been passive on sustainability issues. Although tracking sustainability data from bottom-up initiatives is more challenging, it is important to measure and understand the outcomes of such initiatives. As Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever) puts it: “It is important to invest in educating employees about sustainability as well as to create systems and processes that make it easier for employees to integrate sustainability into their business decisions.” When sustainability is a core part of each business decision, the concept of a sustainability initiative (either top-down or bottom-up) will be less relevant, but there is a long way to go before this can be achieved.

At Canopact, we are enabling companies to reduce their carbon footprint by measuring real-time emissions data and empowering employees to take positive actions.

Image Credits: Wikimedia

Climate Conscious

Building a collective vision for a better tomorrow

Climate Conscious

Bringing people together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.


Written by


Canopact enables companies to reduce their carbon emissions by harnessing real-time data and empowering employees to take action. Find out more at

Climate Conscious

Bringing people together from around the world to discuss how to tackle the climate crisis and build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store