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Establishing a Culture of Lab Sustainability

Two sustainability experts share their advice on how lab managers and scientists can persuade others to join them in developing greener practices in the lab

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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Many individuals are eager to improve their lab’s carbon footprint and drive a culture of sustainability, but often face challenges in making real change within their organization. During Lab Manager’s Green Labs Summit earlier this year, a trending question among attendees was about how to be effective in sharing your sustainability mission with others and getting them on board to join you. Below, two leading lab sustainability experts share their advice.

Q: How can I get buy-in from my staff to implement “greener” practices into our daily workflows?

Star Scott: Gaining buy-in from staff to make your lab more sustainable can be achieved in a number of ways. If you’re the principal investigator (PI) or facility director, mandate the changes from the top-down! Private sector labs have been implementing top-down sustainability (aka green labs) efforts successfully for years. Small changes can result in big savings, which impact your company’s bottom line. They can also improve the safety of your labs and help your company reach their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals by minimizing the downstream negative impacts of your research operations. 

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Star Scott
Star Scot

If a top-down approach isn’t possible in your lab, you can gain buy-in from staff through a variety of approaches:

  • Educate researchers about their impacts—most researchers are not aware of the impact their research has. They don’t receive vital feedback, such as utility bills, which would indicate the amount of resources they’re using. Educating researchers about the “why” and providing data regarding their consumption can be quite powerful in motivating behavioral modifications. For example, a fume hood uses about the same amount of energy as 3.5 American households and lowering the sash when it’s not in use can save up to 40 percent of the energy.  Scientists respond to data, so use it! 
  • Make it personal—many green labs efforts benefit the science! For example, defrosting your ultra-low freezer not only saves energy, but also prolongs the life of your unit and can better protect your samples by removing ice buildup, which creates temperature pockets. Thus, researchers are protecting their samples by engaging in these efforts. 
  • Make it a competition—many institutions have successfully implemented greener practices by hosting a competition between labs.  Don’t underestimate the power of friendly competition! Winners can be featured on your website or be given a small prize, such as a pizza party. Amongst the fun of competition, behaviors are modified and greener practices are established. 

James Connelly: While laboratories are incredibly resource-intensive spaces across the areas of energy, waste, and water, there are many things that scientists and lab managers can do to introduce sustainable practices and, thus, drive down the carbon impact of scientific research.

James Connelly
James Connelly

Gaining inspiration from your peers that have successfully implemented lab sustainability initiatives in their respective organizations is a great way to get started. Successful green lab case studies can be found on the My Green Lab blog, The Beaker, and at online events such as the Lab Manager Green Labs Summit and the My Green Lab annual Summit. The 2022 My Green Lab Summit had two 90-minute sessions of external speakers who have successfully managed to start and maintain green lab programs and activities in their organizations. 

Identifying key stakeholders interested in lab sustainability practices and hosting an interactive information session with them can help start a dialogue about how sustainable actions in laboratories can help with cost reductions, resource preservation, and alignment with organizational sustainability goals. Harnessing the power of community is one of the most effective ways to help achieve greener lab practices. Identifying some tangible action items for the group at the end of the information session will ensure you turn sustainability talk into action.

Another great introductory tool for those interested in greener lab practices is the free My Green Lab Ambassador program, designed for people working in or supporting a laboratory who wish to start implementing sustainability best practices in the lab. The program serves as a crash course in lab sustainability, emphasizing behavioral changes that promote greener laboratory operations. The program provides insight into how to introduce, apply, and develop sustainable changes within your lab.

Star Scott is the green labs program coordinator at the University of Georgia. She has a background in conservation-driven research including ecology, wildlife biology, and endangered species genomics, and is a deep believer in the interconnectivity of all living things. Star is dedicated to making the research enterprise more sustainable and more equitable and is currently focused on resource conservation, landfill diversion, creating and promoting equitable systems, environmental and social justice, sustainable procurement, and building stronger teams through meaningful communication and psychological safety. She serves on the national board for the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories, is a founding vice president of the Georgia chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories and is a Higher Education Association’s Sustainability Consortium fellow and liaison on behalf of the Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Association.

James Connelly is the chief executive officer of My Green Lab and is one of the most influential leaders in the corporate sustainability and green building movement today. James is a frequent keynote speaker on regenerative design, sustainable business, and laboratory sustainability. James has won numerous scholarships and awards for his research and work; notably, he received a 2012 Fulbright Fellowship to research on green building rating systems in China, was selected as a Greenbiz 30 under 30 Sustainable Business Leader in 2016, and a Net Zero Energy Trailblazer in 2019. He also serves on Lab Manager’s Editorial Advisory Board.

This article is part of Lab Manager’s Learning to Lead Q&A series. For more expert input on management, leadership, safety, and sustainability topics affecting laboratory leaders, click here.