• Teja Hudson

Waste Hierarchy: Gifts & Incentives

The topic for this week was Gifts & Incentives, and here is the week's roundup!

We took the Waste Hierarchy Pyramid and used it to identify opportunities in the workplace for approaching consumption differently. As always, the idea of the Waste Hierarchy is to work through the levels in order, but ultimately for all levels to work together at the same time to prevent and minimise your waste.

Remember, it's ok to take it in stages, to focus on your quick-wins first and then move towards deeper change as you gain confidence.


Celebrating birthdays and milestones, showing our appreciation, and incentivising or rewarding effort and commitment from colleagues are all important parts of workplace culture. These rituals are part of what makes us feel engaged and valued in our society and in our work, although nowadays they're more often sources of gratuitous and short-lived entertainment than the generation of significant and long-lasting joy.

So how do we deepen and maintain these rituals, whilst also minimising and preventing the waste they cause?

RETHINK: The best place to start is to give your staff, colleagues - and even clients - ownership over the problem: engage them in conversation about how they'd like you to show appreciation in more sustainable ways. Much of what we think we know about what people want to receive isn't actually true, so you might be surprised at what comes out of genuine conversations on the subject! You may even find that people value intangibles like time and experiences, far more than physical things.

Can you work with your stakeholders to design a new culture of giving in your company, and yes, even write it into policy once you've decided?


Moving down our Waste Hierarchy, we come to REFUSE, and this is where we can start to appreciate the value of those intangible rewards. How many of us really need more "things" to clutter up our lives, anyway? But who wouldn't appreciate more time spend on the things that matter to them, or a chance to experience something new?

With a little thought, we can change the way we think about gifts, incentives, rewards and motivators in the workplace; whether it's celebrating a colleague's birthday, milestone or achievement, rewarding good team performance, or showing appreciation to a valued client.


There are some occasions when giving a physical item is important, so with the next level of the Pyramid we look at ways to REDUCE the impact of those occasions.

The aim here is to reduce packaging and anything that might not be valued in proportion to the enormous amount of energy and resources needed to manufacture it, put it in someone's hands, and then dispose of it after its usefulness has diminished.

Cheap, novelty gifts are out; focus on increasing the value of the chosen item, or opt for consumables like fancy food or drink items (in sustainable packaging!) that don't leave a behind a long-lasting footprint.


At this level the focus is on bringing the concept of REUSABILITY and longevity into the equation - especially for occasions that repeat, such as offering incentives, team rewards or birthday decorations and rituals.

Again, conversation with your teams can be instrumental in gaining buy-in for creating a new workplace culture around these occasions, such as choosing to make a policy for all gifts to be upcycled or pre-loved.

Even simple items like flowers can become "reusable" by giving a flowering plant in a pot instead of short-lived fresh cut flowers!


And so once again we get to the bottom of the pyramid and the final stage: RECYCLE.

Keeping the entirety of an item's life in mind when making purchasing decisions is helpful in building this final stage into the culture of your organisation - and gifts and incentives are no exception! But with gift-buying decisions often more distributed throughout an organisation than usual, communication and buy-in become key to making sure policy changes in this area come from your team and are filtered through to everyone.

With such a personal thing it might seem counter-intuitive and immensely restrictive to create a policy around the kind of gifts your organisation can and can't give out. And of course, there may need to be exceptions occasionally, and that's ok; getting 90% of the way there is far better than not trying because you can't make 100%!

But you may be amazed at the difference starting this conversation can make to your organisation, and how innovative your stakeholders might become when you ask them to suggest solutions to preventing this forgotten source of waste.


As always, this is just one example of how to work through a problem using the Waste Hierarchy Pyramid; every workplace is different so don't be intimidated by all the different options, just do what you can and work towards long term change.

After all, working towards sustainability is a process, and starting imperfectly is better than not starting at all!

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