Lowly recycling bins sit next to the office cubicles. At our desks, we drink from ceramic coffee mugs. No Styrofoam except for the foam casings inside our bike helmets, used when the weather improves, as a way we try to reduce carbon use by going without a car.
It all feels like such small measures.
Sometimes, the environmental impact of our working lives can seem so outside our personal control. It’s easy to get complacent, even self-congratulatory (“we’ve gone paperless!” – even if the power and ventilation to keep those office computers running is hardly environmentally friendly).
So, with Earth Day around the corner, how can offices continue to improve sustainably? And what can employees do to make more of a improvement?
For Frances Edmonds, head of sustainability at computer maker HP Canada, it comes down to finding ways for employees to feel engaged in the process. “An engaged employee is a more profitable employee,” she said, “so the opportunity is to engage your employees on sustainability practices that they, for the most part, will love … It will also save you money in the long run.”
Of course, there are myriad things one can do: turning off all electronics, turning off all the lights, printing next to nothing, recycling, making sure that the equipment you have gets used to its fullest (or if the equipment will only serve a limited function, to rent it or buy whatever function it performs from a third party).
HP Canada has worked with the conservation group World Wildlife Fund Canada on Living Planet @ Work, an outreach initiative that catalogues environmental initiatives that employees can undertake, even ideas for outings such as shoreline cleanups that can also be a team-building exercise for co-workers. Employee engagement in sustainable programs is seen as key. It can actually attract the best employees in the first place.
At the WWF office in Toronto, a little friendly shaming goes on. Not turning off your computer for the night, or producing too much garbage, or not turning off the lights get noticed and commented on, as one WWF employee noted. It’s meant in fun.
“It actually comes down to trying to provide a better work environment for employees,” said David Photiadis, a director in the Toronto office of the sustainability consulting firm the Delphi Group. Amid a backdrop of concern for the planet, environmental initiatives in the office are fundamentally there “to motivate employees and increase productivity,” and “if you’re trying to be a good business leader, motivating your employees is one of the best places to go,” he added.
Yet, if environmental initiatives have so many benefits, “why aren’t more people doing it? I think it’s a lack of knowledge of the opportunities here,” Ms. Edmonds said. Most people recycle out of habit, but may not have a full grasp of larger practices, such as sustainable procurement (buying goods or services from suppliers in ways that emphasize the longevity of the product and its carbon costs).
“Actually one of the fastest ways to green your business is to purchase from a company that is already green,” Ms. Edmonds said.
“If we take the example of IT [information technology], you can choose to buy a product that was built with a low carbon impact, that can be used with a low carbon impact, and then taken, potentially recycled and put back into the same products again – decreasing the footprint of that activity,” she said.
Sustainability experts frequently talk about the circular economy, basically an effort to keep a finished good from ending up in a landfill, and the product instead being recycled, after its usefulness has run dry, into a new product.
“It drives you back to thinking about whether I buy this as a good, or do I buy it as a service? How am I going to operate this thing once it’s in my building? Those protocols of ownership need to be considered,” Ms. Edmonds said.
“The easiest way to think about this is vehicle purchasing. A lot of organizations buy vehicles, but then to operate that vehicle, the fuel consumption is a big cost of operating that vehicle. If you’re not thinking about that when you buy the vehicle, you end up having problems long term,” she said.
This is a more holistic approach to all the environmental costs. Even the smallest measures, such as buying less paper for the printer, become part of a more conscious approach to all costs and change the workplace culture – even the kind of office buildings a company chooses. It affects the priorities an office may place on waste diversion or better energy conservation.
“Certainly the larger developers are implementing sustainability as their normal course of action now,” said Tina Sutton, project manager at Green Reason, a sustainable building consultancy in Toronto. “ Some of the smaller ones are still paying lip service to it. They’re doing better than 10 or 15 years ago, but they’re still not completely embracing the whole thing.”
“On a wider scale, commercial buildings are going need to start reporting on their energy measures, but there’s this huge gap in terms of smaller buildings,” she said. “Obviously there are lots of people [and companies] that need space, and they can’t pay that much. So, they end up locating into these buildings where the sustainability measures are extremely limited or non-existent.”