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These firms dig deep to green the workplace

Skiers get an aerial view of the Fitzsimmons Creek micro-hydro energy plant, which is built next to the resort’s snowmaking facilities, as they ride the Peak 2 Peak gondola at Whistler Blackcomb resort in B.C.

Scott Brammer

The Earth-friendly initiatives generated by Canada's Greenest Employers 2013 are as varied as the 55 organizations on the list. We asked three of the winners about just one of their projects that helped make their firms more green.

Whistler Blackcomb, Whistler, B.C.

If you take the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connecting Whistler and Blackcomb skiing and snowboarding facilities, you'll ride right over the new $32-million Fitzsimmons Creek micro-hydro energy plant located in the middle of the ski area. The plant harnesses energy from the creek by diverting a portion of the water into a turbine and then returning it quickly back into the creek.

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"What's exciting is its annual production equals what our entire mountain operation consumes annually," says Arthur De Jong, mountain planning and environmental resource manager. "When the water is flowing, it feeds the grid. It's huge in reducing our footprint because it puts back onto the grid in green renewable energy what we take off the grid."

It took seven years to get the approvals and find the right partners, Mr. De Jong says. While Whistler Blackcomb took the lead on driving the project, it was developed by Ledcor, a B.C. construction company, and Innergex Renewable Energy Inc., a B.C. private power producer which owns and operates the facility. After initial engineering and financing obstacles, the biggest challenge was public acceptance, says Mr. De Jong, who still faces concerns about the watershed impact.

"There are fisheries values with the Fitzsimmons so we had to work through any issues with our local fisheries group and the government layers involved," says Mr. De Jong, who's active in community and environmental groups. "This project was a good one because we don't have salmon spawning up the Fitzsimmons. But we do have trout and that was treated sensitively."

Whistler Blackcomb worked with the community through studies and "lots of dialogue" to iron out the negatives. "It's different than a traditional dam that blocks a watershed," Mr. De Jong says. "Once the community weighed all the values, it was well supported. If you don't have local support, projects like this don't get off the ground."

The power plant was built almost entirely on an existing footprint, next to the company's snowmaking equipment, so roads and power lines were already there.

"Our goal is to have a zero operating footprint and prove to other businesses that it's possible to reduce our consumptive levels to be sustainable," says Mr. De Jong, who also notes that it's good for recruitment and retention. "We have a young employee base here who care deeply about the environment because they're inheriting it."

Assiniboine Credit Union Ltd., Winnipeg

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When the credit union looked at developing new green building standards, it took a holistic approach that considered the well-being of employees, customer comfort and the impact on the environment. It chose geothermal energy systems – which draws heat from the earth – for three new Winnipeg branches constructed since 2006.

"Geothemal is part of a bigger approach incorporating other energy-saving features in our buildings," says Priscilla Boucher, vice-president of social responsibility. "Our goals are to reduce energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions as well as achieve some savings."

Annual energy savings reached 33 per cent at the LEED silver-certified branch on Pembina Highway at Bairdmore Boulevard which also uses a solar wall to prewarm air entering its ventilation system. Other energy-efficient design features include high-efficiency lighting and high-quality windows that not only let in light, but that employees can also open for fresh air.

"Over 90 per cent of the lighting at our newest branch is LED lighting, both interior and exterior," says Dennis Cunningham, manager of environmental sustainability. "We're using newer technology as it becomes available."

They also sited the last two branches differently on the building lots to warm the solar wall and to get more daylight into the building.

"Buildings are around for decades," Mr. Cunningham says. "We often forget about their permanence. If you design to save money in the building process, then you're missing out on the long-term energy efficiencies that can be achieved. That sort of short-term thinking doesn't serve economic or environmental interests."

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ARAMARK Canada Ltd., Toronto

Interest in knowing more about "where our food comes from" sparked the food service firm's National Farm Tour Field Research project, says Tina Horsley, ARAMARK'S director of wellness and sustainability.

The project takes food service employees – from chefs to managers to frontline workers, as well as customers and other interested groups – to local farms or producer partners to learn more about local food procurement.

Since 2010, they've made nearly 50 farms tours across the country, from Vancouver Island to Nova Scotia. The focus was on local and sustainable ingredients that they were already sourcing, how to integrate more into menus and how to increase local purchases over time.

"Once those connections were made, there was a real difference in how people looked at their sourcing because now they know them and are more excited to use those products," Ms. Horsley says, who arranged the tours with local teams and operations in all their regions. "There's a huge amount of respect from our folks for the amazing men and women who produce our food."

In the operations they tracked, Ms. Horsley found a significant increase in the use of local fresh and sustainable food products, exceeding their target of a 5-per-cent annual increase in most regions. "Take parsnips, for instance. Several producers had a lot of root vegetables, so our chefs looked at how to change up our menus to better use these products, available to us for a large portion of the year."

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