When Oxfam Canada's national office was given an environmental facelift, the organization got the chance to "walk the talk" on reducing its climate footprint.
Today it's among a growing number of organizations that are taking their sustainability efforts to higher levels to boost employee, corporate and community health and well-being.
Oxfam, which creates self-sustaining programs in developing countries to reduce poverty and social injustice, unveiled its newly renovated office building in Ottawa in May. The facility serves more than 50 employees.
"Our office is amazing," says Oxfam Canada spokeswoman Juliet O'Neill, "from the use of natural light, recyclable no-glue carpet tiles, low-energy lighting, dual flush toilets, LEED-standard paint, eco-friendly furniture, dual flush toilets, recycled paper, even down to water jugs and glasses made from recycled glass." The building has earned Gold certification for commercial interiors in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
While any business can help preserve the environment with simple initiatives such as recycling, reducing waste and cutting energy use, medium-sized businesses, defined by Industry Canada as having between 50 and 500 employees, are more likely to make more intensive efforts, experts say.
"It's harder to get smaller businesses on board. Even though they may be concerned about the environment and health, most don't get to the point where they would pay a lot of extra money to make a space that they might change in five years," says Barbara Smyth, principal with Vancouver Better Office, a firm that helps corporate clients with design, development and construction of work spaces. "It's not worth it for them, even if it's not good for their health."
A report released late last year by three major accounting associations suggests that 33 per cent of small- and medium-sized companies had a sustainability strategy in place, and an additional 23 per cent had plans to formulate a strategy in the next two years, driven by the potential for boosted financial, environmental and social benefits.
What can sustainable practices do for businesses?
Compliance with regulatory requirements is the most common reason given for sustainability efforts. But they also make a company more appealing to customers, strengthen relationships with suppliers and boost profits, according to the report which was issued by the London-based Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants (CICA).
The report gives the example of a Canadian food company that goes into schools to teach children about growing food and making healthy snacks, sources 90 per cent of its produce locally, consults with urban gardeners and funds community projects.
The report also says people are seeking out enterprises that are environmentally and socially aware. They are also less tolerant of operations just seeking to maximize profit.
Nicholas Cheung, national practice area leader for sustainability at CICA, said small and medium businesses "have more agility than large multinationals to make meaningful change."
On the road to sustainability, businesses can get support from the federal government's Canada Business Network list of services for entrepreneurs (http://www.canadabusiness.ca/eng/92/881/). Larger businesses in particular stand most to benefit from a range of loan, rebate and other programs if they're aiming to go beyond the important grassroots efforts – such as the three R's (reduce, reuse, recycle) and conserving electricity and water – to create a sustainable workplace
Tips for going green
A toolkit for businesses from the David Suzuki Foundation offers these tips:
Build a green team: Larger businesses might have the resources to appoint a staff member to lead the green team, or hire a sustainability expert.
Conduct an audit: Hire a consulting firm to conduct a waste assessment or audit of your workplace practices.
Use the right suppliers: Ask food service vendors and caterers to meet your standards – for example, aluminum containers instead of plastic, and reusables instead of disposables.
Donate to others: Seek out end users for the stuff you don't want – schools, charities, food banks. Your trash may be their treasure.
Choose eco-friendly suppliers: Develop a sustainable purchasing guide for your organization. Ask where the product comes from, whether it's made from non-toxic, recycled and/or sustainably sourced materials, how it will be used and whether its use can be shared, what will happen to it at the end of its life. Also, choose suppliers with green priorities: Ask how they practise conservation before deciding to use their services.
Get into the community: If your company is near a park, shoreline, street or sidewalk that needs a cleanup, put a team together and get busy. You will be models of good citizenship for your clients, neighbours and visitors.
Hit the kitchen: Stock the office kitchen with reusable items for staff to borrow and return, such as travel mugs for offsite meetings or for getting coffee in the neighbourhood, and cloth bags to carry stuff home or grab groceries at the end of the day.
Make recycling efforts easier: Set up an office collection depot for recyclables that may be a challenge for home pickup programs, such as foam packing material, batteries and cellphones. Check with your municipality for drop-off destinations.