Sustainability starts at the office

Many firms are changing their operations to have considerably less impact on the environment. But most changes don’t have to begin at the top. They typically occur because concerned individuals got together, came up with an action plan and sold it to top management.

Eco Workers, Arizona Business Magazine September 2008As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 1830s in his “Democracy in America,” a defining characteristic of Americans is that they don’t wait for someone in authority to tell them what to do; they just voluntarily organize a group and go do it. If your company doesn’t use hybrids or support employees’ public transit use, get everyone on board to do this. If you’re going to move to a new building, insist on a LEED-registered (and certified) project.

Through an arrangement with a plumbing fixture manufacturer, one building engineering firm with about 100 employees in Portland, Ore., now offers a program to subsidize the installation of dual-flush toilets in employees’ homes, each saving about 6,000 gallons of water per year. The same firm has bought four Honda Civic hybrids for travel to client meetings and job sites, and subsidizes 60 percent of the cost of public transportation for employees, which has led to 80 percent participation. It’s also testing very low-flush urinals in the two washrooms, saving 85 percent of the water use of a typical 1-gallon-per-flush fixture.

Workers at a larger corporation might be surprised at how many incentives may be offered in the coming years for you to “go green.” For example, early in 2007, Bank of America offered a $3,000 cash rebate to any of its 185,000 employees who bought a hybrid car. Why couldn’t your company do the same? Many companies are offering transit subsidies, participation in local “car sharing” programs, showers and bicycle lockers for bicycle commuters, and similar measures to keep them from driving to work in conventionally powered, conventionally fueled, single-occupant automobiles.

Here are my top tips for affordable sustainability initiatives for any employer:

  • Make a personal commitment to change the way you do things. Lead by example.
  • Engage the creativity of staff by creating an in-house “green team” that has specific goals, responsibilities, timetables and budgets. If you’re large enough, consider hiring a sustainability director to oversee a comprehensive group of initiatives.
  • Tell the rest of the company in creative ways what your commitment is. For example, one company president sends his quarterly newsletter to more than 200 employees on recycled paper with wildflower seeds embedded in it. Instead of tossing it, employees are encouraged to soak the newsletter for a day, and then plant it in their garden.
  • Use less paper. Have the IT department set the default printing style to duplex, so everything is double sided unless it has to be printed only on one side.
  • Get rid of printers altogether; give everyone scanners for any paper that has to be saved, and encourage people not to
    print anything.
  • Measure everything that comes into the office or factory, and use less of it.
  • Get rid of wastebaskets under the desk and put recycling boxes. Any other trash can be disposed of down the hall.
  • Subsidize transit passes and offer guaranteed rides home for employees.
  • Make every company car a hybrid, biodiesel or flex-fuel vehicle. Look for a chance to buy the coming plug-in hybrids.
  • Buy only Energy Star appliances and equipment for the office. Get rid of any remaining incandescent lamps. Use only compact fluorescent bulbs or LED lights.
  • Buy green power from sun or wind power plants to meet all your electric power needs.
  • Buy carbon offsets for all your company travel, especially
    air travel.
  • Change your purchasing policies to buy only “Environmentally Preferable Products” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list.
  • Cut water use by installing waterless (or ultra-low flush) urinals and dual-flush toilets in all restrooms.

If you work at a government agency or school district, you have a chance to affect all of the organization’s design, construction, remodeling and purchasing policies. There’s nothing an elected official, planning commission member or senior civil servant likes more right now than to look good by instituting a sustainability policy. With more than 800 mayors of American cities on board to take action to reduce their cities’ greenhouse gas emissions, they’re going to be looking to their staffs to come up with practical proposals to implement this commitment. Make sure that everything you build has long-term sustainability built into it, including getting all new or renovated buildings certified to the LEED standard. Then tackle the harder stuff, such as purchasing policies and energy use in ongoing operations. Try to get the organization to certify one building to the LEED for Existing Buildings standard in order to create a benchmark for measuring the sustainability of operations across the board.

Jerry Yudelson, PE, MBA, LEED AP, is president at Yudelson Associates, Tucson. He can be reached at