Eco office: greening the American workplace

Environmentally friendly practices win broad employee buy-in – but many workers save their real diligence for home.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Eating smart: Denise Moorhead (c.), and other employees at the NonProfit Building in Boston visit the building's ecofriendly cafe, which serves only local produce and food.
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When employees at the architecture firm LPA Inc., in Roseville, Calif., want to throw away coffee grounds or leftovers from lunch, they head for a set of stacked circular bins, 2-1/2 feet in diameter, tucked under a desk in a corner. There an in-office composter, complete with worms, turns food scraps into compost for staff members to use in their gardens.

A compost bin hardly ranks as part of typical office décor. But it symbolizes the serious – and richly varied – commitment firms like this are making to promote environmental initiatives. "It's just a nice part of the whole [green] push we have," says architect Paul Breckenridge.

Across the country, employers are scrambling to send an important message to workers, customers, vendors, and even the public: Green matters.

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Part of that is a response to a bottom-up push. In a new survey by Randstad and Harris Interactive, 87 percent of employees say it is at least "somewhat important" that their employers offer "green-friendly" programs at work. Still, a contradiction exists: Only half of these employees conserve energy by turning off lights, TVs, and computers when they leave.

For some companies, going green involves little more than recycling soda cans. Others install compact fluorescent bulbs, use green cleaning products, and buy recycled paper. Still others upgrade heating and ventilating systems, install solar panels, and establish "green teams" of workers tasked with finding new workplace solutions.

Whatever approach companies take, three factors motivate them, says Madeline Turnock, vice president of Hill & Knowlton, a public-relations consultancy in Portland, Ore. The first involves altruism; employers know their efforts are good for the environment. Second, they realize that going green makes good business sense. Energy-efficient practices lower costs. Third, they find that green policies help them recruit and retain talent.

"People want to work for companies that have strong values and care about sustainability," Ms. Turnock says.

People also want to work for companies that solicit their green ideas. "Anytime employees make a suggestion and vote on it, and the company acts on it, that's really powerful in terms of building pride in the workplace," says Patricia Bjerrisgaard, a senior director at Business Objects, a software firm in Vancouver, British Columbia.

At Business Objects, green teams focus on one initiative each quarter. The first one established a "no bottled water" policy. "They took out bottled water in the vending machines and added filtered-water stations," Ms. Bjerrisgaard says.

At LPA, green initiatives go far beyond worms and compost. The firm saves about $5,000 a year just by using recycled toner in the copiers. And it recently installed a system that monitors the power usage of computers. Breckenridge hopes this will cut the "plug load" by 6 percent.

Other innovative measures include giving individual workers control of lighting and underfloor air systems. "Creating a healthy environment can increase productivity," says Breckenridge.

Because staff members travel frequently for clients and projects, the firm rents hybrid cars for them.

Workers in shades of green

Not surprisingly, employees and employers come in different shades of green, says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

The most dedicated employees go out of their way to advance green practices, she says. "Dark-green firms and employees are more often found on the coasts, and they tend to be highly educated. However, there are pockets of green all over the country, and not all dark-green consumers have a college degree."

The number of such employees is growing, she says. "If you start working at a greener company, environmentally friendly behaviors such as recycling, carpooling, and using recycled products become habitual."

Denise Moorehead, communications director of Third Sector New England in Boston, finds that working in a green building, the NonProfit Center, has made her more diligent about recycling at home. She took note when the company switched from paper plates and plastic ware to porcelain plates and silverware. "When we have a large event we use environmentally friendly paper plates. The 'plastic' ware is made of cornstarch."

Bicycle racks and showers encourage workers to leave their cars at home. "The executive director rarely gets in a taxi," Ms. Moorehead says. "He uses public transportation. That makes me feel slightly guilty. If he can do it, I can do it."

A green cafe in the building serves locally produced and organic food as well as fair-trade coffee. "It does make a difference for all of us," Moorehead says.

Linda Mason Hunter, a longtime advocate of green practices, finds generational differences in the workplace.

"It is easier to 'sell' participation to younger employees, who are more aware and enthusiastic about conservation and greening, without a lot of effort," she says.

Ms. Hunter also finds that people are more likely to conserve energy at home than at work. "It comes down to … money and self-interest. By nature, people take better care of their homes because they have a stake in them."

Educating workers is the goal of Gregg Steiner, president of Energy Star Certified, an environmental-service company in Los Angeles that helps small and mid-size businesses go green. When a major real estate firm hired him recently to analyze its environmental practices, he found room for improvement.

"They weren't recycling," he says. He tested the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system, as well as the air quality and the water filter in the lunch room.

"It's so easy to make these changes," Mr. Steiner says. "People like to see the change and be part of the solution."

Some changes require almost no outlay of money. When Steiner goes to the gym, he notices that nearly everyone working out has a bottle of water. "But there's no recycling bin," he says, a note of incredulity in his voice.

Carbon competition

Sometimes change comes through competition. Carbonrally.com, a new website, challenges workers to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by drinking tap water, walking or bicycling, and avoiding paper coffee cups. Recently Google's office in Pittsburgh squared off for a month-long challenge against the firm's Cambridge, Mass., office. Pittsburgh, the smaller office, won.

"We enable employees to commit to small changes in behavior," says Carbonrally founder Jason Karas.

Those small changes can produce big results. In Portland, Ore., businesses once threw out 40 tons of recyclable paper every working hour, or 83,000 tons a year. Now nearly 200 businesses are taking part in a program called Recycle at Work.

Whatever incentives businesses devise, Moorehead says, "[u]ltimately it really does make a difference, one person at a time, one group of people at a time."

Acting green at work

87% of employees say it's at least "somewhat important" that their employer offer green-friendly programs.

42% of those in the Northeast called it "extremely or very important," compared with 29% of those in the South.

93% of employed respondents turn off electrical devices at home to conserve energy.

50% do so at work.

77% of employees practice recycling at home.

49% do so at work.

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