The low carbon workplace

By Kim McKay 16 June 2009
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From boardrooms to lunchrooms, businesses are rethinking their environmental practices.

When Jenny Bonnin and I released the book True Green @ Work in August last year, we conducted a Newspoll that showed 84 per cent of Australian workers regarded it as a top priority to work for a company that had implemented sustainability programs. Nearly half of all respondents said their workplaces had started to do this at some level. Generation X and gen Y workers – those 20–40 years old – were the most adamant that they wanted to work for companies that had demonstrated green credentials.

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“If you want to attract the best employees in the future, the message is loud and clear – go green,” says Alan Greenfield, a director of actuarial firm Taylor Fry, an “early adopter” of improved office environmental practices. “We’ve gone completely carbon-neutral by reducing our footprint and then offsetting what’s left. Our supplier for printing and stationery is also carbon-neutral – they pitched for our business and we switched companies.” Alan says that Taylor Fry also wants to switch banks to one that’s doing the best job in terms of environmental performance and overall corporate social responsibility.

Kyoto protocol pushing business to act early

Australians spend around one-third of their lives at work and the Australian Greenhouse Office estimates that industry contributes up to 90 per cent of our CO2 emissions, with office buildings contributing about 8 per cent of our total greenhouse gases. Now that Australia has signed the Kyoto Protocol, businesses will have more impetus to try to reduce their carbon footprints before they’re compelled to do so by government regulation, according to Molly Harriss Olson, convenor of the Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development and a sustainability advisor to the US Government during Bill Clinton’s presidency. “The Australian business landscape is about to change as a result of our participation in the Kyoto Protocol,” she says. “Adopting a sustainability plan at work shouldn’t be regarded as an imposed duty or obligation, but as a gilt-edged opportunity. You can dig your head into the sand and do nothing and end up exposing your company to greater risk by paying for your carbon emissions, or you can start doing a few simple things that aren’t going to cost you much anyway, and will save you, your company and the planet in the long run.”

Starting with simple things, Petra Buchanan, vice-president of marketing Asia Pacific for information-technology services company Unisys, is on a quest to minimise waste in Unisys offices across the region. “I kept seeing paper, great reams of it, spewing out of printers everywhere I went through our offices,” Petra says. “I also noticed that the cleaners put all the rubbish and recyclables into one bag to be thrown out. I knew I had to do something.”

Petra teamed up with the company’s IT people to change the default settings on all their printers to double-sided printing, then sent out an email throughout the region instructing people to set all printers to double-sided printing to cut down on waste and save money. “This was just a first step,” Petra says. “Now we’re on a program to introduce sustainable waste and energy practices across the company.”

Staff expect greener conditions in the workplace

Petra is not alone in this desire. A broad spectrum of Australians have shrugged off the excesses of the 1980s and ’90s and are examining every aspect of their lives – including work – for opportunities to reduce their impact on the earth. Some have installed rainwater tanks or solar panels, become fanatical recyclers, bought hybrid cars or switched to green power.

In 2006, The Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change – made up of CEOs from companies such as Westpac, BP, IAG Insurance, Visy and Origin Energy – was formed to lobby the Federal Government to take action to prepare for a low-carbon future. The roundtable commissioned studies into the impacts of climate change and the economic effects of reducing carbon emissions. Its report, The Business Case for Early Action, suggests that it’s possible for Australia to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions at an affordable cost, while maintaining economic growth.

According to Dr Noel Purcell, group general manager of stakeholder communications at Westpac, in the 1990s some of the bank’s practices were out of kilter with the expectations of their staff, customers and the broader community. “Initially we understood these issues mainly in terms of reputation, but we have since come to understand their substance,” Noel says. “With about 10,000 suppliers to Westpac, how we source products and services is a significant part of our social, ethical and environmental impact. Since 2003 we have assessed our major suppliers on their credentials in these areas alongside traditional criteria,” he said.

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Westpac has also used advertising to push its environmental and social commitment. Many companies are afraid to do this out of concerns about increased scrutiny, and of being accused of “green-washing”, but the results have been positive for Westpac. The bank has increased its market share and improved performance, and won top accolades in various corporate social responsibility indexes, which rate companies on their social, ethical and environmental performance.

Many ways for business to ‘go green’

Smaller companies, too, have focused on improving their environmental performance – even when it affects the business’s core products. Dinosaur Designs, a jewellery, homewares and accessories company, with retail outlets in Sydney, Melbourne and New York, works with a range of materials including glass, silver, wood, gemstones, shells and ceramics, but the material synonymous with its identity is polyester resin – a petrochemical by-product. For the past four years the company has researched and tested organic resins from plants such as corn and hemp to use in place of the petroleum product. “It’s wonderful to be in business and design and doing something you love, but you have to think about the consequence of that – the outcomes of what you’re doing,” says Liane Rossler, one of Dinosaur Designs’ three founders. “I think it’s so exciting to look at elements of your business and see how you can do it better. We have to keep evolving.”

There are a number of easy, low-cost ways to start improving your office’s environmental performance. A good place to begin is at your desk. Use a mug instead of buying disposable coffee cups; ensure your paper is made from recycled content and that you print double-sided; and order pens and pencils made from cornstarch or recycled products. Get together with a band of like-minded co-workers and develop a recycling and sustainable-office action plan to present to management. Better still, rope in the CEO and ask for his or her leadership to help become a sustainable company. Conduct an audit on your activities, set goals to reduce your carbon footprint, develop new procurement policies and reward good environmental behaviour.

“Our team is in it together when it comes to sustainable practices,” Alan says. “There’s a lot of talk about the ‘tipping point’ in the environment and we just thought, well, let’s ‘tip back’; learn to live with the impacts of climate change and do everything in our power to ensure a better, greener future.”

Kim McKay is the co-founder and deputy chairwoman of Clean Up Australia and Clean Up the World and co-creator with Jenny Bonnin of the True Green series of books. Some of this story was extracted from True Green @ Work, by Kim and Jenny with Tim Wallace, published by ABC Books.

Source: Australian Geographic Apr – Jun 2008