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Greening the workplace
Greening the workplace
An integrated approach to sustainability
How can employees and companies work together to achieve a greener workplace that’s better for the planet, the company and the people in it? To find out how, BeWell talked with Lisa Hagerty-McMahon, PMP, a professional project management consultant and principal of Hagerty-McMahon Consulting. Lisa has 14 years of combined experience in academia and private industry, and she spent several years in research at the Stanford Prevention Research Center before consulting for the biotechnology industry.
What does “greening your workplace” mean?
Greening your workplace is a combination of actions at the personal and organizational level designed to achieve an operating environment beneficial for people, the planet, and ultimately the organization as well. Today, there is an increasing trend for businesses — which may or may not necessarily identify themselves as “green businesses” — to strive to meet the interests of the triple bottom line known as “People, Planet, and Profit” (a concept originating from the three pillars of sustainable development as defined by the United Nations in the late 1980s). For the nonprofit sector, the corresponding phrase is “People, Planet, and Productivity.”
Why does it matter?
Human health and environmental health find an interesting intersection in the workplace. These two entities have parallel but interconnected needs, and there is economic incentive to meet those needs. Paradoxically, what is good for the planet and for people continues to be largely driven by economics.
For the organization, the consequences of neglecting employee health and environmental impact include decreased productivity, excessive attrition, employee dissatisfaction, and negative public relations. In a recent survey of corporate retailers, CFOs were asked to identify the greatest motivator for environmentally friendly practices: 66% cited corporate image and 15% cited tax breaks. On the other side of the coin, greening the workplace really matters to the individual because the consequences of neglecting your environment at work can lead to personal health consequences — sometimes irreversible, debilitating injuries.
“If it’s good for the planet, it’s often better for people as well”: In some circles, “green” has the connotation of pitting what is good for the ecological environment against human needs and convenience, as if they are diametrically opposed entities. However, you’ll find that the opposite can be true. Here’s why: take a simple example such as drinking water at work. Nearly everyone agrees that drinking out of disposable plastic bottles is a waste of plastic that may end up in a landfill. However, it might not be as widely known that there are potential health risks to consider before drinking from a plastic disposable container or that 5-gallon jug water cooler sitting in the break room. Is your management going to bother to find out which plastics are considered safe (free of the chemical bisphenol-A, or BPA)? It might be up to you as the employee to rally for safer alternatives which eliminate the use of plastics that will end up in a landfill while also eliminating the carbon footprint from weekly delivery of water jugs. If you can convince your company that a water filter is the cheaper, healthier and more environmentally sound way to go, then you’ve hit the “people, planet, profit” sweet spot. Nice going!
What is a simple change everyone could make today?
Ask yourself what you can do in the environment that you’re in. Can you become the champion of eliminating disposable cups from the break room and replace them with mugs bought with the same funds that would otherwise be purchasing paper cups? Can you switch to a carpool or public transit instead of driving solo to work every day? Can you make the case to your boss that you could telecommute and demonstrate an increase in productivity as a result of the switch? (Long commutes have been associated with increased risk for asthma and heart disease, so “people” and “planet” needs are mutually addressed when you reduce your commute.) Can you suggest a printing policy in the office that makes going paperless the rule and printing the exception? (We all know that printing kills trees. What we often don’t think about is the mounting evidence that ozone emissions from laser printer toner have direct, dire consequences for respiratory health and are a major contributor to indoor air pollution — which is up to 10 times greater than outdoor air pollution.)
According to Wenhau Chen, Ph.D., of the California Department of Public Health’s Indoor Air Quality Program, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in furniture, flooring, building materials and, yes, personal care products are a major source of indoor air pollution because these chemicals “off-gas” into the air you breathe in your office. Typical offenders are formaldehyde and benzene, although over 300 different chemical compounds have been detected in office and school building environments. Bottom line facts on VOCs: 1) they are extremely common; 2) they create significant respiratory health risks among others; and 3) they adversely affect work performance and productivity. The best way to stave off the problem? Source control (prevention!). Use low VOC materials. How do you make that happen? Don’t be afraid to make waves. Even if you’re not lucky enough to work in a LEED-certified (green) building yet, look for creative solutions and don’t be afraid to pitch them to your management. As with the example of replacing disposable cups with the use of a water filter, try recommending the use of low-VOC materials and, better yet, give ‘em a head start by providing them with your recommended solutions. Products certified with “Greenguard,” “Floorscore,” “Indoor Advantage,” “CRI Plus” and “Level” are among those that support current emissions standards (California Standard Method) for indoor air quality.
Companies today are running lean and continuously looking for ways to operate even leaner. The upside? “Green” is inherently lean. If you can come up with a creative greener solution to a problem in your workplace, you’re helping put your employer at a competitive advantage — either by contributing to improved employee health and productivity, directly finding ways to save money, or by improving the organization’s image. What employer wouldn’t want that?
Any local success stories to share?
Yes, and let me preface that with a recommendation: Ask your management to solicit green solution ideas from the employees; create some competition in the process and you’ll get some interesting results! One pharmaceutical company in Silicon Valley recently held an eco-office contest and awarded its employees with cash prizes for the top three changes that the company could implement to make them a greener business. They changed all of their ceiling light fixtures from three fluorescent bulbs to two, installed timed-motion sensors in all lighted areas so that the lights shut off automatically when nobody is working in the area, and installed low-flow faucets in the bathrooms. These green changes are helping the company operate less expensively, so the company adopted these employee recommendations immediately.
Where can I learn more?
Resources for greening your organization: Our local readers should take advantage of the free resources available from the non-profit organization Bay Area Green Business. This service is free to any Bay Area business or organization interested in greening their organization and provides step-by-step guidance to setting sustainable goals and implementing those changes. Visit their website at: http://www.greenbiz.ca.gov/.
Resources for the environment and your health at work: Proactively educating yourself is a good place to start. Prevention is the best cure, and helping your organization to green its practices is a good way to prevent environmental health hazards from becoming a health issue. Your workplace shouldn’t make you sick. If you suspect a problem or want to preempt one from happening, start with the Environmental Protection Agency website at: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/sbs.html. In California, you can take advantage of the first state indoor air quality program in the nation: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/iaq/Pages/default.aspx. In addition to public agencies, there are online public forums that provide practical information. Environmental Illness Resource is one such organization. Visit them at www.ei-resource.org.
Resources to get on board with the green business community: If you have interest in learning more about leadership and networking in sustainable development in the private business sector, a great resource is www.greenbiz.com.
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited Dorothy Lane Ryan