Now that green design and LEED certification are household terms, architects and interior designers are, by necessity, more fluent than ever in sustainable design strategies. But how well are we walking the talk? Firms of all sizes increasingly are putting their businesses under the microscope and asking how they can do more to align their practices with their design principles. While firms entering this new territory of greening their practices can choose a variety of paths, some helpful guidelines are emerging.
Thanks to municipal programs and simple pragmatism, basic practices such as recycling and the use of energy-efficient lighting are second nature for most businesses. Many firms go a few steps further, replacing paper cups with mugs, purchasing environmentally friendly office supplies, and allowing for telecommuting. But realizing meaningful reductions in a business’ carbon footprint requires a deeper commitment and, often, outside assistance. If there is one point to make about greening your practice, however, it is that the benefits for your business—in terms of office morale, cost savings, and marketing—will clearly outweigh the investment.
Aiming Lower and Lower
Documenting a business’ practices is essential for setting goals and assessing progress, and while free online tools exist, third-party programs can save time and give added credibility. Programs vary from a checklist of green practices to detailed analysis, both audited and not, and many include industry benchmarking that recognizes, for example, the differing water demands of hotels and offices. In addition to considering program costs, which range from none to thousands of dollars, we were interested in obtaining solid data about our emissions since our goal was to be carbon balanced. We chose to work with Climate Smart, a Vancouver, Canada–based company that helps businesses monitor, reduce and offset their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
As a close-knit, medium-sized firm, we already had a range of sustainable business practices in place, including making notebooks from used paper, providing bicycle facilities, holding family-style office lunches (to reduce packaging waste), and Web conferencing (to reduce meeting travel). We also own our LEED Silver–certified historic office building, which gave us much broader control over building operations.
Climate Smart’s training and Web-based tools helped us document and calculate our GHG emissions for 2009 and to identify strategies for further reducing our carbon footprint. Not surprisingly, we found that business travel, though mostly limited to the West Coast region, comprised more than half of our emissions. We achieved carbon-balanced status by purchasing carbon offsets through San Francisco-based TerraPass, but we clearly had room for improvement. We saw this challenge as an opportunity to engage the entire office and to further cultivate the leadership of the younger staff members who had guided the initiative from the outset.
Our sustainable design team mapped out a year-long action plan that included encouraging car-free commuting, composting, implementing sustainable purchasing practices, and further reducing our use of energy, water, office supplies and air travel. Of course, there have been some bumps in the road—for example, convincing architects to replace their preferred pens with a refillable alternative or weighing the environmental costs of tablet readers, a quickly outdated device, against printing on recycled paper. But when we recalculate our annual GHG emissions this summer, we expect to see improved performance—requiring fewer carbon offsets—that will inform our goals for the coming year.
Positive Peer Pressure
For Cambridge, Mass.-based Tsoi/Kobus & Associates (TK&A), joining the Challenge for Sustainability—a green business initiative sponsored by local nonprofit A Better City—opened up a new network of like-minded businesses. The Challenge uses similar tools to reduce their members’ carbon footprints, but rather than certification, staff work with businesses to set annual goals for improvement. More uniquely, the Challenge hosts regular programs that provide a forum for networking and discussion, as well as an opportunity to learn how different industries are adapting.
Blake Jackson, TK&A’s sustainability practice leader, hopes that this knowledge sharing will help to address the added hurdles faced by businesses in leased offices. Tenants can have limited control over cleaning, waste removal, water, and other services managed by the landlord, yet most green business programs factor these practices.
The apples-and-oranges nature of green business certification programs eventually may drive demand for some industry standards. Until then, some simple guidelines will help firms get started:
• Lead by supporting leaders within. Cultivating a green business culture requires a team of smart, enthusiastic individuals and clear support from senior principals. Firms with multiple offices should establish teams in every office—and encourage some friendly competition.
• Find a good fit. Choose a program that fits your goals, resources, and culture. In some cases, beginning informally can help build a crucial base of support for more ambitious initiatives.
• Take a long view. Establishing achievable goals each year will help ensure your success over time.
• Celebrate. Greening your practice truly involves every staff member. Take time to recognize your collective achievements.
Climate Smart: climatesmartbusiness.com
A Better City Challenge for Sustainability: www.abettercity.org/environment/challenge.html