Working Towards Sustainability
A review of The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line by Leigh Stringer.
Can we save the environment without destroying our economy? How can a company take actions towards a greener future while increasing the bottom line?
The Green Workplace by Leigh Stringer, a VP at HOK and founder and editor of TheGreenWorkplace.com, aims to answer these questions. A self-confessed recent convert to sustainability and environmental issues, Stringer was inspired by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth to explore the meaning of a truly green workplace and to look at the steps necessary for companies to achieve their green goals.
Drawing on case studies and examples from a range of organizations, from prominent American companies like Google and Sprint to small, local firms, the author explores how to integrate green thinking into the workplace, not only implementing concrete changes but transforming the way employees think about themselves and their work.
Growing populations, increased concern about climate change, demographic shifts, and the financial crisis are driving companies to rethink how they do business and to make fundamental changes in how they manage their assets, including people, buildings and finances. While many companies are greening their physical space, Stringer stresses that a green workplace is about more than sustainable building design—it’s about changing our perception of work.
The author begins by addressing why companies should become green in the first place, citing environmental reasons such as our growing ecological footprint, addiction to oil, unsustainable water, energy, and raw material use, and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. The statistics are alarming: it takes 37 gallons of water to produce one cup of coffee, 713 gallons for a cotton t-shirt, and 1,921 gallons for a pound of beef. Ninety-nine per cent of the energy powering transportation is from fossil fuels, 97 per cent of which is derived from petroleum. Only 33 per cent of waste is recycled in the US.
In spite of these disturbing numbers, Stringer is frank about that fact that the most important driver for organizations is money. Although genuinely concerned about their environmental impact, at the end of the day, the emphasis for most companies is on the bottom line. While this might be disillusioning for some—myself included—it is nonetheless realistic, and likely the most powerful argument for the corporate players reading this book. If we truly care about business sustainability, we must push our cynicism aside and recognize that if saving green is what it takes to make a company go green, this is far better than doing nothing at all.
Stringer’s solutions range from the obvious—minimizing water, energy and raw material use, investing in alternative energy, reducing driving and flying—to the more innovative, such as upgrading to furniture and finishes without VOCs, keeping the workplace clean using green products, ventilating well, and enforcing health standards. She also highlights how technology can be leveraged to enable a green workplace by enabling mass collaboration, making work more efficient and effective, influencing behaviour, and allowing the construction of green buildings.
But most importantly, Stringer emphasizes, change must occur throughout the organization, at all levels and in all departments. In order for this to happen, companies must recognize and support grassroots efforts, provide tools to educate and engage workers, create new business frameworks for measuring performance that take environmental issues into consideration—such as the triple bottom line, which emphasizes people, profit and the planet—and create new roles and responsibilities devoted to sustainability. This is in fact one of the book’s most compelling arguments: a green workplace is about much more than reducing paper use or rolling out a recycling program. A combination of centralized and decentralized strategies is necessary, as is the commitment and participation of employees throughout the organization.