By "sustainability" we can mean many different things. But what is sustainability in fact? A sustainable operation is one that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs", as stated in the 1987 UN Brundtland Report.
It is a very complex system, and as ordinary people we cannot often think about the points at which the sustainability of a product or service may fail. If you want to live sustainably, you have to adopt and follow a set of rules of thumb based on thorough research and analysis. In general, however, our way of life is sustainable if its material flows are circular, i.e. if they fit into the natural order.
What does this mean in the life of a company or office?
In relation to the way the world works, consider a small 'ecosystem': the office. The pursuit of this sustainability must start in the building design process and be kept in mind throughout construction and operation. For the sake of simplicity, let us now focus on the operation (as sustainability in design and construction requires the expertise of professionals), office life, which plays a significant role in most of our lives.
There are basically 3 main aspects to keep in mind:
Carbon footprint of companies
Everyone has heard the carbon footprint concept.
The carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) produced by our activities.
Interestingly, the average annual carbon dioxide emissions per person in the United States, for example, is 16 tonnes, one of the highest in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is close to 4 tonnes. To have the best possible chance of avoiding a 2°C rise in global temperatures, the average annual global carbon footprint would have to fall below 2 tonnes by 2050.
This may seem like a big leap and indeed, reducing the individual carbon footprint from 16 tonnes to 2 tonnes is not an overnight process! However, if we make small changes to our daily habits - such as eating less meat, travelling with fewer transfers, drying our clothes outdoors - we can make a big difference.
It is a surprising and frightening fact that buildings are responsible for half of the world's energy consumption and nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Since we spend most of our day in our workplace buildings, it makes a difference how we behave there.
Corporate Carbon Footprint (CCF)
The need for carbon footprint calculations has been growing in recent years at the corporate level. It allows a company to assess the climate impact of the products or services it produces, to measure its own environmental performance, or even as a benchmark against competitors. Calculating the carbon footprint is relatively simple and the results are easy to understand for business, government and consumers.
The corporate carbon footprint is a measure of a company's GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. Depending on whether the company wants to look only at direct emissions from the organisation, indirect emissions from the organisation's operations or other indirect emissions, different scopes of corporate carbon footprint calculations can be made.
There is a growing desire for companies to offset the GHGs emitted from the production of a company or a product, or for a company to operate in a carbon neutral way. This means offsetting those parts of the carbon footprint that cannot be further reduced by optimising own operations. Carbon offsetting involves offsetting the GHG emissions from a company's operations or product production by purchasing carbon credits. The amount paid for the credits is used to finance a technology/project that reduces GHG emissions. Even financing geographically distant projects is a credible basis for a company to reduce the contribution of its activities to climate impacts, as climate change is a global problem.
As a result of the neutralisation, the company can say that as much as it contributes to the greenhouse effect, it also contributes to the reduction of emissions, i.e. overall the company becomes GHG neutral. Neutrality can be communicated in a credible way if it is accompanied by a measurable carbon reduction commitment and strategy.
Fortunately, an increasing number of large companies have realised that they cannot just focus on the present. These include Disney, General Motors, and Delta Air Lines, which is committed to tackling climate change and has set targets of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In the medium term, they hope to move to sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
There are already many places online where you can calculate your carbon footprint, whether individual or corporate. This makes it easy to assess the direction in which an office should move. However, there are some attitudes that can be useful for all offices in general to adopt in order to be sustainable.
Without being exhaustive, we have put together some simple but surprisingly positive changes that can be introduced in offices:
- Use renewable energy - this is a good example of why this approach is important from the design stage of the office building, as retrofitting is more difficult
- Use LED bulbs - these are 80% more efficient than traditional CFL bulbs. Just think of the energy savings for an office or office building!
- Turning off devices at the end of the day.
- Conscious waste management - You wouldn't know how much this involves. This could be a separate post, but let's keep it short:
- Motivate employees to follow a flexitarian diet - This may seem like a fad today, but the fact is that food (meat specifically) is responsible for 70% of the global biodiversity loss. We can do a lot by taking small steps such as ordering much less meat for meetings, team-building and corporate events, but better quality meat dishes that favour local producers, with a higher proportion of vegetables and whole grains. Office kitchens should have more vegan and vegan menus, but fewer dishes with meat and exotic ingredients.
- A paperless office - if you do need paper, make sure you use 'deforestation-free' paper that is 100% recycled or FSC certified.
- Develop a travel policy - motivate employees to travel by foot, bike or public transport, even with an extra benefit or competition. Consider which meetings require face-to-face meetings and travel.
- Supporting local small and independent businesses - buying stationery from a small stationery shop down the street, buying office honey from an employee's parents' apiary, etc...
- Checking suppliers - give preference to companies whose ethics and environmental practices are similar to our own. If we communicate these clearly to our partners, we do a lot to motivate other companies to operate in a greener, more sustainable way.
- Sustainability of investments - When we think about sustainability, we often forget to look at where we are investing our money. Sadly, many pensions and other investments support harmful industries such as fossil fuels, deforestation, guns and tobacco. Look for planet-friendly investors and recommend them to employees.
- Life-cycle thinking - Focusing on life-cycle thinking benefits businesses in the long term: choose products that are built to last, repairable, recycled.
- Giving back to the local environment, community - An annual volunteering day with a local charity is a great way to support our immediate environment. Plus, a day out in nature together is refreshing and can bring the team closer together!
These are just a few ideas that can be put to good use, of course there are other ways to go about it, but if that's all every office and company does, we've already taken a huge step towards reducing our carbon footprint.
A healthy workplace
This is also a very complex concept. The more of us there are, the more things that are good for us. The 'well-being office' movement is spreading in more and more companies, focusing on the well-being of their employees. This is of course in the long-term interest not only of the employee but also of the company, as a healthy and balanced workforce is more productive, more efficient, more creative and less likely to make mistakes. They also have lower turnover, which saves the company a surprising amount of time, energy and money.
There's no one general rule for a healthy workplace: what works well for an IT start-up probably won't work for an accountancy firm. It is worthwhile to have a specialist assess your office's weaknesses, strengths and opportunities, and follow his or her recommendations to create a truly healthier workplace. In the meantime, things to look out for include: ergonomic furniture, adequate lighting (preferably with as much natural light as possible), the right temperature, air quality, green plants in the office, mandatory rest periods, communal spaces and adequate exercise.
Efficiency and profitability
The third point, although closely related to the previous one, should be considered separately. When a company is considered efficient also varies from company to company. It clearly depends on the well-being of the employees (a satisfied and healthy employee likes and can work, loves, appreciates and does his/her job), as mentioned earlier. In addition, resource efficiency is of paramount importance: smart office technology allows resources to be used as efficiently as possible. Thanks to the IoT (Internet of Things), for example, the smart office allows activities, functions and resource use to be monitored. It also integrates with external processes, providing previously unimaginable access to data that can help track progress towards sustainability goals.
Implementing different management systems can make a big difference to the efficiency of a company. And if it is also important to demonstrate a commitment to reducing negative environmental impacts in day-to-day operations, then ISO 14001: Environmental Management System can be a good option. This can reflect a company's environmental responsibility, differentiate it from its competitors and demonstrate its commitment to its existing and potential customers.
Fortunately, there are now many ways to make your office more sustainable - it's up to you to invest the time, energy and money to create a greener, healthier future. These may seem like big decisions at first, but in the long run they will pay off economically, healthily and environmentally.