How to Go Green: Work From Home

Woman standing by a table working from home

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Working from home can be a great alternative to a desk in a cubicle, but, as many people who try it will tell you, it isn't as easy as slapping your laptop down on the dining room table. And, while wearing pajamas all day might sound nice, it doesn't make the cut for many who work from home. Still, whether you embrace the romantic-sounding ideals of managing a home office or not, one thing remains true: It can be way greener than commuting to an office every day.

From cutting out the commute to scaling back on unnecessary paper or energy use, there are tons of ways that working from home can help make you just as happy, healthy, and successful as you might be working in an office, but it isn't quite as simple as inserting recycled paper in your printer tray. You'll want to take action to insure you create and maintain a healthy home working environment, and do things like schedule sufficient breaks, to help keep your mind and body moving throughout the day.

And, while it's easy to concentrate on the environmental benefits of working from home, the mental and emotional ones are sometimes just as important, which is while it's important to carefully consider a space in which you can comfortably, productively work (and not just an empty closet you don't have anything else to do with). The benefits--environmental, emotional, or otherwise--can be myriad, so if you hate commuting, if you're most productive outside a traditional 9-5 schedule, or if you just got laid off, then working from home might be the answer. And while some of the green changes you'd make by skipping the office are obvious--like cutting your carbon output by not commuting and saving on disposable lunch containers--there are dozens more choices, from desks to chairs to pencils, that you can turn into an opportunity to support eco-friendly products. Read on to learn how to go green while working from home.

1. Find a Job You Can Do From Home

Ideally, you'll be able to talk to your employer about formatting your current job into one you can do from home-even working from home just one or two days a week can make a big impact on the environment. But if your boss is one of the many who aren't willing to let employees telecommute, then it might be time to look for a position that's based out of your home, or become a freelancer or consultant in your field. Even better: Find a green job you can do without leaving your house, or start your own green business.

2. Choose a Workspace

Before you can start greening your office, you need an office to green. And the kind of surroundings that make someone else productive might not work best for you--just look at the differences in TreeHugger writers' home offices, which range from urban enclaves to living room sofas to moving trains. General wisdom is that setting aside a space dedicated only to work helps you stay focused and motivated; keeping it free of distractions--kids, non-work phone calls, and the UPS guy--lets you concentrate. If you can find a space that actually inspires you-because of the view, the architecture, or any other quality-even better. Of course, fresh air, big windows, and plenty of sunlight won't hurt either; studies have shown that pulling the curtains and opening a window to catch the breeze makes workers more productive.

3. Find a Desk

This is going to be the place where you spend most of your days from now on, so think carefully about what kind of desk you want, need, and have space for. Looking for tons of drawers? A big work surface? Or something modular that you can push out of the way when company comes? No matter what your preferences are, you can find environmentally-safe desks that fits the bill. Skip the particleboard (sorry, IKEA lovers: It's full of VOCs) and opt instead for sustainable wood or recycled metal with non-toxic finishes. Another good plan is to check antique stores, thrift shops, estate sales, yard sales, or even your attic for used desks in good condition; you can even fashion a desk out of an old door supported by filing cabinets for more character.

4. Grab a Seat

Spending the majority of your day staring at a computer sounds like it wouldn't be physically demanding, but it does take a toll on your posture, muscles, and long-term productivity. Key in an office chair: find one that's ergonomic, with good lumbar support, and adjustable to fit you. Herman Miller, Steelcase, Haworth, and Trey all offer models made in large part from recycled materials, and in colors and fabrics that are recycled and colored with non-toxic dye. For extra sustainability, look for chairs that are Greenguard or Cradle-to-Cradle certified (we'll get more into this in the Getting Techie section). And don't be afraid to splurge on a high quality chair. Once you're sitting 40 hours a week on a cheap one, you'll find the extra money is well worth it.

5. Power Up

If you're making the switch to working from home, a computer is a non-negotiable necessity. But the kind of computer? That can be up for some debate. If all you need is an internet connection, word processing, and some basic photo editing tools, then buying the fanciest processor around is a waste--you might be able to make do with what you have, or buy a smaller version, for basic use. (It's not a bad idea to buy a larger monitor, though; it's easier on your eyes and lets you see twice as much with the same power.) If you are buying a new laptop or desktop, look for one that's EPEAT-certified, so it's made with less hazardous waste than non-certified brands, or that meets Energy Star requirements.

6. Get Connected

Along with your computer, you'll probably need a few other gadgets to stay in touch with bosses and coworkers-especially if you want to be available no matter where and when they need you; think cell phone, Blackberry or iPhone, scanner, printer, and fax machine, depending on what kind of work you do. Our How to Go Green: Gadgets guide offers plenty of tips for finding the best product with the least environmental impact--check it out for information on energy ratings, recycled and recyclable electronics, renewable chargers, and buyback programs.

7. Stock up on Supplies

In a perfectly green world, your desk needs would be minimal--you'd make do with just a pen and paper for jotting quick notes, instead of an overflowing drawer of post-its, address books, notepads, pens, pencils, highlighters, thumb tacks, staples--need we go on? But if you're the type who can't pass a stationery aisle without shelling out for the fanciest fine-points and a clean, new notebook, you can still choose eco-friendly options: pencils made from sustainable wood or old denim, refillable white-board markers, recycled paper, and compostable packing materials, to name a few. Though if you're anything like we are, you likely have plenty of pens, pencils, and old notebooks in your home already; try rummaging through those junk drawers before buying new.

8. Go Paperless

Using recycled paper is great, but using no paper is even better. You're likely already using online billing for your personal life; transfer that to your professional accounts with electronically-submitted invoices and direct deposit. Investing in a good scanner lets you shred documents (try reusing them as packaging materials) and navigate them as searchable PDFs. If you have the kind of job that's impossible to do without any printing at all, try to cut back; there are free downloadable software programs that let you print just what you need from websites (without all the extra formatting), while Greenprint shows you the whole document before it prints, so you can select just the pieces you're looking for and eliminate waste.

9. Sweat the Small Stuff

The green factors you don't need to think about in a corporate office still add up when you're working at home. We're talking light bulbs, thermostat settings, air quality--it's up to you to stay on top of these in your home office. Luckily, the solutions are pretty simple. Recycle any paper you use, install compact fluorescent bulbs, wear a sweater in the winter to keep from cranking the heat (or consider using a space heater to keep your office comfortable), and open the windows in the summer (or, if it's uncomfortably hot, relocate for a few hours to your local library or coffee shop with wi-fi). Turning off your computer overnight saves energy and gives you a mental break from work, while adding a plant or an air filter can help you breathe easy.

10. Stay Healthy

While it's great for the planet that you've cut out your commute, spending all your time in the same building can drain your energy and cut into your social interaction. Make time every day to get outside, whether it's to run errands, go for a walk, or hit the gym, and get a free conference program like Skype to chat face-to-face with your boss and coworkers. Take a few minutes to look away from your computer every hour, and plan your meals and snacks to cut back on mindless munching. And when you are lucky enough to step away from the computer for extended periods of time, turn off your lights and gadgets to cut back on wasted energy.

Work From Home: By the Numbers

  • 3.3: Percentage of U.S. citizens who identified themselves as working from home in the 2000 census.
  • 15: Percentage of U.S. citizens who identified themselves as working from home at least once a week in May 2004 (including taking work home from the office).
  • 19: Average number of hours employees worked at home as of May 2004.
  • 6.7: Percentage of people unemployed as of November 2008.
  • 100: Hours a year that the average American spends commuting (compared to 80 hours a year he spends on vacation).
  • 11.5 billion: Total miles that New Yorkers commute annually.
  • 5: Percentage of New Yorkers who, if they switched from private car or taxi commute to public transportation or biking, could make the same impact as the planting of nearly 600,000 trees.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Supplemental CPS report, U.S. Census Bureau ACS report, Rolling Carbon.

Work From Home: Getting Techie


Working from home has plenty of advantages, but the more social among us can get feel a little lonely without the watercooler banter over last night's Lost, and a little uninspired without nearby coworkers to bounce ideas off. Co-working spaces--which have sprung up all over the world--are offices where freelancers and other self-employed people share space and ideas. The Coworking wiki describes it as "start with a shared office and add cafe culture. Which is the opposite of most modern cafes." Sounds like a good compromise-as long as you walk, bike, or take public transport to get there.

EPEAT Vs. Energy Star

When buying electronics, you're likely to see certifications from either Energy Star or EPEAT--but they're not addressing the same factors. Energy Star electronics have been vetted to make sure they are energy efficient; the EPA claims that if all computers met these standards, the annual greenhouse gas reduction would equal that of 2 million cars. EPEAT, on the other hand, stands for Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool; it's used by a non-profit agency to judge computers on their materials, end-of-life design, longevity, packaging, and four other qualities relating to construction and performance.

Greenguard and Indoor Air Quality

The Greenguard Environmental Institute offers three different certifications: Indoor Air Quality, Children and Schools, and Building Construction. Since the latter is targeted at commercial buildings, it's the first two that are most likely to end up in your home office. Both offer certification to products with low chemical and particle emissions-which means they won't be giving off harmful VOCs; these products include electronics, building materials, bedding, furniture, and more. Got young kids in the house? The Children and Schools certification follows stricter guidelines, but is available to adult-sized furniture.

Cradle to Cradle Certification

Design firm MBDC implemented the Cradle to Cradle certification program to identify products that are made of environmentally safe materials, intended for reuse, made with renewable energy sources, and are water and energy efficient. You'll find this label on cleaning products, office supplies, bedding, furniture, and building materials (plus much more).

Where to Buy Green Home Office Supplies

For eco-friendly furniture, check environmentally-certified design companies like Herman Miller, Knoll, Steelcase, Ergocentric, or Wilkhahn.

Stock your drawers with recycled paper and envelopes from Greenline, sustainable wood pencils from ForestChoice, SoyPrint toner from The Green Office, and hemp-based sketch paper (among other supplies) from Green Earth Office Supply.

Look for EPEAT certification on electronics products including the Apple MacBook Air, the Dell OptiPlex 360 desktop, the Hewlett-Packard L1950g LCD monitor, and the Panasonic Toughbook.