10 ways to green your work ethic

outdoor office space
© FuzzBones/Shutterstock

With reporting by Manon Verchot

A greener workplace can mean a lighter ecological footprint, a healthier and more productive place to work and good news for the bottom line. Whether you're a boss or employee, you can take practical steps to green your workplace.

More Work, Less Energy

Computers eat up energy. So set your computers to energy-saving modes and make sure to shut them down when you leave for the day ("standby" settings will continue to draw power even when not in use). By plugging hardware into a power strip with an on/off switch (or a smart power strip), you can turn off a whole desktop setup at once. Just make sure to power down inkjet printers before pulling the plug — they need to seal their cartridges. Printers, scanners and other devices that you only use occasionally can be unplugged until they're needed. And of course, turn off lights when you're not using a room.

Digitize

Even in this "digital age" we still consume enormous quantities of mashed up tree pulp, most of which gets used once or twice and then tossed or recycled ("downcycled," as McDonough and Braungart would call it). The greenest paper is no paper at all, so keep things digital whenever possible. Keep files on computers instead of in file cabinets (this also makes it easier to make offsite backup copies or take files with you when you move to a new office). Review documents onscreen rather than printing them out. Send emails instead of paper letters. New software like Greenprint eliminates blank pages from documents before printing.

Don't be a paper pusher

When buying printer paper, look for recycled paper with a high percentage of post-consumer content and as little chlorine bleaching as possible (even recycled paper gobbles up a great deal of energy, water and chemical resources). When using the real stuff, print on both sides of the page and use misprints as notepaper. If your office ships packages, reuse boxes and use shredded waste paper as packing material.

Greening the commute

American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 3.7 billion hours and 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic annually. You can ease some of this strain by carpooling, taking public transit, biking and walking. If there's no good way to phase out your car, consider getting a hybrid, electric vehicle, motorcycle or scooter, or using a car-sharing service like Flexcar or Zipcar. Some employers even give bonuses to bike and carpool commuters and special perks to hybrid drivers. For those who think biking is for kids and tattooed couriers, consider an electric or high-tech folding bike.

Green sleeves

You might be amazed at how sharp work clothes from thrift stores can look. If you buy new, get clothes made with organic or recycled fibers. Avoid clothes that need to be dry cleaned, and if they so demand it, seek out your local "green" dry cleaner. (See How to Go Green: Wardrobe for more tactics on greening those work duds.)

Work from home

Instant messaging, video conferencing and other innovative workflow tools make it easy to telecommute. So hold phone conferences, email documents and take online classes; you'll save time and spare the air. As a bonus, you get to work in your pajamas. Telecommuting works for 44 million Americans (not to mention the TreeHugger staff). Also, consider working four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days (a consolidated workweek), cutting the energy and commute time by 20 percent and giving you lovely three-day weekends.

Use green materials

If you just have to use paper, opt for recycled paper and envelopes that have been processed and colored using eco-friendly methods. Pens and pencils can also be made of recycled materials, and refillable pens and markers are preferable to disposable ones. Use biodegradable soaps and recycled paper or cloth towels in the bathroom and kitchen, and provide biodegradable cleaners for the custodial staff. Buy in bulk to reduce shipping and packaging waste, and reuse the shipping boxes. It's often free to recycle printer cartridges, and recycled replacements are cheaper than new ones.

Redesign the workspace

Start with good furniture, good lighting and good air. Furniture can be manufactured from recycled materials. Herman-Miller and Steelcase are two groundbreaking companies that have adopted the Cradle-to-Cradle protocol for many of their office chairs. Incandescent bulbs can be replaced with compact fluorescents, and there is an ever-growing selection of high-end LED desk lamps that use miniscule amounts of energy (see How to Green Your Lighting). Not only is natural daylight a free source of lighting for the office, it can improve worker productivity and satisfaction (as well as boost sales in retail settings). Workspace air quality is also crucial. Good ventilation and low-VOC paints and materials (such as furniture and carpet) will keep employees healthy.

Lunch time

Bringing lunch to work in reusable containers is likely the greenest (and healthiest) way to eat at work. Getting delivery and takeout almost inevitably ends with a miniature mountain of packaging waste. But if you do order delivery, place a large order with your coworkers. If you go out for lunch, try biking or walking instead of driving.

Get others in on the act

Share these tips with your colleagues. Ask your boss to purchase carbon offsets for corporate travel by car and plane. Arrange an office carpool or group bike commute. Trade shifts and job duties so that you can work four long days instead of five short ones. Ask the office manager to get fair trade coffee for the break room, and make sure everyone has a small recycling bin so that recycling is just as easy as throwing paper away. Ask everyone to bring in a mug or glass from home, and keep some handy for visitors.

outdoor office table desk© Alex Brylov/Shutterstock

Green Work: By the Numbers


  • Once: the number of times most of the more than 25 billion cartons manufactured in the U.S. are used.

  • 55 percent: the amount of water saved by producing recycled paper as compared to virgin paper. Recycled paper also takes 60-70 percent less energy to produce than paper from virgin pulp.

  • 120: the number of tons of steel that would be saved if every U.K. office worker used one less staple a day.

  • 8 billion: the number of gallons of gas that would be saved if every commuter car in the U.S. carried just one more person.

biking for fun or work© michaeljung/Shutterstock

Green Work: Getting Techie


Hidden power usage
We turn off our computers at night, so why are our power bills still so high? Many appliances have "standby" settings that draw power — sometimes as much as 15 or 20 watts — even when they're turned off. A 2002 report found that low power mode energy use "is responsible for about 10% of total electricity use in California homes." To make sure that computers, monitors, printers, photocopy machines, televisions, VCRs, DVD players and microwave ovens are all the way off, pull the plug rather than flipping the switch. Also, make sure any climate control systems are turned off when they aren't needed and set to energy-efficient modes when in use. You might be surprised by how much energy this saves.

Toxic Indoor Air
It is not uncommon for interior air to be more contaminated with toxic chemicals than the air outdoors. Furniture (especially particle board), carpeting and paint are common sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a family of chemicals that have been linked to birth defects, endocrine disruption and cancer. Especially if your office is well-insulated (which it should be for energy purposes), toxins can't get out easily. Greenguard is a non-profit product certifier that helps maintain healthy interior air. Herman Miller, Haworth, Knoll, Keilhauer and Izzydesign all offer Greenguard certified furniture options.

Furniture Wood Certification
The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Rainforest Alliance both certify wood from sustainably harvested forests. When your office is looking for new desks, bookshelves and dividers, try to find sustainable wood products that do not contain formaldehyde or other harmful VOCs.

10 ways to green your work ethic
A greener workplace can mean a lighter ecological footprint, a healthier and more productive place to work and good news for the bottom line.