12 Ways to Green Your 21st Century Office

Photo: bfishadow/Flickr.

In business, going green is more than a marketing slogan: it's the new way of doing things. It's an edge — a method by which you can improve your company's bottom line while acting responsibly toward your customers, employees and the environment.

Back home, you've swapped your incandescent bulbs for CFLs; installed low-flow shower heads, weather stripping and an electronic thermostat; you're eating more local and organic foods; and recycling is finally second nature.

Good job. But how does one scale personal progress in green living to the more complex structures of the 21st century workplace? At home, you have full control. But in a business setting, there are co-workers, customers and possibly investors involved — and nobody is ever in a hurry to change traditional operating practices. Bringing sustainability into the workplace is a long-term commitment, whether you're responsible for two employees or 2,000.

The good news is this: green business is profitable business. So, to help you get started, we've rounded up 12 specific actions you can take to starting greening the way you work. Pick a few, drop them into your organizer, and let's get started!

1. Share the ride

Organizing an office carpool can be as easy as posting a notice on your lunchroom bulletin board. While the immediate personal benefits are obvious — reducing employee impact on traffic while preserving our finite energy resources — it's a great team-builder, too. Look for opportunities to place notices on company intranets and newsletters, and consider incentives for groups that organize and sustain meaningful ride-sharing programs.

2. Shut down electronics at night

Every night, computers display screensavers to millions of perfectly empty cubicles. While it's convenient to be checking e-mail within moments of picking up your morning coffee, a computer works about as hard to produce a screensaver as a spreadsheet or any other routine task. That means many office computers waste twice as much power idling as they do actually working. Take a moment to shut down at the end of the day. Modern desktops boot fairly quickly, and you'll save thousands of watts per year.

3. Dine out on eating in

Client lunch dates are an important part of business culture. But if you're routinely leaving the office to eat — particularly if that involves driving — consider packing lunch. It's probably healthier for you, you'll save gas, and you'll recover all that weekly driving time in workday productivity. Are you responsible for other workers? Make sure they have facilities for lunch, including seating away from their desks, access to a microwave, and a sink for cleaning reusable utensils and food containers.

4. Get paperless

Moving to digital documents — through creation or by scanning paper documents into a database — is usually mentioned as a means to save trees and paper. This is true. But the biggest payoff, from a business standpoint, is in data recall. Most modern desktop operating systems now feature robust search functions which drill deep into a document's texts and its particulars, such as who originated it and when. Paperless offices can save storage space and thousands of man hours each year, just by getting their data off paper and onto networks where people can access the information. It's win-win: save forests and precious time with digital documents.

5. Recycle the paper you must use

Whether you're disposing of scanned documents or just juggling the little scraps of paper that tend to multiply like bunnies around the office, recycling is a no-brainer. Not only is it kinder to the environment, recyclable paper may actually be a salable commodity for larger offices and businesses. Set up convenient recycling hoppers around your workplace, along with smaller bins for each desk and cubicle. There's no reason the zero waste can't mean the office, too.

6. Be smart about lighting

Does your workplace have windows? Is their light blocked by cubicle walls and storage units? It might be time to rethink the arrangement of your workspace. Natural lighting is healthy and free — and it sure beats those industrial fluorescent tubes. Consider decentralizing the way individual spaces are lit. Rather than roof fixtures, it may be smarter to install energy efficient lighting at each desk. Of course, if you're going CFL (compact fluorescent light bulbs), be sure to add expended bulbs to the things that get properly recycled. And your mom was right: turn off lights when you're done with them. Millions of watts are wasted each night lighting empty offices and parking lots. Save energy and curb light pollution by illuminating only what you need.

7. Leverage instant messaging and teleconferencing technology

During World War II, offices and alleyways were plastered with posters urging resource conservation. One of the most common was, "Is this trip really necessary?" The slogan still applies today, particularly in view of broadband network connections and powerful real-time instant messaging and teleconferencing tools. With fuel prices up and travel more expensive than in previous years, it makes sense to replace some trips and conventions with electronic events. Not every computer needs a camera — and this might represent a security risk to some companies, anyway — but teleconferencing is a great way to save resources while improving communication with customers and co-workers.

8. Green your office cleaning supplies

Office supply cabinets contain some of the most powerful toxins allowed for sale — often in institutional quantities. Just as at home, swapping chemical cleaning agents for non- or less-toxic natural equivalents can go a long way toward greener, safer indoor spaces.

9. Reduce indoor air pollution

Indoor smoking is already a thing of the past in many parts of the world. But offices remain loaded with plastics, artificial fibers and finished surfaces which may disperse volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. Some kinds of common office equipment — fax machines, copiers and printers — emit pollutants and odors. Keep office air conditioning and ventilation equipment in good repair. Locate offending equipment away from occupied workspaces. And take air quality concerns into consideration when making purchase decisions.

10. Replace the watercooler with a quality filtration unit

There's no reason "water cooler talk" can't be "water filter chat." The ubiquitous water cooler is a nice convenience for office workers, but bottled water, even five gallon quantities, isn't a good deal. Consider installing reverse osmosis water filters, instead. In many cases, the quality of filtered tap water exceeds that of bottles, particularly when you take haphazard cleaning of office coolers into account. Go with the filter, and encourage employees to bring stainless steel or food-grade polycarbonate water bottles to work, rather than wasting paper cups.

11. Buy reconditioned office equipment and recycled supplies

Virtually everything for modern business can be purchased in refurbished condition: computers, desks, copiers — you name it. Refurbished goods are often sold with manufacturer's warranties and are, in most respects, identical to new items. Expect to save 20-30 percent on refurbished equipment, and up to 50 percent on used. Recycled office supplies are available from paper to printer cartridges. Choosing refurbished or recycled gear is good for the bottom line and for the Earth, keeping older equipment out of landfills and saving resources which would have been used to manufacture something new.

12. Form a green office committee

Sustainability in business is a day-by-day, department-by-department commitment. Form a standing committee to regularly brainstorm and implement green strategies. And here's a little secret: it's usually the front-line employees, not middle managers, who find effective and practical economies. Ask for their input, act on their best suggestions, and reward results.

Get the idea? Once you get started, other actions will begin to suggest themselves. Network with peers to find out what is working for them. Tap into great resources such as Joel Makower's green business blog. Provide green living information to your staff — keeping green issues top of mind is how real change becomes self-sustaining. And and if you already have some ideas on best practices, please share them in the comments section.

Here's to your success!

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2007

See also:

• Green office products