Greening your workplace

Don't return to work without your eco agenda

If you’ve been working remotely for the past year and a half, there may be some discussion about — or even some plans for — a return to in-person work. Of course this can bring up a mess of difficult feelings and worries (breathing the same air as other people has never been so disgusting), but one good thing about an eventual return is the opportunity to have a positive environmental impact.

Resuming office life is what happiness and habit expert Gretchen Rubin would call “a clean slate”: something disruptive has wiped away old patterns and habits and given you the opportunity to conscientiously craft new ones. This is your chance to start fresh, on a personal or an office-wide level.

The other thing that might make it easier to green your workplace? The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which you may have been avoiding, having caught the sulphurous whiff of fire and brimstone from the headlines. No need to read all 3,000 pages, but I’d recommend this excellent summary (laced with an appropriate amount of encouragement) from climate writer Eric Holthaus. If you can’t even bring yourself to read that, the TL;DR:

  • climate change is incontrovertibly human-wrought and we have all the science to prove it

  • our window to avoid catastrophic climate effects has gotten even shorter and DRAMATIC intervention is required, so giddy-up

As Holthaus says, “Time has run out for anything but radical change.”

As I say, climate change is here, and it’s basically Jenna Maroney on speed: unpredictable, self-absorbed, and an agent of chaos and destruction wherever it goes.

Now, that’s bad news, yes (oh very yes), but it’s also the documentation you need to encourage others to take action. I love a receipt! Now is the time to be ambitious, and aside from the moral aspect — the children, sea turtles, etc. — the consequences are already here and will only get worse within our lifetimes. And that, even the most cold-hearted Wall Street bro would admit, is bad for business.

You may be wondering: has remote working been greener all along? Transport is one of our biggest personal sources of emissions, and the average American commutes one hour round-trip. Those commutes add up to 3.2 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per year, which, by the way, is almost the entire annual footprint of a person living in Mexico.

But, as this Bloomberg article explains, the emissions from working don’t disappear, they just shift, often in ways that make them less energy efficient. If many employees moved to bigger rural or suburban houses during the pandemic, a company’s carbon footprint might actually shift higher. Similarly, if a company decides to work remotely and meet up quarterly, and that requires flights, all of those commute savings are more than obliterated. (FMFPers know that flying is the most carbon-intensive action in most people’s lives.) You (or someone at a head office with all the relevant info) can crunch the numbers and figure out what happened to your company’s footprint with this nifty tool. (At my office, for example, it looks like emissions will drop 7% on a return to work.)

What kinds of things can we do to move the needle?

Make a green team.

If you’re part of a bigger company, recruit some other eco-minded folks to brainstorm changes and how they might be implemented. People with diverse roles and viewpoints can offer the most comprehensive and useful feedback. Ask people (the whole office even, if you make a survey) what they would change upon their return.

Your highest impact will always come from creating new company policy (see the next section for more on that), but you also might find some smaller, short-term wins to change day-to-day actions and office culture:

  • Switch to 100% post-consumer waste (PCW) printer paper. It’s more expensive, but if everyone’s printing less now, it shouldn’t make much of a difference to the bottom line. (We just jumped from 30% PCW to 100% at my office.)

  • Adjust your office temperature set point so less climate control is required. Office temps are generally based on a male metabolic rate, which is why women so often need office sweaters, even in summer. Broaden the range of natural temperatures in the name of gender equity and the environment. (By the way, did you know “room temperature” is a relatively recent invention? According to J.B. MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping, “In European countries such as the UK and the Netherlands, room temperatures of 13 to 15 degrees were once considered normal. In the US, the standard for winter comfort rose from 18 degrees in 1923 to 24.6 degrees in 1986.”) A smart or programmable thermostat could also make sure less energy is being used on evenings and weekends.

  • Switch to vegetarian (or more vegetarian) food if you have catered meals.

  • Do some waste education. I’m my company’s resident waste wizard (or trash tyrant, depending on who you ask) and was unhappy with our terrible trash sorting, so I made a quiz and turned it into a quick team event at a staff meeting. Once we’d reviewed the rules together, our waste diversion was up to even my high standards. Improving signage around disposal areas can help; studies suggest that showing what DOES go in a bin, as opposed to what doesn’t, is more effective. And pictures are useful too.

Change company policy.

Put that IPCC report in your back pocket and ask about office-wide goals or certifications, like reducing the amount you fly or becoming a B-Corp (which we discussed last month). Maybe you’re just an outpost in a corporate empire, but you can still send on your concerns to the people at the top.

I’m lucky to work somewhere where these conversations have been well received and have even opened the door to others, such as holding our bank accountable for its loans to the fossil fuel industry.

If you’re a member of an industry association or union, you can also suggest eco-focused programming for other businesses. I’ve hosted a couple sustainability panels for the publishing industry, and these absolutely thrill me, because you can scale your impact way up. I also programmed an industry conference last year and used my power to make human and environmental well-being central to the agenda.

Brag about your wins.

Y’all know I love talking about our wins, and it’s something we can and should do beyond the personal. If your company is going to make some green changes, share that with clients and your business community. This could mean more business: Edelman’s Earned Brand 2018 report showed that 64% of consumers would reward firms they see as engaged in some kind of activism. The firm’s 2020 brand trust report showed that 80% of people believe that solving society’s problems matters most for brands today.

Beyond that, though, I want us all to be talking about the good things we’re doing and planning so we can normalize these efforts and set new standards.

Change up your commute.

One of our biggest levers for reducing our footprint is transportation, cars specifically. The best thing a person can do is have no car whatsoever, but for many that’s not an option. With driving, a harm reduction model can help: maybe you can’t quit, but let’s make your use less damaging.

  • If you can commute on foot, by bike, or on public transit, even some of the time, definitely do that. All fantastic options that are good for your health and/or for the planet. (And if you can’t commute this way, support the infrastructure and funding that makes it easier for other people to do so.)

  • Carpool to save you stress and money and bring some more personal connection into your day.

  • Go electric. If it’s economically feasible for you, an electric car does make a difference. (More on EVs here.)

  • Work remotely more often. Even if you can work from home two days a week, you’re cutting your transport emissions by 40%. (And if you don’t work remotely, support other people who do. A more flexible work culture is good for everyone — especially women — and for the planet.)

If it’s any inspiration, it’s likely as pandemic restrictions drop rush hour will get even worse, as it has in London and Sydney, with people driving more and taking transit less. That means more accidents, more pollution, and more of your one wild and precious life wasted in gridlock.

Work less.

Bear with me for one final, radical proposal: maybe most of us need to work less. That could mean pushing back against overtime, not taking on extra freelance work (or an extra job altogether), arguing for the six-hour workday, reducing your hours and accepting a lower salary, job-sharing, or resisting the urge to transform a hobby into a side-hustle.

Now, if you’re living below the poverty line, deep in debt or without savings, making more money is pretty non-negotiable and will improve your life. Those in poor countries would also benefit from more money to fund the fundamentals.

But there are a lot of us caught in common social traps: associating work (or income or busyness) with self-worth, pursuing extrinsic goals (ones that convey status or bring tangible rewards) vs. intrinsic ones (things that are satisfying in and of themselves), believing that more is always better and will finally bring lasting happiness. We prioritize money over time (but then complain we’re too busy), stuff over people (but then feel lonely), getting over giving (but then despair of the world).

In The Day the World Stops Shopping, J.B. MacKinnon notes, “In 2008, political scientist Robert E. Godin and his colleagues found that, by working only enough to live just above the poverty line and keeping household chores to a basic standard of social acceptability, people in the rich world could enjoy abundant free time. Most choose instead to work toward second homes, renovations, more clothes, furniture in the latest style, the newest gadgets, adventure travel — and dream of the day, forever postponed, when technology finally liberates them from daily toil.”

Many of us can remember a time when all of our possessions could fit in a car, our crappy college house or first apartment that was creaky and draughty and none of the dishes matched. Maybe your salary is double or triple or quadruple what you were earning then. Are you two or three or four times more happy? Probably not. And while I’m not suggesting we all need to move back into mouse-infested apartments, I want us all to question the more default.

Our economy is based on infinite growth on a finite planet, and that’s finally caught up to us — the IPCC report is a giant bill marked PAST DUE. And while I understand that the economy has just taken a huge blow with coronavirus, that was unplanned, and a slower, more careful deceleration is possible and probably necessary for those of us in rich countries if we’re going to stop bogarting the world’s resources.

If you worked a bit less and spent a bit less (especially on those things associated with overwork: car maintenance, gas, convenience food and takeout, work attire, etc.), could you buy some freedom? More time with your kids, or pursuing hobbies, or volunteering with a cause you care about? Those are things that will make you happy. The beautiful new dinnerware from that targeted Instagram ad? It makes you happiest when you’re considering buying it — after that it’s diminishing returns.

And, of course, you’ll be helping the environment, because generally the richer we are, the higher our footprint. MacKinnon notes, “If you are spending more money, then you are probably increasing the environmental impact of your lifestyle, and if you are spending less money, then you are probably decreasing it.” There is room for conscientious spending that supports our values, but we need to stop insisting that any and all spending is a net positive.

Last weekend, a friend lent us her off-grid cottage for the weekend. It has a small solar panel that can provide limited power, an outhouse, a small tank’s worth of running water, no internet, and almost no cell signal. Though visiting a cottage is in itself a luxury, it was also an exercise in living simply and the perfect place to read The Art of Frugal Hedonism, a guide to joy and freedom on the cheap and a prompt to think about what will really make you happy — longer hours at the office may not be required.


  • With the IPCC report fresh and urgent and a return to work on the horizon, it’s a great time to start a green team at your workplace.

  • Write to the people in power at your company: ask them about their environmental goals — new policies around flights and the potential for an ethical certification like B-Corp are good places to start.

  • If you can bring your green values and know-how to an industry association, you can level up your impact.

  • If you are returning to the office, do whatever you can to commute less by car, and encourage others to do so too.

  • And for the ultimate eco impact, question the doctrine of more and consider working less.

Wins of the Week

A long quotation today, because we all may need a pep talk after the IPCC report . . .

“I’ve never seen a perfect world. I never will. But, I know that a world warmed by 2 degrees Celsius is far preferable to one warmed by 3 degrees, or 6. And that I’m willing to fight for it, with everything I have, because it is everything I have. I don’t need a guarantee of success before I risk everything to save the things, the people, the places that I love. Before I try to save myself.

Even if I can only save a sliver of what is precious to me, that will be my sliver and I will cherish it. If I can salvage just one blade of grass, I will do it. I will make a world out of it. And I will live in it and for it.

We don’t know how this movie is going to end, because we’re in the writers room right now. We’re making the decisions right now. Walking out is not an option. We don’t get to give up.

This planet is the only home we’ll ever have. There’s no place like it. And home is always, always, always worth it.” — Mary Annaïse Helgar, “Home Is Always Worth It

Everything you do, my fine friends, to make this planet a little better reaffirms your commitment to not giving up. Here are a few of our victories from the last little while:

  • Melissa and Clay canned 4.5 L of their own homegrown pickles! (Are you interested in canning? You can watch my free workshop here.)

  • Two friends are expecting a child, and their goal is to source all of their new nugget’s stuff secondhand. (“Secondhand first” is an A+ philosophy.)

  • I had another laptop to donate, and thanks to Kathleen’s recommendation on Facebook, I was able to give it to a recently arrived Syrian family who needed it for school. (Group for donations to newcomers here.)

Do you have a win to share? Hit reply, leave a comment, or share it in the FMFP Facebook group, where this month we’re also sharing some of our favourite eco-reads.

Otherwise, summer is already waning, so go out and lift your face to the sun, feel the breeze on your skin, and soak up all the life we still have around us. The news is bad, but we have so much still. We are so much still. Let’s be a solar-powered force for justice, and beauty, and all that is precious.


P.S. This week’s quick and easy bonus action item: sign this petition to ask the Canada Pension Plan to freeze fossil fuel investments and create a divestment plan. The CPP controls a colossal amount of money, and its divestment could make a big impact. (Read more on divesting in this edition of the newsy.)

Five Minutes for Planet is written by me, Jen Knoch, and edited by Crissy Calhoun. Opening photo by Marc Mueller from Pexels.