Sustainability in the workplace.

Perhaps you have worked in an environment where your priorities don’t quite line up with those of your colleagues. Regardless, some of us continue to work for these places. Maybe the job is a part-time gig to help pay the rent, or perhaps the job is otherwise great, but it still fails to align with all of your values.

For those of us who consider ourselves to be environmentally conscious individuals, it can become overwhelming and discouraging to work in an environment where needless waste is a habit: paper is thrown in the garbage, water is left running, or the lights are consistently left on. Chances are, your co-workers and the company that you work for do care about their impact on the planet, but may just be simply unaware of their own habits. Or, perhaps they don’t realize that there are ways to be sustainable that don’t involve splurging on an electric car.

How do you begin to affect change in the workplace? The best way to start is to have a conversation with your co-workers. You could mention that there are many ways to lessen their impact on the planet that are neither inconvenient or expensive. Further, you could also talk about how companies that take decisive sustainability measures are often perceived as more credible and attractive to customer preferences. If customers know that the places where they buy coffee, groceries, and clothes prioritize sustainability, then they will be more inclined to continue supporting these businesses. For instance, the first Zero Waste Market in Vancouver is getting a lot of attention for their commitment to eliminate waste. Additionally, JJ Bean (a coffee shop in Vancouver) posts many signs they post about how their recycling and composting practices.

Through conversation, you can help your company pursue good habits designed to influence other employees to also take part in sustainable workplace practices. Should an individual employee need reminders to participate in sustainable habits, it is likely preferable for supervisors to address this and take responsibility for enforcing new practices. It can also be helpful for co-workers to help each other out through friendly reminders. This being said, it’s important to be respectful of your co-workers and their space. Commenting on someone’s recycling practices can easily feel like an attack. People get defensive. Remember, you are all working together.

So, what are some things you can do to help build a sustainable work environment?

1) Recycle. If you haven’t already, setting up a recycling program should be a priority. Usually, all it takes is a small investment in recycling bins, followed by creating awareness regarding diversion of waste and recycling, including food waste. Most cities allow for the recycling of all containers, hard plastics, paper, refundables, and green waste (there may be an option to recycle soft plastic as well, but that varies). For example, the city of Vancouver has implemented a Greenest City Action Plan to be completed by 2020, part of of which involves substantially reducing landfill waste.

2) Reduce food waste. Many cities have implemented green waste programs to keep food out of the garbage. If you work in the city, your company should already be attempting to meet these targets. If you work elsewhere, consider looking into what targets, if any, your city has in place, or see what Vancouver is doing to decrease and better sort its waste.

3) Turn off the lights. This might seem like a small thing, but in many office buildings, lights get left on all day, even in rooms that are unoccupied. In many cases, this is not necessary (but always check with your supervisor before you go turning off all the lights in the building!). Turning out the lights when you leave a room is an easy habit to acquire. People pick up on it quickly if you lead by example.

4) Be wary of your water usage. If you work in food service you will use a lot of water throughout the day: washing, cleaning, sanitizing, the list goes on. There are many procedures that need to be followed to maintain a clean, safe environment for food, but there are still ways to conserve water. For example, don’t leave the tap running when cleaning cloths or washing dishes. Instead of washing one at a time, fill a sink with soapy water and scrub before putting them through a sanitizer. It’s easy to monitor your personal water usage, all it takes is a little awareness.

5) Keep track of temperature. Become familiar with the heating and cooling system in your workplace. As summer slowly approaches (in most areas of Canada), we begin to have warmer days where air conditioning is used more often. If you can do without, it’s better to open windows and use fans; but if the A/C does have to be on, make sure you know when it turns on and off. Having windows open and the A/C on is a pure waste of energy as all that carefully cooled air goes flying right out the window into the hot summer day. The same is true for the fall when heating gets turned on for the first time. You may not be able to control the temperature, but knowing when it turns on and how it works will allow you to regulate the temperature of the room, and yourself, better.

6) Drink (your coffee) responsibly. Do you drink your coffee from a single-use cup or a reusable mug? Working in a cafe, I see a lot of cups go straight into the landfill after use. If you go to a coffee shop where they offer to-stay mugs, take this opportunity to  sit, relax and feel comfortable knowing you’re helping the planet just by taking a few minutes for yourself. If you are in a hurry and on-the-go, a travel mug is a great investment. It keeps your drink warm, they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes for your hot or cold beverage needs, they’re portable, and they’re easy to seal and store. Many coffee shops give discounts for bringing your own mug. It’s a win-win for you and the planet!

Depending on the nature of your job, there may be some aspects of sustainability where making progress is relatively easier or more difficult than others. Whatever the issues may be, if you are concerned about something, it is worth beginning to ask questions.

Once you have some potential solutions ready to go, why not offer some incentives to kickstart these new sustainable initiatives? Make a team challenge where you compete against to become the supreme resource conservers (with prizes, of course!).

The key to getting people involved is making sustainable practices accessible and fun. Buying an electric car, riding your bike, or switching to solar power are all great ways to lessen your impact, but they aren’t options for everybody - and that’s okay. Making changes in the workplace by starting a conversation, utilizing recycling programs, turning off lights, and being conscious of your resource consumption are helpful, and any opportunity to develop sustainable habits is an opportunity worth taking.

Big changes can rise from seemingly small adjustments to environmental habits. As you and your co-workers come together to build a successful business, we as human beings must come together to sustain a healthy planet.