Eliza Erskine is the founder of Green Buoy Consulting, a New York City-based company that builds sustainability into small and early-stage businesses.
If you care about the sustainability of what you wear, eat, and buy, office life can sometimes be like putting on a different personality. But there are strategies to continue your environmental habits at the office, including leading by example, finding an ally, and looking at the big picture. You can use any combination of these to develop a conscious office mindset without ruffling feathers at work.
Take these as suggestions with your company knowledge in mind. You know your company office, culture, situation and employment better than I do. If these tips seem too forward, would put you in a precarious position or make office life difficult, please do not take them. Like with everything — family, friends, your health — practice sustainability in your professional life at your comfort level.
Lead by Example
If you’re already an eco-chic babe, you are setting an example without realizing it. You carry a reusable water bottle, say no to fast fashion and are conscious about your food choices. Do this at work, too! Bring your water bottle into meetings, your lunch in reusable containers, and answer questions about your vintage blouse. My coworker picks up his weekly CSA (community supported agriculture) share at lunch and brings it to his desk. People ask about the tomatoes or kale peeking out of the tote. These coworkers were unaware of community supported agriculture before, but by simply running a usual errand, he garnered interest and shared about local food, farms, and organics. Better yet, if your CSA box is too big for just you, ask your coworkers if anyone else wants to buy in. If you get enough signups, some CSAs will drop off all the boxes right at your office.
To help reduce the amount your office sends to the landfill, examine plastic in food consumption first. When you pick up lunch with coworkers, be conscious of plastic, like bags and utensils. Carry your salad in a tote or just hold it without the bag. Try to use silverware if you bring food back to eat at your desk. Bring a mug to grab your 3 pm coffee across the street. These small steps help limit daily plastic consumption.
Be conscious of paper and reduce electricity. Print double-sided and question the need to print at all each time you go to click, “print.” Put your computer in sleep mode at the end of the day. Turn off the lights in empty conference rooms and offices to cut energy consumption.
If these actions prompt questions, answer them! I once had a co-worker remark I was, “Always washing dishes,” as I washed my mug each day. I said I preferred to drink coffee from a mug because I didn’t like the taste of Styrofoam in my mouth. Leading by example is not a soapbox or shaming others, it means showing an ecological alternative and making it look easy and good.
Find an Ally
If you’re lucky, you have an office mentor or close friend. If you’re hoping to get other people thinking sustainably, your ally can help gauge office culture and interest around this topic. Use this person as a sounding board and ask for their support as you take on an environmental leadership role.
Start by asking them to start using a water bottle, or bringing their own mug. Two people with a water bottle in a meeting or washing dishes enhances environmental visibility in the office and makes it seem less like your personality quirk and more like a movement. I gave a coworker a water bottle for Christmas after she complained office cups didn’t hold enough water. She has more water at her disposal and stopped using plastic.
Create a Sustainability Brain Trust
Once you are leading by example and have an ally, find others to join your tribe. This can look like a Meatless Monday lunch share, office dishware cupboard or environmental book club. Make sure these actions take place during a lunch hour or other specified non-work time. Like your ally, these groups can also be good discussions about general sustainability or brainstorming other ways to make the office less wasteful. Multiple eco-minded employees reduce more plastic and electricity and increase visibility.
Engage Decision Makers in Sustainability
Please consider this only as you feel comfortable doing so. To make requests like reducing plastic cups or requesting food waste separation, find the person you need to speak to — usually the office manager — and make a specific request. Use kindness, common sense and have a general idea of how the request benefits the company. And again, consider your company culture in engagement.
To remove plastic cups, use this conversation as an example, “I notice that we buy plastic cups, but more than half of the office uses water bottles. I’d like to do a cost-benefit analysis of getting rid of cups and using water bottles, is that something I can talk to you about? I think it would help us save money long-term.” This request is specific, not soapbox-y and shows how it benefits the company. If it’s a yes, take it to the next step. If it’s a no, get a better understanding of why and use the information for future engagement.
I find making a specific request more effective than a general, “I’d like to make the office more sustainable.” Like an email that says, “I’d love to pick your brain” versus, “I know you went to school at Yale, do you have ten minutes to talk about your experience there?” Which one are you more likely to respond to?
Focus on the Big Picture
If you are a company within a larger office building, research the building. The number of office buildings with green building certifications is growing in the United States. Contact the building manager through their website or ask the office manager for contact information. Property managers are usually responsible for the entire building complex and can talk about the building’s recycling, trash and energy policies. If the building is responsible for trash and energy efficiencies, your office follows their guidelines. And if you feel uncomfortable discussing sustainability with superiors at work, speaking with the building might feel less consequential.
Tell them you’re interested in sustainability and see what they say. If their policies are lacking, ask if they’ve heard about green building standards and how they can help reduce building costs.
We are all just trying to do our best for the planet. I hope these tips help you feel more comfortable bringing sustainability into your office environment. If you have tips or successes to share, please share them in the comments below!