Greening the sector: How to create a more environmentally sustainable nonprofit office

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A line in the classic film A Princess Bride has the villain beg off watching his assistant work, explaining, “'I’ve got my country's five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped.” To this the assistant replies, “Get some rest. If you haven't got your health, you haven't got anything.”

Like the villain, those of us working in the nonprofit sector often find ourselves swamped with multiple competing priorities. Thinking about the environment might sometimes feel like one thing too many – at least when we’re at work. But while the henchman is right that our health is essential, it can equally be argued that if we don’t prioritize our planet’s health, we haven’t got anything either.

Many of us are already engaged in good sustainable practices in our work, or know what we ought to be doing and don’t want to be made to feel guilty for not doing enough.

Rest assured: we don’t want to send you on a guilt trip.

Instead, we thought it would be valuable to find out what organizations whose mission is focused on the environment do in their own office. We talked with Emma Norton, energy conservation coordinator for Halifax-based Ecology Action, Julia Duschesne, outreach & communications director, Yukon Conservation Society, Mary Jane Patterson, executive director of Kitchener’s Reep Green Solutions, and Nikki Sanchez, queen of green at the David Suzuki Foundation about how their organizations walk the talk, and what knowledge and tips they can share with the rest of us.

How to put or keep the environment on the agenda

“No matter what nonprofit you work for, you will find that the issue your organization addresses is not separate from other issues – affordable housing relates to social justice relates to environmental justice,” says Duschesne. “In many ways, taking environmental action relates to the work of your organization, and also supports the work of organizations throughout the charitable sector.”

Cultivating that awareness of the connection between mission and sustainable practices is a terrific place to start, but it can be easy to let it slide or to think we are doing enough. Environmentally focused organizations have these same challenges, but have found ways to keep this priority on the agenda.

Embedding this value in your policies and benefits is a great approach, says Patterson. “We have a Green Office Policy that addresses everything from our purchasing, to cleaning products and waste management practices.” Patterson’s organization also decided that the first benefit they would offer their employees was a monthly bus pass.

Other organizations have their staff sign a contract to be an environmental office, where they do an environmental audit and commit to reviewing their practices every two years.

Sanchez says, “I’ve found that a great place to start involves coming together to make a mission statement about our intention and desire for behavioural changes. We commit to one to five accessible, affordable changes that can be implemented right away. Once those changes are implemented and they become habitual, from there, the empowerment that comes from success motivates people to think more creatively and strategically about how we can do better.”

It often takes a person or a committee to champion sustainability initiatives. Duschesne suggests such people need to be those who know your office and are excited to make it more green. She suggests they can do everything from sending out staff surveys (asking about waste management, conservation behaviours, lights, comfort in this space, whether they get enough light, etc.) to offering friendly competitions to engage staff in sustainable behaviours.

Leaders play a pivotal role in a variety of ways when it comes to sustainability. “One of the most important things we can do is to model what we believe,” says Patterson, “whether that is turning off an idling car or taking a mug into Tim Hortons.” She also suggests leaders ask their team to brainstorm ways the office could be more sustainable. This creates an atmosphere where staff can come to leaders with solutions as well as problems. Sanchez believes leaders need to “empower the workplace community and educate them about why making changes are necessary and impactful.” Duschense suggests there are key touchpoints where leaders can effect sustainable change: building in environmental considerations to annual or quarterly plans, as well as at the point of decision making. This could include boosting an event budget slightly in order to make the event lower waste. She also suggests that leaders need to provide support in terms of job descriptions and plans for environmental considerations, rather than simply relying on individual efforts.

Much of making an office more sustainable involves cultivating habits and practices that encourage the desired behaviour. In Norton’s office, staff teams are assigned “Happy Tasks” where they rotate responsibilities for the care of different aspects of the office, from having local food at staff meetings to waste management. “Our environment is everything around us,” says Norton. “As long as you are thinking and taking responsibility for your built environment, you are more likely to take care of it.” Several organizations have also made it easier to do desired behaviours, and harder to do non-desired behaviours, by doing things like having recycling bins throughout the office, but garbage cans only in one location.

Sustainability can also be part of team-building, whether that involves participating in a municipal Bike to Work week or a Zero Waste challenge as a team, or supporting staff through making the introduction of a green practice more fun, such as the team competition for decluttering at Norton’s organization.

Celebrating achievements and recognizing impact is really important, says Sanchez. Not only should staff meetings introduce new policies and desired behaviours, but they can also be a place to recognize the impact being made by such actions.

Costly or cost savings?

While there is a common myth that adding an environmental lens to work will cost more, Sanchez offers another perspective. “There’s a natural apprehension about change, a fear that it will create work. But the reality is that a lot of money and time can be saved by taking a bit of time up front to put systems in place. Workplaces can save potentially millions of dollars in energy, and other reductions.”

For nonprofits operating on tight budgets, this is good news. Patterson says, “We have an obligation to our funders to use resources responsibly. A number of environmental changes will save us money.”

Patterson also promotes setting up changes that you implement, then don’t have to think about, but that change how we engage in our workplaces for the better. In her own office, they were able to simply convert their toilet to a dual-flush toilet; they set the printer default to double-sided; and they have power bars on timers that turn off at 5 pm, reducing their electric load.

Some environmentally friendly choices do take more time and money — a green alternative to a new boiler or refrigerator may be more expensive — but as Norton reminds us, “It’s important to consider energy efficiency as an investment in the sustainability of the organization.” She recalls a food bank that couldn’t give as much food to clients because they had high heating costs. When they found a local sponsor to help them become more energy efficient, it meant they were able to direct funds back to their services. “When you start saving energy, you are not throwing as much money literally out the window.” Norton’s own organization was running out of space and needed to do a major renovation, and decided if they were doing that anyway, they would make the building as efficient as it could be, approaching the renovation with a focus on long-term savings and an investment for the future.

While Patterson suggests that many provinces have environmental incentive programs for small businesses and nonprofits, Duschesne acknowledges it is often easier just making a purchase, rather than chasing down environmental incentive or rebate programs. However, she says, “If nonprofits feel pressed for time or money, the best way to start going green is to look at what is costing us money that we could improve by taking a reduce, reuse, recycle approach.”

20 simple steps that make a big difference

  1. Start with a big win like switching out lighting or a toilet – something that makes an immediate quantifiable difference, says Patterson.
  2. Keep up with how processes are changing — such as changes to items that can be recycled.
  3. Look for actions that will improve the quality of employees’ lives. Bike parking and showers are a terrific way to support people using active forms of commuting, says Duschesne.
  4. Recycle isn’t the only R. People tend to forget reduce and reuse, says Duschesne, while Patterson says few people know that Refuse is now an additional R. This could mean purchasing recycled computers or other electronics to reduce e-waste. It could look like selling or donating office furniture rather than putting it in the garbage. Patterson’s organization brings reusable glass containers to transport takeout food for meetings, and refuses plastic forks and straws and paper napkins.
  5. Track and reduce your phantom load. Even when computers and appliances are turned off, they still draw power. Norton suggests the best way to eliminate this is to give everyone a power bar and to turn off power bars at the end of the day. Some utility companies offer free or subsidized smart power bars to reduce phantom load.
  6. Find joy and meaning in your actions. Post a picture of a child whose future you care about, says Patterson.
  7. Use eco-friendly cleaning products and companies. Not only is it good for the environment to use less toxic cleaning products, but it is much better for the wellbeing of people in your space.
  8. Go literally green: cultivate plants that clean the air and improve the quality of the workplace.
  9. Use green materials when doing renovations. If relocating, consider a location that is accessible by transit and is close to places where you have meetings.
  10. Bird-proof your windows by hanging CDs on string to prevent bird strikes.
  11. Choose organic, recycled and fair trade merchandise where possible.
  12. Make it easy to do the right thing (and hard to do the wrong thing). Equip your office kitchen to encourage people to bring food from home rather than eating out. Make recycling more convenient than garbage.
  13. Remember that a green office is truly much better for the wellbeing of its people. People in an office with better daylight and lower toxicity are happier and more productive.
  14. Look at event waste and find ways to reduce it.
  15. Consider whether you could Skype into a meeting rather than flying or even driving to it.
  16. Look at the ripple effects of your actions, and keep building on your past actions.
  17. Nearly half of greenhouse emissions in some cities come from transportation. Encourage staff to use transit, to carpool, to bike to work, or to consider more fuel-efficient vehicles where necessary.
  18. Build community, both for accountability and for joy. The David Suzuki office holds a salad club in summer which becomes a soup club in winter with one person making food weekly. The Yukon Conservation Society is transforming a lawn into a community garden, with produce being split between volunteers and the food bank.
  19. Don’t get hung up on whether you can do something 100% of the time. Patterson says, “Even if you ride your bike one day a week, that reduces your work-related transportation emissions by 20%.”
  20. If you mess up? Patterson says, “Forgive yourself. Remember and carry on.”

It can be easy to slip into thinking our actions don’t count for much, particularly when we hear of governmental actions (or inaction) on climate change. While no one discounts the need for societal change and government action, individual actions are more important than we may realize.

“We might think, ‘oh, it’s just one lunch. What difference does it make if it’s in Styrofoam?’” says Duschesne. “But we lose sight of the difference that one person or one office can make. I am increasingly seeing that small actions make an impact on others and in turn affect the larger picture.”

“Climate change is happening and we have to acknowledge that,” says Norton. “Some of these actions – energy efficiency, working together on fun challenges help prepare us for significant challenges that will happen from climate change.” Duschesne adds, “Strong communities will get us through the tumult we can expect from climate change. Keeping waste out of the dump, yes we do it for the whales and seabirds but also for improving our own community. Look for actions that will have a positive local impact, and do them.”

Sanchez adds, “Feeling apathetic or overwhelmed and paralyzed is not going to help. We need to activate creativity, joy, commitment, and a sense of community, because our current system can’t keep going and we need these qualities to find innovative solutions.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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