Pay it Forward
This story first appeared in Progress Magazine in March 2009:
Pay it forward
Eco-conscious employees are taking small achievable steps for their companies on the thousand-mile journey to sustainability
by Chris Benjamin
Green-minded employees throughout the Atlantic region are saving their companies’ money and improving their public images. Some start programs, some head sustainability committees, and some work to improve procurement practices. In the process they’re helping their organizations develop better long-term relationships with clients, the community, and the living environment. And they’re doing it of their own accord.
The University of New Brunswick (UNB) is a prime example. “Sustainability is a part of our branding and our link to the community,” says UNB president John McLaughlin, who adds that most of the leadership on sustainability has come not from management but from individual staff members who are working toward a common goal.
Steve Hampsey is the building and grounds supervisor at UNB’s Fredericton campus. “When I started this role in 1999, there was no environmental body or officer here,” he says. “I figured it’s better to lead than to follow.” And lead he has. Over the past 10 years, Hampsey has wracked up an impressive list of environmental accomplishments: he has blanketed the campus with recycling stations; tripled paper-recycling participation; written a replacement strategy for diseased trees; developed an on-campus nursery; and planted 150 new shrubs. Last summer alone, Hampsey supervised the planting of 50 trees. “I went a bit tree crazy,” he admits. “But I figure they’re nature’s filter.”
Most impressively, Hampsey has eliminated toxic cleaning agents, aerosols, pesticides, and fertilizers from the campus. “People don’t want pesticides, so we celebrate dandelions here.” The response from UNB students and management has been overwhelmingly appreciative. For a minimal financial investment, Hampsey has created the kind of beautiful and ecologically harmonious campus that young people now demand. “Students always have environmental committees and push for this kind of thing,” he says. “If we’re not in tune with them, they won’t come here.”
Gladys Lacey-House, a mechanical co-ordinator at UNB and another of the university’s environmental leaders, has always been interested in environmental efficiency. “I have a mechanical background working in educational facilities with the Department of Education,” she says, “and I have directed operations and identified process improvements.” Seeking improved energy efficiency at the 80 or so buildings on UNB’s campuses is a natural progression, but Lacey-House decided to go beyond the “low-hanging fruit” approach. “We look at what is most inefficient,” she says. “We are not only looking at lighting, but also controls, air compressors, water usage—a whole-building approach.”
Like Hampsey, Lacey-House applauds the support from UNB’s upper management, faculty, staff, and students. She attributes such involvement to an understanding that better environmental practices please their key clientele. “The awareness of students with instant access to information via the Internet has been tremendous,” she says, adding that the City of Fredericton, which recently committed to meeting Kyoto emission-reduction targets, has also been supportive in recognizing the university’s work.
Green is more than smart; it’s the new black. But for many employees such as Lacey-House, the desire for change isn’t due to latching on to the latest trend but rather something that has been simmering for years. “The environment has always been a passion of mine,” says Derek Simon, an associate lawyer who started a sustainability committee at Patterson Law’s Halifax office. Simon says there are always opportunities to minimize damage and improve sustainability. “For us, it’s paper use. Law firms use an incredible amount of paper, and a lot of it is unnecessary.”
Simon sought out like-minded colleagues and struck up a nine-person green committee—a full 10% of the staff—to create a sustainability plan for the firm. They found that the seemingly simple problem of paper use was rooted in two legal traditions: leaving a paper trail and printing single-sided. Surprisingly, the latter has proven more difficult to change than the culture of printing everything. The biggest hurdle came in the form of printers that weren’t equipped with a double-sided printing option. The green committee held a series of lunch-and-learn meetings on waste management, encouraging an as-needed basis for printing and double-sided printing as a default.
The committee got the IT department on board to upgrade printers and copiers, then approached the firm’s health-and-safety committee to create a plan for public and active transportation. The firm now offers employees free bus passes (a non-taxable benefit) and is creating at-work parking facilities for cyclists. The committee reaches further into the firm with contests, such as coming up with a tagline encouraging e-mail recipients to consider the environment before printing, to raise awareness and participation. Responses have come from staff in all levels and functions, turning everyone into participants.
“Some people have teased me a bit,” admits Simon, “but some of the people teasing are the same ones participating in our contests.” He points out that it’s difficult to mock the idea of striving for sustainability when the results go beyond simply cutting down on the amount of paper used. “Greening gives our firm the ability to market itself as a more responsible community member,” says Simon. “It also helps client relations. We work for companies in the recycling industry and have been able to feature them in lunch-and-learn sessions.” As companies learn that green is gold, eco-minded employees are learning that helping the environment is also a good career move.
Most of the people driving green changes share Simon’s passion. Janet Creamer, the communications co-ordinator for the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, says the chamber “started getting green folks together and thinking of things we could do to encourage them.” So far the organization has improved its waste-management practices, increased carpooling, and implemented energy-efficiency programs. It also organizes trash pickups in Dartmouth’s Burnside Industrial Park and produces a quarterly e-newsletter called Eco Solutions that features environmental-policy analyses and tips for businesses.
Creamer says the staff became concerned with the environment when they picked up 12 bags of trash and thousands of cigarette butts at a company-sponsored trash pickup in Burnside. “Seeing the problem was the turning point,” she says. “When you actually walk down the street and see the hundreds of cups and trash flying off trucks, you can see the need for recycling paper properly.”
Green-minded employees also know the power of one is stronger when multiplied. “The key success factor is getting information and making the right connections,” says Creamer. In Nova Scotia, organizations such as Clean NS, Conserve NS, and Dalhousie University’s Eco-Efficiency Centre are all available to help businesses become greener.
Derek Simon has connected with the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s Green Business Council to meet other like-minded businesspeople, and has tapped all of his networks to bolster his efforts. He also works with Fusion Halifax’s Sustainability Action Team and regularly attends Green Drinks social nights, both designed to provide relaxed networking opportunities for young professionals concerned about the environment. “Most of us attending have started green committees at work,” he says. “I’ve gotten a lot of ideas there.”
UNB’s Steve Hampsey felt completely alone when he started thinking green. Management recommended that he network with other maintenance professionals, so he joined the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA). “When you get together with peers for a week and share ideas, big things happen,” he says. Many of Hampsey’s innovations at UNB began at the APPA.
As with any change process, education is essential. “You need to get the word out to employees about how important conservation is,” says Creamer. “Provide them with statistics that make the point clear. We learned that it takes a gallon of oil to make a printer cartridge, and that really drove the point home. Then it’s getting buy-in from staff, calling each other on it when we don’t do the right thing.” Simon has found it essential to clarify how environmentally friendly changes can be made with little effort or headaches. “You need to show the people you work with how it can make their job easier,” he says.
Employees need to see the purpose of change before they buy in. “I told the custodians, ‘If it’s green, it’s good,’ ” says Hampsey. “If you show suppliers your interest in green products, they will tell you what they have available. I’ve just discovered that they sell biodegradable garbage bags. We use thousands of garbage bags, so you can bet I’ll buy those. Then we can tell people we use biodegradable bags.”
Advertising your company’s environmental good deeds is good for business, but there is another reason for those making real green progress to brag: “It encourages others to do the same,” says Creamer.
And there’s the catch. Green-minded employees and the forward-thinking organizations where they work may be inspiring, but their efforts are just drops in the rain barrel if sustainable business practices don’t become the norm. “You can have the best laws in the world,” says Simon, “and it makes no difference if we still do business in an environmentally unfriendly way.”