When I started at Constructive I spent a lot of time answering the question “what do I do with my spare batteries/unidentifiable computer cables/assorted plastics, etc.?” For a time, my default response was a blank stare that was eventually followed by “Um, let me get back to you on that.” I was hired as an operations manager, not as a sustainability expert after all, and it was overwhelming—what did I know about workplace sustainability?
The truth is, approaching sustainability can seem like a daunting task, and rightly so. The UN defines sustainability as consumption that doesn’t jeopardize future access to resources and which spans the fields of science, policy, economics, and morality. If your company is falling very short of this ideal, you’re not alone. As an entity that relies on the constant stream of energy and resources just to function, businesses’ operational status quo can be pretty unsustainable. And while being irrevocably tied to the global supply chain might mean there’s no way to completely solve the problem of sustainability from your office, there’s still a lot of progress to be made. Here are a few ideas and tips that I’ve picked up while working to incorporate more sustainable practices at Constructive.
Accept Your Limits and Understand Your Local Context
The size and complexity of sustainability can make the lack of tangible progress a demoralizing prospect. There’s no one path or solution that will tip the scales. But passive victories are still victories, and it’s important to take credit for them! Distinguishing which variables you actually have control over—and which ones are out of reach —is an important first step that can help you prioritize initiatives and understand what change is actually achievable within your business’s context.
As tenants, we don’t have control over where our electric power comes from or making improvements to our building’s environmental rating. Still, it’s important to recognize that we choose to operate in a densely populated urban area with ample public transportation and bike infrastructure. All of these factors might seem circumstantial but they add up. Lush natural landscapes aren’t exactly the first images that come to mind when you think of the New York Subway, but relying on mass transit is one of the most impactful decisions an individual can make towards sustainability. It’s important to recognize an office’s contribution towards giving its employees better alternatives whether that be ways to commute, reusable cups and utensils, or prioritizing digital communications over paper ones.
Become a Resource for Your Team
While the onus of becoming more sustainable shouldn’t fall on only one person, it’s important that someone on your team steps up to be the point person for accumulating and sharing new resources and developing an action plan for making these changes. Back to the personal anecdote I opened with: once I had an informed answer to their question, I made sure to offer not only a response but an explanation. In doing so, I came to understand that one of the best ways to gain company buy-in is by educating yourself and acting as a resource to your colleagues.
It takes time and awareness to keep up with government policies, new products, and technology. Being available to field questions, and explain the logic behind processes allows your team to police themselves and foster a proactive culture around sustainability. Empowering others to make informed decisions, and innovate allows our office to operate more efficiently, but also gives individuals the know-how to approach sustainable practices in their personal lives too.
Recognize Your Company’s Consumer Power
Your company has power as a consumer and it should be used to consume smarter. You may already nominally support environmental causes as a company, but how is that translating into your actions as a consumer? Are you thinking about how to reduce waste throughout the purchasing process, from determining a need through to considering the use and post-use of the item? The collective purchasing power of even a few people can’t be overstated. You aren’t accountable for the waste associated with manufacturing, transporting, and recycling of goods you never buy.
When making new purchases, I try and map out its lifespan from start to finish. Whether it can be found used or refurbished, resold, recycled, or repaired helps inform what I buy and how I buy it. But you don’t have to avoid making purchases entirely to consume in a more sustainable way. Exploring secondary markets can have compounding effects of saving money and keeping products in use for longer. We’ve used Craigslist, Chairish, Mac of All Trades, factory refurbished items on Newegg, and Seating Mind to name a few.
Extend the Life Cycle of Your Products
Attempting repairs yourself (if possible) can give your existing equipment an added lifespan and alternative uses. Recently, for example, a small plastic piece on our refrigerator broke. I attempted to find a replacement part but was told that the price of the unit did not justify any spare parts, whether it was under warranty or not. The failure of a tiny piece of plastic worth no more than a few cents would relegate the entire refrigerator to the scrap heap by design! So I got crafty and ended up fixing it with a command hook and a bungee cord. In total, it cost about $2.00 and we’re looking forward to many more years of use.
Selling goods is one of the most obvious ways to extend the life cycle of products. But in some cases, the item you’re trying to sell might lack a viable secondary market. To avoid sending such items sent straight to the landfill, you can research and assemble a network of neighbors, charities, nonprofits, environmentally conscious companies, and government agencies, who likely have programs to help you recycle less common goods.
In New York, for example, recycling hard plastics and paper is handled by our building, but we need to involve local businesses or nonprofits to dispose of plastic bags and electronics properly like the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Many more companies are taking an active role in recycling their own or similar goods on their own or through services like Terracycle. There’s even an ecosystem in our building where tenants will exchange furniture and equipment, often for free. For me, this has built up my awareness about the life cycle of items in and out of our office.
Companies like Amazon might make it easy to make purchases based solely on price, but they also make it easy to ignore the impacts of shipping and packaging on the environment, or item’s potential for reuse. Adding these factors into how you make purchases can inform the true value of local vendors. Buying locally and in bulk are two great best practices to start with. As a small company, we definitely understand the necessity of reeling in costs—but prioritizing buying things cheaply overlooks the complex calculus for what makes goods more or less sustainable.
Preserving our resources and environment is a lifelong pursuit that extends well beyond the walls of your office. It’s an issue that’s constantly changing and that you can always return to and improve upon. No matter how intimidating it seems, considering your local context, educating yourself, leveraging your consumer power, and finding secondary uses/markers for your equipment are crucial first steps in helping your office and colleagues champion sustainability.
So make sure you set your thermostat according to efficiency guidelines, put your computers in sleep mode before you clock out, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back!
About the Author
Tom’s background in operations comes with his commitment to working for organizations with strong social missions. He has worked with creative organizations in the for-profit, non-profit, and foundation sectors to refine processes, efficiency, and build collaborative cultures. After graduating from the College of William and Mary with a BA in Public Policy, Tom moved back to his native New York. Before joining Constructive, he worked for A Blade of Grass, a social practice arts funder, and Caples Jefferson Architects, a full-service architectural design firm.