How to design a sustainable workplace at home and in the office

You are likely to spend around 90,000 hours at work over your lifetime. If that number doesn’t seem big already, that’s ten years of your life. Depending on where you work, you may have little agency over the design of your workplace — hospital workers and flight attendants are rarely consulted when it comes to sustainability practices — but, in many cases, we do have the ability to make our workplace more sustainable.

Whether it’s changing your own habits or convincing the people you work with to make more sustainable choices at work, small changes can have a big impact. Let’s have a look at the benefits of a sustainable workplace, and some simple steps you can take at work to be more mindful of our planet.

Save money, save the planet

First, why would you want to make your workplace more sustainable? Beyond doing what’s right for our planet and for future generations, designing a sustainable workplace has many practical, and often immediate, benefits:

  • Reduced costs. It may sound obvious, but saving energy will reduce your bill, purchasing second-hand furniture will reduce the cost of decorating your office, and taking public transportation or cycling to the office will save you money compared to using a car.
  • Increased creativity. Upcycling an old desk you found at a thrift shop will require a lot more creativity than buying a new one and following the three-step assembling instructions. Whether it’s to reuse materials, increase the energy efficiency of a project, or figure out how to increase the lifespan of the products you use at work, making your workplace more sustainable often requires creative thinking.
  • Better work satisfaction. This is especially true for bigger companies. The HP Workforce Sustainability Survey reports that 61% of office workers say sustainable business practices are a “must-have” for companies, and a paper suggests that improved sustainability standards can reduce annual quit rates.

The good news is: anyone can contribute to designing a more sustainable workplace, whether it’s just you working from home, or if you’re working from an office with your team.

Three ways to design a sustainable workplace

Of course, making your workplace more sustainable is not about applying a few quick fixes. As Andrew Cameron writes in the journal Strategic Direction: “This is not about a one‐off conference or a newsletter, it is about permanently changing the way decisions are made and the way people work to enable the organization to function, in a different and ultimately more relevant way. You will know when you have succeeded when environmental and sustainability considerations are an instinctive part of the decision‐making process at all levels.”

That being said, there are some easy wins that can help you get started. If you work as part of a team or in an office, these small changes can help spark conversations around workplace sustainability. And if you work on your own or at home, you may use these as a starter pack of sustainability practices, which can prompt you to research and improve the sustainability of other aspects of your workplace.

The three pillars of a sustainable workplace

1. Use deforestation-free products

Avoid printing documents as much as possible, and if you absolutely must, use deforestation-free paper. And no, that doesn’t necessarily mean recycled paper. A study published in Nature Sustainability shows limited benefits of recycled paper, and even indicates that if all paper was recycled, emissions could increase by 10%!

This is because recycling paper relies more on fossil fuels and electricity from the grid compared to producing virgin paper. Maybe that will change and recycling paper will be increasingly powered by renewable energy, but for now, this is not the best way to make your workplace more sustainable.

Instead, make sure the paper you use is FSC certified. FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council. This is a certification confirming that the forest is being managed according to strict environmental, social and economic standards, preserving biological diversity and benefiting the lives of local people.

The FSC certification is also helpful for other workplace products. For instance, you may want to check that your bamboo-based laptop stand comes from sustainably managed crops, instead of areas where the land has been specifically deforested to grow bamboo.

2. Save energy

There is a direct connection between the amount of electricity you use at work and the environment. Electricity generation takes place in thermal power plants, which burn either fossil fuels, biofuels, or nuclear fuel to heat water and produce steam. When you consume less power, you reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released by power plants.

Of course, you’re not expected to reduce your work hours so your computer uses less electricity — though taking more breaks is always a good idea — but there are small steps you can take that will have a big impact. For instance, LED bulbs use 70 to 90% less energy than incandescent bulbs. They also have a longer lifespan: up to 40 times longer than an incandescent bulb!

There are other habits you can develop to save energy in the workplace, such as turning off appliances that are not in use, making sure your office is properly insulated instead of relying on the heater or air conditioner, and turning off the lights whenever you leave a room.

3. Go vintage

Whether at home or in the office, a common mistake people make when designing a sustainable workplace is to buy more sustainable versions of items they already own. For instance, a new reusable water bottle, new storage containers, or new bamboo shelves to replace existing plastic shelves.

Absolutely all new products require resources to produce and transport, whether they are labeled as sustainable or not. If your workplace already has an item that is working as intended, the most sustainable choice is to keep on using it instead of replacing it.

When the item doesn’t do the job any more — maybe it’s broken and can’t be repaired — the second most sustainable choice is to purchase a second-hand replacement. This is of course more easily done at an individual level or for small teams, but if you can, it is worth going to a second-hand store, especially when it comes to purchasing office furniture.

And vintage works for electronic devices too! French startup Back Market is valued at $5.7B valuation for its marketplace where people can buy refurbished devices without generating additional waste. It’s another good way to save money while making a sustainable choice.

Small changes add up

Individually, some of these changes may seem like they have a low impact on climate change, but they do add up when everyone chips in.

By purchasing workplace products that don’t directly harm the environment and that are made in a socially irresponsible way, we can send a signal to companies manufacturing the products we use everyday at work and collectively encourage a shift towards more sustainable practices. By saving energy, we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. And by going vintage, we can avoid generating additional waste.

Designing a sustainable workplace is also an opportunity to be more mindful about the way we work, and to have conversations about the impact we want to have and the legacy we want to leave.

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