The Green 30: From the bottom up

How employees are turning their bosses on to sustainability.

For the the full list and profiles of the Green 30 companies, click here for the ‘ Greenest of the Green.’

When Valerie Mac-Seing, a young Montreal lawyer, removed the paper cups and plastic utensils from her office kitchen a few years ago, some of the law firm’s older partners branded her a “green terrorist.” But Mac-Seing and her conspirators, the 25 other young lawyers who had answered her call to form a green committee at the Montreal office of Stikeman Elliott LLP, forged on — brushing off some surprisingly vehement resistance. When Mac-Seing put cloth towels in the kitchen, some of her co-workers started using more paper towels in protest. She also faced some backlash for ridding the kitchen of plastic utensils. But now, four years later, there has been a dramatic shift. Today, Stikeman boasts of its status as Canada’s first national law firm to go carbon neutral. Needless to say, the paper cups have seen their last days.

At the start of the green revolution, the focus was on major energy reductions. Executives hired environmental consultants to advise them on how planet-friendly practices could save them — and even make them — cash. But further change will take some different thinking, says Jeremy Osborn, founder of Good Energy, whose company helps organizations engage their workers in sustainable thinking. And it will come from those who know the business best. Employee engagement is “the last frontier of social responsibility,” he insists. You have to “let innovation bubble up.” But it’s not just that good ideas come from below; increasingly, employees are demanding a chance to share them. In a poll of 3,660 workers in 2007, 78% said they would quit their current jobs to work at a company that was “more environmentally friendly.” That sounds a tad high. But the new generation of 20-somethings entering the workforce has grown up tuned in to pro-environment messages — and they’ve bought into them. A number of executives told Canadian Business that young recruits are now asking about green policies during job interviews.

Nicholas Lamm, co-founder of the Green Workplace, a Vancouver-based consulting firm, is also seeing this grassroots trend. “Generally, it’s employees who come to us first,” Lamm explains. And they’re often up against skeptical employers. As the go-green message increasingly gains footing, Canadians are looking for ways to make an environmental impact on the job, Lamm says. And top organizations respond quickly to employee-driven initiatives.

Often, the ideas begin small — triggered by some everyday task that suddenly reveals itself as environmentally unsound. For Stikeman’s Mac-Seing, it happened when she found herself staring at a pile of empty soda cans in her office. “We didn’t have a recycling program for cans,” she says. “I was going to bring them home and recycle them. And then I said, ‘Wait! That’s crazy!'” Mac-Seing e-mailed a few dozen colleagues and discovered that she wasn’t the only one stockpiling aluminum.

Watching her employees shop for gift baskets is what prompted Maureen Cureton, green business manager at Vancity Credit Union, to take action. Cureton, who was already known at the office as a go-to person for advice on green products, began encouraging employees to buy from green and socially conscious retailers. That evolved into the Beehive, a searchable database that indexes sustainable retailers — and provides background for Vancity employees on how those retailers’ values align with the company’s. Cureton is now thinking about how to expand beyond Vancity’s office walls. “Our grand vision,” she says, “is that we roll this out to our clients and to the community.”

Generally speaking, a lot of employees aren’t pleased with the way things stand at work. In another poll, this time of 1,275 people, 81% believe their employer is either “polluting” the environment, “ignoring” the need to improve green practices, or in need of “help to become greener.” (Only 18% agreed with the statement: “My employer is extremely green.”) What’s more, most employees don’t feel that there’s an opportunity to help improve business practices. In a poll by Brighter Planet, a Vermont business that sells carbon-lowering tools, 86% of respondents said their company failed to engage workers on environmental issues.

Those on Hewitt Associates’ Green 30 list don’t have that problem, says Hewitt’s Neil Crawford. Of those working at the organizations on the list, 83% say their employer “supports the development of products/services with positive environmental benefits.” Last fall, Erika Edwards, who works at the Vancouver corporate office of Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, identified some opportunities for the company and put together a “Green Team.” In just a few months, they’ve implemented a number of initiatives. They started an internal competition between branches, challenging each to decrease energy use by 15%. (The prize: two bikes that employees can use to run errands.) They’ve drawn up plans for an urban garden next to their building. And they’ve launched a composting program; at just one location, 14 kilograms of compostable material is now diverted from landfills each week. The efforts have grown big, and the company has stepped in; Lush recently put up a job posting for a full-time green officer.

Sometimes, it comes down to the hard work of a single individual. Someone, for instance, like David Huang. In the past four years, Huang has saved his company, BLJC, $400,000 in energy. It started in 2006 when Hwang began a job as facilities manager at Vancouver’s Robson Square. A new immigrant from Taiwan, Hwang was anxious about being in charge of such a large facility. So he started working after-hours. “I monitored the situation at home for an additional three to four hours a night,” he says. What he found surprised him. Sometimes a heat pump was left running through the night. Or a water chiller was left on to cool a building that was empty. “I believe this is a promised land,” he says. “[I asked] what can I do to give back to this beautiful country?”

Back at BLJC’s corporate office in Ontario, Hwang’s conservation efforts generated a buzz. The company gave him its annual Evergreen Award, which honours environmental initiative. And BLJC’s president and vice-president took him out to lunch to pick his brain. “We took [Hwang’s] reduction as an example,” says Ed Lim, vice-president of energy and sustainability. BLJC has asked all facility managers to lower energy consumption by 10%. It has even tied the managers’ energy savings to their annual bonus: a little incentive for those who need an extra push.

ISL Engineering and Land Services is another business that is serious about employee engagement. In 2007, it brought in the Natural Step, a non-profit that helps organizations become more sustainable, to help educate its workers. But senior urban designer Terry Myles didn’t want to just hand down green orders from above. “It’s easier to buy in to something that you helped build,” he explains. So the company took a different approach: it identified the employees that seemed particularly green-minded — 25 employees were named “green champions” — and gave them some wiggle room. ISL allows its “champions” to spend up to 10% of their time every day researching environment-related projects, attending green conferences, and networking with other green businesses. “We’re elated,” says Jason Kopman, a project manager at ISL. “In the past, this was something that you’d do on the evenings and weekends. Now, we’re bringing it into the workday.” Kopman plans to spend most of his 10% over the next year working on ISL’s own building: doing energy-efficient upgrades, replacing inefficient boilers and overseeing lighting retrofits. When that’s all done, Kopman would like to help clients make the same changes.

As Valerie Mac-Seing knows all too well, it can require an iron will to bring the green-impaired onside. Her latest battle? Double-sided printing. “The resistance is sometimes so ridiculous. [Some partners] say, ‘I don’t like double-sided printing because I like to mark up my document. And when I mark it up and there’s printing on the other side, I can see my markings through the page.’ Sometimes you just look at them and say, ‘Are you kidding me?'”