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How to start an environmental revolution at work (without freaking out your boss)

Photography By Ellen Melin, Diego, Danist Soh
Published 29.11.21

Most of us hold more power than we realise. What we watch, buy and listen to can have real impact on climate change. This is especially true when it comes to how we spend time at work.

Whether you’re a CEO or a waiter, you’re working within a business that (probably) handles more cash and power than you’ll ever access alone. Just because you’re not the boss (or maybe you are, great!) doesn’t mean you can’t channel that power and drive action for the environment through your work.   

Now while we know that engaging with climate action at work can make an enormous difference, that doesn’t change the fact that bringing your advocacy into the professional realm can be intimidating. Luckily, there are a lot of ways to take part: start small and build up.   

Here’s how to get going and where to scale once you’ve got the whole team on board.  

Kwan Fung

BEGINNER ACTIONS

  

Speak up and be visible

You might be itching to jump straight into strikes and protests, but just talking about climate can be one of the most powerful individual actions a person can take. A straightforward way to get started is by founding a local climate group. This could take the form of a book club, a fundraising team or even just a loose gang who pledge to go to events and talks together.  

By starting with a social focus you’ll create a welcoming, non-judgemental space for people to begin engaging with these issues. While the visual presence of employees joining together, even in a casual way, raises stakeholder awareness and shows the organisation that this stuff matters to staff.  

Also, as Duncan Meisel from Fossil Free Media—a nonprofit media lab dedicated to supporting the movement to end fossil fuels—told RIISE: “The most important thing any individual can do to stop climate change is stop being an individual, and act collectively. Your workplace is one of the key parts of your life where you develop long standing relationships with other people with diverse backgrounds, making it an important place to begin thinking about making an impact.”  

  

Join an existing worker collective

Many industries already foster collectives that support and connect climate-focused individuals. For example, Clean Creatives (by Fossil Free Media) is a coalition of global “strategists, creatives, and industry leaders who believe that fossil fuel clients represent a threat to our shared future”.  

It’s attracted wide-reaching media and industry attention for its success in encouraging individuals and organisations to sign its pledge committing “agencies, creatives, and strategists to refuse any future contracts with fossil fuel companies, trade associations, or front groups”.  

WorkForClimate is another “network for climate conscious business professionals” that offers great support and practical actions you can take at work.  

  

Explain the impacts on a company level

Climate change can often feel far away, but messages are most effective when people understand how it directly impacts them. While a lot of this conversation is focused on individuals (you know, will my house be swept away by rising sea levels?), there are huge commercial ramifications for companies.  

In 2019, the New York Times reported that companies would be experiencing the financial impacts of climate change within five years (reminder, that article is almost three years old now). It wrote about a CDP report, which analysed 215 of the world’s 500 biggest corporations and found that they faced potential climate-related costs of US$1 trillion.  

Additionally, insurance giant Swiss Re has predicted that if no climate action is taken the world’s gross domestic product (GDP) could drop up to 18 per cent, or US$23 trillion, by 2050.  

If your boss isn’t interested in saving the planet, you might be able to motivate them to save their wallet.  

Beyond cash, good climate policy can also make companies more attractive to potential employees. As Greenpeace corporate campaigner Lindsay Soutar explained to RIISE: “Companies increasingly know they need to demonstrate their social and environmental credentials to recruit and retain the best staff. Employees can use that influence to drive positive change within their company.”  

  

Reduce driving

With many of us making our way back to the office, it’s a good time to think about how we’re getting there. Cutting driving out of your daily commute adds up to a huge personal reduction in emissions. Although, not everyone can transition to walking. Luckily, there are other cheap and easy alternatives.  

Public transport and bikes are great options if you live close by or have access to a suitable transport network. Talk to your employer about subsidising public transport costs or even the price of a bike. If they’re not ready to make that step, you could negotiate for them to buy you a reliable bike (or e-bike) which you can pay off through salary sacrificing.  

Or consider organising a carpool for people who live in your area. It’s estimated that if every driver in the US picked up one passenger each day (saving them a separate trip) we could collectively save almost 125 million litres of petrol a day 

 If no one at your work is keen (or nearby) you can tap into a service like Share Your Ride to connect with others in your area.  

At work, encourage others to skip Ubering to meetings, opt for public transport or jump on Zoom (you should be used to that by now).  

  

Cut down on flights

Yes, everyone loves a corporate trip. But it’s one of the largest emission generators for businesses. As the New York Times warns, “if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create”.  

If you need to be there in person, investigate bus and train options (we promise they’re not as uncomfortable as you think) or at least make sure the trip is worth it. That means no pop-ins for meetings. Make a week of it and knock out lots of tasks and catch-ups to make sure you don’t need to print a boarding pass for the rest of the year.  

  

Manage waste

Our trash can be one of the first places we begin to take ownership of our environmental impact. Imagine your company’s bin as a portal to activism (quite the emotional upgrade).  

Hopefully people are already separating their recycling and following your local council’s instructions. To help avoid “wishcycling”, print a guide for staff to follow and post it in the kitchen.  

For items that can’t be processed in kerbside recycling, several organisations offer convenient solutions. REDcycle soft plastic recycling programs are located in many major supermarkets (check out this full list of what can be deposited). 

TerraCycle’s Office Solutions program is another great way to dispose of a wide range of difficult-to-recycle products such as water filtersbindersprinter cartridges and even infamous styrofoam.  

Another organisation, Envirobank, will even pay you for your efforts. 

Obviously, the best way to manage waste is to avoid it in the first place. Reducing paper, plastic and single-use items such as coffee pods, water filters and plastic bottles can go a long way. Encourage the uptake of reusable coffee cups, plastic containers and water dispensers. Or better yet, ask the business to provide company-branded KeepCups and steel bottles.  

Etienne Girardet

Clay Lindner

INTERMEDIATE ACTIONS

  

Understand your own impact

Ideally this would be the first thing you do. But it takes a bit of company buy-in so could be something to work up to. An important way to ensure your efforts are impactful is to take stock of your workplace’s current greenhouse gas emissions 

As RIISE’s head of sustainability Celeste Tesoriero explains: “In order for a company to make significant changes in their climate impact, they need to first understand it. Therefore measuring the resources they use, their pollution and waste output is important.”  

Lindsay Soutar agrees, adding that: “It’s important to understand the main sources of emissions – or climate pollution – within the company so you know what areas will give you bang for buck when you tackle them. Does this information exist already? If not, you may need to build a business case for this information to be collated.”  

Generally, a company’s impact can be measured across several areas. Such as: their carbon footprint, energy consumption, product recycling rate, supply chain miles, water footprint and waste reduction rate. Smaller businesses may be able to scale this down to focus on a few areas relevant to them, such as energy, travel and waste.   

Either way, this is a lot of work. But it needs to be done right to increase transparency and establish a baseline for measurable action. Ideally it’s not something to do internally. Working with a third party partner not only ensures that your calculations are correct, but also gives the project a greater sense of legitimacy.   

Tesoriero personally recommends New Zealand company Toitū Envirocare. Reflecting that their approach doesn’t just require accurate measurement of emissions, but also presses businesses to think beyond “climate neutral” and aim to be “climate positive.”   

Other groups working in this space include Sphera, Climate Partner and PlanA.  

It’s worth noting that while these groups can offer guidance, they’re not able to hold the company accountable to act. To ensure that level of compliance, you can step things up by seeking out a B Corp certification. This is a verification that measures and tracks social and environmental performance, transparency, worker support and community involvement.   

The great thing about B Corporations  is that not only are the standards exacting (no greenwashing here), they also need to be maintained and even improved upon for the certification to remain valid.   

   

Invest in greener equipment and habits

Not all these changes will be made overnight. But the ongoing process gives you time to replace things slowly as the need arises.   

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that in the US alone offices could cut out over half a billion kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions by ensuring every office product purchased was ENERGY STAR certified. That’s comparable to taking 158,000 cars off the road and worth more than US$117 million in yearly energy costs.   

Replacements can range from transitioning to LED light bulbs to making all company cars electric.   

Changes can also be behavioural. For example, turn off computers rather than leave them on standby, disable screensavers, turn things off at the plug, switch off lights and install automatic and activity-detecting timers. You can learn more about simple (but mind-blowingly effective) changes to your digital habits here 

  

Change energy providers  

If your workplace owns the building, chat about installing solar panels. It’s an upfront expense but one that saves cash over time. The company may be eligible for government rebates to help with initial costs.  

For renters, there are still lots of good options.  

Soutar notes: “For many companies, electricity is a major source of emissions, and getting off fossil fuels and switching to 100 per cent renewable electricity is a key action you can take to cut climate pollution – there is now a strong business case for making this switch.”  

Changing providers is as simple as making a few calls.  

One alternative is Cooperative Power, a fresh player that describes itself as “a new way for people to buy clean, sustainable & affordable energy – and build a better future for us all”. It not only offers electricity from renewables, but also (amazingly for an energy company) it is non-profit. Rather than funnelling proceeds to investors and executives, it puts them towards “supporting our mission of fighting poverty, tackling the climate crisis and supporting communities”. This year it’s pledged to let members decide how it directs that revenue.  

ADVANCED ACTIONS

  

Change banks and super providers

Around the world, the fossil fuel divestment movement has engaged countless individuals who recognise it as one of the most meaningful personal changes we can make. You can be the world’s greatest recycler, but if your superannuation and life savings are invested with a company that backs coal and gas you’re literally financing environmental destruction.  

This is even more real when it comes to companies that are dealing with major cash. Help them wield their economic power by upgrading business bank accounts and suggested super funds.  

This potentially removes millions of dollars from grubby pockets and sends a message. While all financial providers care when individuals close accounts, they really care when corporations do.  

Bank Australia has led the way in the banking space. It’s also joined by a growing list of ethical super funds, including Future SuperAustralian Ethical and Verve 

If your employer isn’t ready to evolve, you can see if its current preferred fund has an ethical investment option. Some of the major players such as Rest and AustralianSuper do, but it’s not automatic – you still need to let them know that you want to opt in.  

  

Crack down on your collaborators

Taking a stand isn’t just about your own immediate actions. It’s also about how you indirectly validate the behaviours of others. At work, this often comes down to who we partner with or take on as clients. Convincing your boss to set company policy that dictates you will only work with businesses who share your values is a powerful move.  

Again, it sends a message to the industry. It also ensures that they’re not able to keep contributing to issues related to climate change while appearing to act like the good guys.   

This is central to Fossil Free Media and Clean Creative’s work. As Meisel puts it: “Climate change is a big problem but it’s primarily caused by a small number of powerful fossil fuel companies that have used every tool possible to mislead the public into avoiding climate action. The best place to begin is to look at how your workplace is connected to these companies – in your investments, your clients or customers, and beyond – and figure out how to steer power and influence away from them.”  

  

Unionise

Some of these changes are simple and probably won’t take more than a meeting and a few signs around the offices to make happen. Others are complicated and require ongoing negotiation with management.   

Workers who are union members may find this process easier, as they’re supported by representatives and have an existing structure to undergo large scale discussions. If you’re not unionised, it could be worth looking into. Most industries will have an existing body you can join that offers legal and operational support.  

In the UK, schools, colleges and universities have already leant on their unions to help centralise the climate crisis education in the curriculum – an effort that would have been more challenging if approached alone.  

  

Make your commitments public

All these changes are great and will make an impact. But it’s important to keep sight on the influence your company holds more broadly.  

Being outspoken about corporate climate action increases pressure on other businesses to do more by reinforcing this as the baseline of good business. Press your employer to add environmental commitments to the corporate values and charter.   

It can also team up with an existing coalition of like-minded businesses. As mentioned, lots of businesses have joined Clean Creatives in pledging to not work with brands that are in bed with fossil fuels.  

This added visibility will also keep your employer accountable and make sure its actions continue to meet its words.  

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