Six ways to have an eco-friendly office



Read time
7 mins

From cutting plastic use to rethinking your office space, discover how you can reduce your business’s effect on our environment

More and more of our decisions as consumers are influenced by the impact of our choices on the environment, as the negative impact of human life on the natural world is becoming clearer and better understood. For example, scientists have discovered single-use plastics in deep-sea trenches, while the World Health Organisation has reported that more than 90% of the global population is affected by toxic air.

So far, less consideration has been given to the impact of our working lives on the environment. But, given that we spend half our waking hours working on a work day, shouldn’t we be doing more to make work more eco-friendly? Here are six ways to improve your green credentials at work, from easy-to-implement quick fixes to longer-term strategies for change.

1. Remove single-use cups and plastics

Our over-reliance on single-use plastics has been under fire for a number of years, most recently after 2017’s Blue Planet II contained hard-sitting scenes of the damage caused to marine wildlife by plastic.

Employees at accountancy firm KPMG questioned its reliance on plastic cups in the wake of Blue Planet II, leading it to ban plastic cups from water coolers in its UK offices – saving an estimated three million plastic water cups a year. The ban began as a trial in KPMG’s Manchester office, where staff were offered a reusable water bottle provided by the company instead, and the option to  ‘rent’ a recyclable cup for 50p a day if required.

KPMG has since distributed 15,000 metal water bottles to employees, and switched to compostable cups at its head office. It has also replaced 250,000 items of plastic cutlery with metal cutlery.

The UK government will introduce new limits on single-use plastic straws and drink stirrers in England from April 2019, so if you aren’t already planning to match a switch to reusable straws, and reusable or biodegradable stirrers, you will need to do so soon. When making changes, be sure to consider the needs of your disabled workers, some of whom may still need single-use plastics. For example, alternatives to plastic straws may be unsuitable because they’re too strong and may cause injury, or can’t be used above a certain temperature.

2. Cut paper use – or even go paperless

Thousands of office workers’ email signatures have, for years, invited recipients to “consider if you need to print this email”, but we’re still using too much paper at work: it accounts for half of all business waste. Cut down on your usage by:

  • Printing double-sided
  • Using recycled paper
  • Reusing scrap paper for notes

There are also some less obvious – but equally effective – alternatives:

  • Budget for incremental paper reduction (as you aim to go paperless)
  • Use lighter, thinner paper
  • Decide what type of documents should (and shouldn’t) be printed
  • Conduct what business you can electronically
  • Switch to HR management software to store employee records, for example

If you don’t already, make sure you have recycling bins in your office. This can be either one central place, or bins in areas where they’d be used the most (eg paper recycling by the printer). Also ensure bins are emptied regularly, so staff aren’t put off recycling if they’re (seemingly) always full.

3. Turn off appliances

The University of Cambridge highlights the effect of making small changes to workplace electrical use. So:

  • Turn off appliances when you leave work – items left on standby account for about 1% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
  • Unplug unused chargers, because voltage transformers consume energy (known as ‘electrical leakage’)
  • Turn off unneeded lights – this could save 171kg of CO2 emissions a year

You can also optimise the energy use of your office equipment:

  • Put monitors on the most energy-efficient setting
  • Use more sustainable lighting solutions (such as LED bulbs)
  • Make use of natural lighting on sunny days
  • Replace old equipment with more efficient items

4. Offer more plant-based food options

Reducing the amount of meat you eat is an effective way of lowering your environmental impact.  And, with 14% of Britons now vegetarian and 7% vegan, companies are adapting their food offering to accommodate such diet choices.

Accounting firm PwC has signed up to the Peas Please and Veganuary campaigns to help encourage employees to sample different plant-based dishes, as well as to educate staff on how to have a healthy diet.

Just eight months after signing up to Peas Please, sales of fruit and vegetables hit the 20% target. And during its ‘celebrate the seasons’ promotion, 9% of all meals were either vegetarian or vegan – jumping to 18% for Veganuary 2019, helped by offering lanyards that gave staff a 10% discount on vegan dishes. In fact, PwC says sample data indicates the Peas Please campaign may have helped reduce the company’s carbon footprint for by around a fifth, and water footprint by around 25%.

Incentives such as price reductions on certain foods are examples of nudge theory, where you encourage people to change their behaviour for the better while giving them a choice to do so (or not).

5. Rethink your real estate setup

Have you got separate heating and cooling systems in your office? You may want to replace them with a single unit – nearly 50% of the UK’s CO2 emissions come from building heating and cooling.

Some newer offices are built with reverse cycle units that absorb heat from external air to warm a building, then absorb warm air from inside in the summer – making them efficient to run, and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

If you’re planning to construct your own building, why not take inspiration from class-leading facilities such as the Co-Operative Group’s London HQ, which has a heat and power generation source that goes back into the National Grid, plus a system that uses heat from IT equipment to warm the building.

If those options aren’t available, you could just keep the thermostat low in winter – an increase of two degrees Celsius creates enough CO2 in a year to fill a hot-air balloon.

You could also consider downsizing if you have office areas that are frequently empty, as having a smaller facility will reduce your carbon footprint. Or even have no office at all, if your team can work remotely.

6. Encourage different commuting methods or remote working

Work-related travel has a huge impact on the environment, so consider car sharing, using public transport, or working at home more frequently to reduce vehicle emissions. When it comes to transport, small steps have the potential to add up to big differences: The Rideshare Company estimates if you cut just 25 miles from your total weekly commute, you will save 680kg (1,500lbs)  of CO2 per year.

Carpooling is growing in popularity, with programmes such as West Sussex Car Share putting people in contact with others who go to the same work sites. Liftshare, which manages the programme, says regular sharers can reduce their carbon footprint by 10% and save £1,000 a year. Why not set up your own lift share initiative?

Too often we can default to cars for journeys that can easily be done by bus or train: public transport could replace 21% of urban car journeys in the UK, according to sustainable transport charity Sustrans. If you live really close to your workplace, try commuting by bicycle or foot: as well as helping you to stay health, a three-mile round trip will save 1kg of CO2 emissions compared to taking the car.

And if employees can work from home, encourage telecommuting: this will help you reduce your carbon footprint further, and take more vehicles off the road. The tools available to workers mean you can all easily keep in touch.

These are just a few of the many ideas you could implement but putting any of these in place will help your organisation reduce its effect on our environment. Which will you try?