How to make your workplace more sustainable

Whether you're an independent contractor, a small business owner, a fresh grad or a seasoned employee at a big IT shop, chances are there will be a way for you to improve the sustainability of your workplace. Our members and the businesses and organisations who approach us are interested in the environmental impact of the tech sector.

Here are some reflections and suggestions from someone who's worked for a B Corp and campaigned for better sustainability in a number of different workplaces. 


Know your workplace


Every business or organisation has its own structure, culture and challenges. That means every approach to sustainability needs to be customised for your workplace. Consider the following scenarios and the nature of these workplaces:

  • Scenario 1: A large, international hierarchical organisation with highly visible senior leader
  • Scenario 2: A government agency with many satellite offices, that legally must track its carbon footprint
  • Scenario 3: A small Aotearoa-based business with big ambitions and modest cash flow
  • Scenario 4: A not for profit community organisation with an intensely local focus

What hints does each scenario give you about this workplace? 

Consider both the appetite for change and the speed and capacity for making those changes into reality. The larger an organisation, the harder it might be to push through sweeping changes. On the other hand, if a company or organisation is very large, we may have the freedom to run a pilot programme or make changes in a local branch. 

Consider your most senior leadership. What is the management structure of your workplace? Many very senior leaders in large organisations seek to be visible and are looking for ways to create a meaningful legacy. In such large organisations, it may be more useful for us to skip conversations with line managers and go straight to governance or C-suite execs. 

Consider the stated values and strategy of your workplace, as well as how that plays out in practice for us day to day. Is there a disconnect between values and reality that could be addressed by putting more effort into sustainable practice? Is our workplace lagging on a strategic goal that we could connect to a sustainability project? 

Consider the connections and networks that run between your workplace and the wider world. Smaller businesses enjoy the success and support that comes from joining a sustainable business network. Government agencies need to abide by the values of Te Tīriti o Waitangi, which leads them to seek connections both with the communities they serve and with the lands where they operate. In both cases, it makes sense for a workplace that relies on connection to tell a powerful sustainability story.


Tools in your kete


The triple bottom line

One traditional way of incorporating sustainability into business practice is to use the business model of "triple bottom line accounting". In addition to measuring financial profit, we introduce two other pillars that act as measures of a workplace's success. One of those pillars is the whenua, and the other pillar is people ('people' can mean different groups depending on the model, not just workers). 

Many business people who don't resonate strongly with values-based decision making may prefer this way of looking at sustainability, as it appears more measurable and easier to incorporate into the functional side of running a workplace.

Join a sustainability network

Where an organisation or business has a lot of will to do good but lacks the capacity to measure their waste or carbon footprint, or seems to just be stalling on action, we can prompt them to turn to their peers for advice. Many small to medium businesses or organisations will form rōpu both to take some of the pain out of sustainability change, and to measure themselves against their neighbours. Often membership in such a network involves keeping some kind of score or trying to quantify how everyone is doing, so there are tradeoffs in this approach. Many businesses will enjoy being able to show off their status as an accredited sustainable organisation. 

Workers as ambassadors for good

Many larger organisations seek to improve their reputations through what's often known as "corporate social responsibility". Because a lot of philanthropic efforts are directly controlled by the workplaces holding the purse strings, many corporate giving projects can seem forced and hollow if they aren't done sensitively. Large organisations struggle to find ways to make their corporate giving strike the right tone across different regions. 

One elegant solution is to encourage our workplace to free up local workers, so we can make our own impactful gains. Paid volunteer days work well for this purpose, and are relatively easy to implement and sponsor. Practical and monetary support for local sustainability activities works nicely too. So we can consider relevant local sustainability activities that could be marketed to business leadership as corporate social responsibility measures. We will, however, be expected to document our local activities and prove that it's helping the organisation's image.

Waste reduction in the workplace

Office waste and maintenance is a highly visible problem for all offices, including tech workplaces. If you work in a built environment on shared resources or in shared spaces, your worksite is by far the easiest place to start implementing sustainability projects and to try out ideas. Making an office or worksite look and feel greener also sets a collective standard among the leaders, workers and visitors who interact in that built environment. There's a major monetary and safety component to sorting out sustainability and reducing waste at work, too. Here are some practical examples of waste reduction and some of their flow-on effects:

  • Having a dedicated e-waste bin or a recycling system in your workplace means that workers are correctly disposing of hazardous waste, and your garbage smells better and is safer for your cleaning staff to handle.
  • Purchasing solidly constructed, modular furniture or equipment from a local supplier means that workers are less likely to have health and safety hazards from broken furnishings and gear. It also gives a workplace the flexibility to rearrange worksites to be safer and more fit for purpose. The ability to repair locally saves on time and money that would have been spent purchasing and shipping flimsier equipment.
  • Investigating our workplace's data centre use, or adjusting patching schedules to reduce its carbon footprint also identifies ways that the business might be wasting money and precious worker time.


Carbon footprints: your leaders have the biggest boots


Consider which people in your workplace do the most air travel and are physically present at the most corporate events. On a per capita basis, your most senior leaders are going to have a carbon footprint that far exceeds that of your average worker. The good news is that many leaders are aware of this and can be open to changing some of their habits to model better sustainability practices.

Travel makes up a large proportion of any workplace's carbon bill. If you have fleet vehicles, going for a more energy efficient option is a good sell because these fleet vehicles are highly visible out in public. Leaders often spend a lot of time in these cars or in planes, so sound them out about the inconveniences of corporate travel the next time you sit down for a coffee.

The senior leaders in our workplace may be using a lot of carbon but they can also be our most effective amplifiers if we are campaigning for sustainability. Most if not all sustainability initiatives do ultimately save on money and time in the long run, but these benefits can be hard to sell in a meeting that is focused on short term cash flow. So getting a senior leader on your side, particularly one who has been with your workplace for years and who is thinking about their legacy, is a huge advantage. They can turn a strategic discussion towards the topics you want to be surfacing, and use their mana to ensure that decision makers keep thinking about sustainability. 


What's good for the planet is good for us workers


We've already talked about how waste reduction can make a worksite feel safer and more pleasant, but there are other very important overlaps between sustainability and our working conditions that we cannot ignore in a union think piece! If you are advocating for these improvements in your working conditions, taking the sustainability angle may help you find support. Consider that overlap thoughtfully. Here are just a few examples:

Hybrid working or work from home options

From a worker's perspective, being more flexible around commuting is a huge personal boon as it helps us to balance our family and home commitments better and saves us money and time on a long commute. From a sustainability perspective, setting up a network of offices to communicate more easily over video calls saves literal tonnes of carbon for a business, because it gives all workers (including execs) an alternative to flying or driving to meetings. Depending on how far a workplace decides to go with these options, they may be able to reduce the physical and environmental impact of running an office space - and reduce the eye-watering costs of running a large office.

Sturdier, nicer kit that you can repair

Many tech workers would love the ability to configure a more comfortable working setup and avoid the frustration of working with the cheapest tech options. But wanting to have sturdy and reliable tech isn't simply about worker comfort, it also is about impacting the global supply chain, reducing toxic waste, and setting a standard for better manufacturing practices. Many workers would also like easier access to discounted, second-hand corporate kit. This is a great way to write off old inventory and save waste. 

Using green products and practices at work

Showing off sustainable products at a physical worksite gets workers curious about what products are out there. It's quite common for us to see something in action on a worksite and go try it at home. And the reverse is also true: a culture that encourages workers to share their home sustainability tips and introduce the best ones to the office is not just a great boost for workers, it's a fantastic story that the workplace can tell about its collective values. 

Picking our business partners wisely

Tech workers like to do business with conscientious clients, vendors and partners. We generally have a better time interacting with partner organisations that demonstrate good values and business practices. Encouraging our own workplace to check on prospective clients and vendors and investigate their track record on sustainability is a very useful 'red flag check' - if a prospective customer or vendor is in hot water over its poor environmental practices, it may not be such a great choice to work with. 


So, what’s next?


These are just a few of the approaches we can take to proposing and advocating for sustainability initiatives where we work. 

There is a lot to be said for starting small and local to get some successes in the early stages of these initiatives. Successful projects generate a lot of positive momentum to go bigger and better. If your workplace is further along on its sustainability journey, it might be time to co-create a formal sustainability strategy. It's really about tackling the problems that you see where you are, and following what excites you, your colleagues and your sponsors in leadership. 

If you would like to continue the sustainability discussion with our member network, then please drop us a line at [email protected] or if you are already on our members’ Slack community, consider joining the sustainability channel and sharing your ideas and questions there. We would love to add more voices to the kōrero.

Give it a try and let us know how you get on!