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Going Green at the Office

Date: 7 June 2007

We can compost and conserve all we want at home. But as soon as we hit the office, we turn into triplicate-printing, paper-cup-squashing, run-our-computers-all-night-so-the-boss-thinks-we're-working earth befoul-ers. One office worker can use a quarter ton of materials in a year--which includes 10,000 pieces of copier paper. Heating, cooling and powering office space are responsible for almost 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and gobble more than 70% of total electricity usage. Commuters spew 1.3 billion tons of CO2 a year. Computers in the office burn $1 billion worth of electricity annually--and that's when they're not producing a lick of work.

All our unnecessarily generated company waste adds up to unnecessarily wasted company cash. Goosed by the colour of money, companies from global empire to mom-and-pop, from high tech to local government are embracing environmentally friendlier architecture, supplies and attitudes. Wal-Mart is placing solar panels on its stores. Los Angeles County may soon offer its 90,000 commuting employees incentives to buy hybrid vehicles; UCLA already does. The San Francisco Federal Building, Dallas' McKinney Green office building, and New York City's Hearst, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs towers were all designed under green principles. Want a tipping point? Here's one: in May, Rupert Murdoch announced that News Corp would go carbon neutral.

The business case for going green is increasingly clear, even without Al Gore droning on and on and on about it: where green goes, so goes the bottom line. But employers are beginning to realise it's also about the competition for talent. Several recent surveys show that workers, especially from the generation that grew up separating paper from plastic, don't want to work for big fat polluters. One-third of workers would be more inclined to work for a green company, says staffing firm Adecco USA, and more than half wish their employers would be more environmentally friendly.

So what the heck is a green workplace, anyway? Start with the building. If it meets standards for water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality, it can be certified by a non-profit called the U.S. Green Building Council. The council created its LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification in 2000 in response to the demand for standardisation in the blooming area of green architecture, says Linda Sorrento, director of education and research partnerships. The platinum LEED rating is given to buildings that can minimise their energy dependence by incorporating green principles from the ground up--say, by picking a location near mass transit and using recycled material in construction. Only 41 office buildings in the U.S. are LEED certified at the platinum level, so chances are you don't work in one. You'll know if you do because your employer will have shared the news discreetly on billboards and in full-page newspaper ads.

Which is to say that most businesses are comfortably ensconced in buildings built B.G. (before Gore). What's more, most office space is leased, which means businesses have limited makeover autonomy. To address this, for office interiors, the Green Building Council created a LEED certification rating for making certain modifications. These include installing automatic shutoffs for lighting (which scoffs up 44% of the electricity used in office buildings) and setting computers to power down automatically after 15 minutes of idle time, cutting the machine's energy use 70%. More ambitious retrofits include switching from old toilets that use up to 8 gallons per flush to new ones that use a maximum of 1.6 gallons. Don't laugh; toilet flushing is the single biggest water hog in office buildings nationwide, using up to 4.8 billion gallons per day.

Employers' growing demand for green office space is beginning to change the landscape. In the past, commercial builders weren't motivated to install solar panels because paying for electricity is the tenant's problem. But Karl Stumpf, leader of office projects for architects RTKL in Miami, says that has changed over the past two years as renters have begun choosing sites specifically for their green features. "Builders are realising that if they build green, they can lease faster--and that's cash," he says. In 1992, when his firm first delved into green architecture with the redesign of the historic Washington headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), few people aside from the EPA's environment nerds had heard of sustainability. Today all Stumpf's clients request it in some form.

Apart from its physical footprint, a company has the greatest opportunity to have an environmental impact through green policies that change the behaviour and attitudes of its workers. Take commuting. Employers have a major incentive here: congestion created by people getting to and from work costs U.S. employers 3.7 billion hours of lost productivity a year, which adds up to $63.1 billion in wasted time and fuel every year. That's according to the EPA, which recently ranked employers by those that tried hardest to cut down on commuting times. Winners this year included Nike, which offers TRAC (Travelling Responsibly? Accept the Challenge), a program that rewards the employees at its headquarters in Portland, Oregon, who get to work without guzzling gas. In fiscal 2006, Nike workers saved 719,343 vehicle miles by biking or taking mass transit, thereby not using 35,907 gallons of gasoline. Google provides free buses for commuters, and Sun Microsystems lets workers skip the commute altogether sometimes by clocking in from home.

All these employers could learn something from Sun Light & Power of Berkeley, California. Its CEO and founder, Gary Gerber, built his business in 1975 on the environmentalist principles he lives by. Not only does it supply, design and install solar systems, but the company also tries to avoid taking more than it needs from the earth in doing so. That means using no more outside energy than it gives back: its excess solar power is pumped into the electrical grid, crediting the company's account and bringing its bill to zero. It means no fossil fuels: many workers bike to the office, Gerber drives an electric car, and the company's fleet of equipment-carrying trucks runs on bio diesel fuel (once produced from restaurant grease but now bought from a local collective). It means no new office furniture: the rug in the conference room is made of recycled soda bottles, and the chairs are second-hand. Green isn't always pristine.

Sun Light & Power's business began heating up, so to speak, during California's energy crisis in 2001. (Thank you, Enron.) Its employees have grown from seven in 2002 to nearly 50. An annex to the original building was added (using wood salvaged from a demolition next door), and the company expects to hit $12 million in sales this year. Inevitably, rapid growth has challenged Gerber's green ways. "We used to have used computers, but now we need the new ones for speed and security," says Gerber in a sad voice. But when it comes to hiring, Gerber says he won't budge from his belief in "green attitude first, skill set second." In interviews, vegetarians and Greenpeace volunteers win points. After all, it is his workers' commitment to the business's core values that drives growth, he says. "It has really paid off." Green, it seems, begets green.

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