Going green is not a new concept. The debate over climate change is huge, varying, and at times, controversial and open to scepticism. What has been dubbed ‘The Attenborough Effect‘ seems to be driving the health of our planet to the forefront of our minds, particularly since the release of his latest film, David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet. So with more of us becoming increasingly eco-conscious, how do we become more sustainable when working from home?
When you work from home with no commuting, it might seem we have the eco box ticked. But there are many other considerations: from the energy you use to the materials you buy, and the practices you adopt on a daily basis. You are now the chief procurement officer and the energy efficiency monitor. You are in charge of reducing your carbon footprint both in and outside of working hours. What was decided at an organisational level, is now devolved to us as individuals.
The carbon footprint of businesses has not simply reduced, it has merely been dispersed to the thousands of individual homes, and there are no guarantees that those homes are running efficiently.
The Homeworker speaks with sustainability experts
To help us address the issues related to homeworking and how to be more sustainable when working from home, we spoke with three environmental experts:
Helen Waddington: Founder of HKW Risk Management
Health, safety, quality and environmental consultancy specialising in making management systems simple and helping businesses gain ISO certifications.
Kris Atkins: Founder of Ocker Environmental Ltd
Environmental management and compliance consultancy, specialising in engineering, utilities, energy, and waste.
David Trevelyan: Founder of SustainYou
Environmental management consultancy, specialising in information security, using technology to track data to make sustainable changes.
When working remotely at home, we can make the most of having more choice available.
We can choose a home-cooked lunch, instead of popping out for a plastic-wrapped sandwich. We can source greener options for our stationery and paper, and we can choose how we furnish and decorate our homes and workspaces in a more sustainable way.
Energy usage is going to be a primary concern over winter with many more of us needing to heat our homes in working hours. Switching to a greener energy tariff could be one solution to reducing carbon emissions. Read here for more ways to cut your energy bill (and stay warm) while working from home.
Looking at what we buy and who we buy from is a good way to start being more sustainable when working from home.
Helen Waddington says: “There is quite a lot that individuals and corporates can do. These include making decisions about what kind of stationery we buy and the food we eat to where we source our energy and internet hosting… I make the conscious decision to buy recycled paper and pens. Everybody can do something like that.”
Another way to help lower the carbon footprint of the items you purchase is to source your products locally. This extends to businesses who are looking at building a more resilient supply chain. David Trevelyan notes that some business are more willing to pay a slightly higher price per unit to limit supply chain vulnerabilities and reduce the risk of having items stranded on the other side of the world.
Electronics and equipment
One of the issues with homeworking from an environmental and waste perspective is the amount of duplicate equipment. If somebody works a few days at home and a few days in the office, they are likely to have extra devices. “If we’ve all now got two laptops, four screens, and two phones, that’s a huge amount of electronic stuff that we perhaps didn’t have before,” says Waddington.
The added environmental concern with electronics is the WEEE (Waste Electric and Electronic Equipment) waste it generates, which is more difficult and expensive to process
Trevelyan adds, “Unless you’ve got very specific technical needs, why do we need people to have two of everything? These are the kind of decisions businesses are really going to have to take on board if they’re committed to sustainability – and individuals as well.”
As businesses look to cut back on office space, we’re also likely going to have a lot of excess furniture and office items. Businesses could look at ways to share out the surplus to help provide for their remote staff or donate it to charitable causes.
With a shift in responsibility, comes a potential shift in attitude. Individuals footing the bills may make much more careful decisions about what they spend money on and whether they need to buy something in the first place.
On a positive note, Kris Atkins believes we’ll be generating a fraction of the waste at home compared to the office. “When people are in offices, all the A4 paper is free issue, all the pens, there’s all the food waste you generate and packaging. When you work from home you print less, you produce far less.”
The difficulty is that larger businesses may well have had systems in place for green waste removal. Waddington notes, “In a large business you control all the waste that’s produced in that office. We know what bin it goes in, we know who collects it, we know where it goes.”
As individuals, we will now rely heavily on our local councils and the processes they use. This will vary by location but it does give us a little more incentive to hold our local authorities up to closer scrutiny, especially for those homeworkers who generate a lot of waste, or use a lot of packaging for instance.
Data storage and usage
If we are considering how to be more sustainable when working from home, we need to be aware of the carbon footprint of every email we send and store. We might start thinking twice about hitting ‘reply to all’ and not deleting the emails filling our inboxes. “Unless you have an actually defined purpose in sending it, don’t, because it’s just clogging up carbon and brain power,” says Waddington.
“The crisis we have now,” says Trevelyan, “is that regardless of where you work, we’re just collecting data. We now live in a world where we never throw any data away. We’ve got reams and reams of data centres that must be just full of unnecessary, duplicated data.”
These data storage centres consume vast amounts of energy and have a huge impact on the environment with emissions rivalling the (pre-Covid) aviation industry.
And data itself does have a carbon footprint. “They estimate that every Google search has an emission of between 0.2 grams and 7 grams per search,” says Trevelyan. “You don’t have to do too many 7 gram searches to overtake your car emissions,” he says, with the average car commute emitting about 2.8 kg of CO2.
He says businesses need to start looking at outsourcing to companies and data centres committed to green energy usage.
Ethical investing and banking
What may well have a profound impact on the environment is looking more carefully at what companies are doing with our money and then making informed decisions based on that.
“If you’re recycling all your paper but your pension fund is ripping up rainforest to replace it with palm oil plantations, you may as well forget about recycling paper,” says Waddington.
She says that business could make sure that there are ethical investment options in their portfolio such as ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) funds.
Other considerations are looking at who we use for our energy, our mobile, and broadband, which search engines we use, and who we bank with.
Banks exist on a sliding scale of how ethical or environmentally-friendly their practises are. Banks such as Ecology Building Society and Triodos Bank use their funds on sustainable projects and charity ventures.
This medium article reveals the worst banks for climate change due to their financing of fossil fuel businesses.
There are also green mobile phone providers, such as carbon neutral Honest Mobile. This B-Corporation tells you how many trees they’ve planted for you and offer loyalty discounts. There are even ethical search engines, such as Ecosia, who plant trees as you search.
When acknowledging the overall positive environmental impact that these kinds of changes could make, Waddington says that they are effective ways to adopt sustainable work practices with few active choices on our part.
Being more sustainable when working from home: The future
While not everybody can afford to make the most sustainable choices, there are big corporations who can afford to make changes, and for individuals who have the capacity to buy greener, Waddington says, “We somehow need to be more aware of the actual cost to the environment of the thing we’ve just bought for £1.”
“For the homeworker, it’s understanding what decisions have been moved over to you to make,” says Atkins. Now we’re responsible for our energy bill, our waste, and procurement while we work, it’s up to us individually, especially if self-employed, to try to buy locally and sustainably.”
For businesses, this is the time to stand out. “There are opportunities to be cultural leaders,” says Waddington.
Atkins notes that businesses, who previously encouraged sustainable behaviour such as investing in cycle to work schemes or providing loans for season tickets on public transport, which are now possibly redundant, could offer alternatives such as loans towards solar panels or better insulation.
The work from home norm could shift what benefits and perks become more desirable for employees. Discounts and savings on green energy tariffs or with mobile and broadband providers could perhaps become more important to employees if they are responsible for higher usage costs due to working from home.
Every choice we make has an environmental impact and sometimes it’s very difficult to make the right choice because there are always positives and negatives.
Yet collectively, if we individually adopt the most sustainable work practices we can, we can make a significant impact on the health of the planet.
To read the full article in The Homeworker magazine as well as the entire issue dedicated to sustainability, subscribe to get each quarterly issue dedicated to helping you work from home better.