How to green your workplace
Let MNN help you make short work of a polluted, wasteful work environment.
Fri, Jan 23 2009 at 2:58 PM
Going green with office decor sounds something like getting a shot: a complete pain, but in the end, you know it's for the greater good. Serving that greater good isn't as hard as it used to be. Some of the most recognizable names in office interiors have caught the green bug and injected their wares with a dose of environmental responsibility that takes the sting out of creating a better office atmosphere. These pieces emit fewer toxins, which improves indoor air quality. When you're spending more waking hours in the office than at home, that better air can make a big difference for productivity. And that makes a big difference in every capitalist's favorite phrase — the bottom line.
Sure, we all want to be making decisions that help the planet, but at the end of the day, choosing better interior furnishings for your workplace is a matter of looking out for No. 1. The average piece of furniture is loaded with toxins that seep into the surrounding air and build up in the office, which can in turn lead to a host of health problems including headaches, nausea and sore throats.
The culprits behind it all are volatile organic compounds. Don't be confused: In chemist-speak, "organic" only means it contains carbon, so there's nothing nice or Earth-friendly about these guys. Formaldehyde is the one you and your lungs likely know best. Manufacturers use it in everything from the glue holding together the fiberboard in your cabinets to the treatments that give your drapes an everlasting permanent press. As with all VOCs, this chemical is unstable even at room temperature and readily evaporates from even the hardest surfaces. It builds up in the air along with its volatile buddies and voila: You have lots of people calling in sick or feeling fatigued at work.
The easiest way to create a VOC-free environment is to look for products labeled Greenguard Indoor Air Quality Certified. This designation indicates a product has been tested and proven to have low emissions. The institute has certified everything from floor cleaner to beds and desks, and it lists certified products by categories on its website, so buying a low-emission swivel chair is as easy as a click of your mouse.
And speaking of that mouse, it's no secret that PCs and Macs are now going greener as well. While it is true that the average computer contains tons of heavy metals and toxins, so does the average TV and numerous other household electronics and appliances. Don't trash them just to go green: The chief danger of the toxins in these products occurs when they enter a landfill — typically in less developed areas of the world. Go green when it's time for an upgrade, and be responsible with how you dispose of discarded electronics.
Instead, make your immediate concern other airborne pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide. This stuff is virtually odorless and creeps into office (or home) air from gas water heaters and stoves and exhaust from vehicles. If you can't figure out why you're feeling extremely tired at work or perhaps feeling like you've got a constant case of the flu, it could be that this gas is circulating at high levels in your air supply. Don't hesitate to bug your boss about getting the building tested for carbon monoxide — it's well worth the cost if the benefit is fewer sick days and increased productivity. Heck, just get your own CO detector if he or she is really stubborn.
For the most comprehensive information about indoor air contaminants and what can be done about them, visit the EPA's indoor air quality site. It has information about other pollutants and what to do about them.
Take a seat
By now it should be obvious that it's important to pay as much attention to the quality of your desk chair as your building materials, but the trick is finding one in your price range. With designers such as Herman Miller and Knoll leading the pack, this goal ain't exactly cheap. But if you take into account the later expense that comes from needing to replace cheaper options that wear down faster, the initial investment could fit your long-term financial goals. Plus, what client wouldn't be impressed to see you sitting in something fabulous?
(And don't freak out about the potential expense too quickly — Greenguard's product directory has a ton of brands at a variety of prices well within a lot of budgets.)
Although the brands with Greenguard certification typically take into account many other environmentally conscious factors, when it comes to doing your own shopping and price comparison, you should also keep in mind the environmentalist's three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle.
When it comes to waste reduction, there are few brands more environmentally conscious than InterfaceFlor. In 1994, owner Ray Anderson decided it was time his company cared as much about the Earth as it did profits. The result was innovations such as offering tiles made of 100 percent recycled content that led the carpet industry — a major user of contaminants, toxins and petroleum products — down a greener path. Today, the company is holding to its goal of having zero environmental footprint by 2020. Buying this brand not only supports its mission but also shows other flooring companies they can go green without impacting profitability, which in turn encourages them to follow suit. Plus, using these tiles just makes good business sense. Stains can be removed simply by replacing a square rather than recarpeting the room. When you do decide to jump on board, be sure to properly dispose of your current carpet.
By the time most organizations decide it's time for an extreme makeover, office edition, the stuff holding you, your computer, your paperwork and your books is often so ratty that tossing it into the trash is half the fun. But that means it's going into a landfill, and it's most likely going to stay there. In 2007, Americans sent more than 9 million tons of furniture to landfills. That's only about 5 percent of landfill use, but consider that other durable products such as major appliances, tires and even that improperly disposed carpet often get reclaimed from landfills to be recycled. This is not the case with pieces of furniture. Each time you buy a brand-new chair, you're effectively buying future space in a landfill.
Break the cycle by following the EPA's recommended strategy for waste prevention and buying remanufactured, recycled furniture or refurbishing the stuff you've already got. Quality used or remanufactured office furniture isn't hard to come by and is usually cost effective, especially if you're a fan of name brands — Southern Office Systems, for instance, specializes in Steelcase Systems Furniture and says its offerings cost about a third less than buying brand new. Those looking to create the greenest of office environments, however, need to ask plenty of questions about the refurbishment process. Green Office Systems points out that it does not use volatile organic compounds in its remanufacturing process, so regardless of how the piece of new-to-you furniture started its life, the piece you're getting is environmentally sound.
Although putting a lot of forethought into furnishing plays a big part in determining its status as an environmentally friendly workplace, don't forget that day-to-day details such as recycling office paper make a big difference in how your company affects the environment. Even corporate America's got your back on making the day-to-day greening a little easier. Office Depot's Green Office site has everything from Hon's clean-indoor-air-certified steel bookcases to remanufactured toner ribbons for those who want to make a quick purchase in-store or online.
Interiors matter most to your lungs and comfort, but if you're building from the ground up, the most environmentally responsible office practices begin with construction decisions. The gold standard for green construction (and interiors and existing buildings) is the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED certification. The program recognizes green construction techniques through a rating system that begins with certified status, buildings looking to go greener can get silver, gold and platinum (the highest) status as well. Think of it like elementary school for buildings: The best behaved get points that result in a better metallic star.
Those looking to gain certification must meet prerequisites and gain credits in each of six categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, and innovation in design. Under sustainable sites, for instance, a prerequisite is preventing pollution in the construction process, but companies can choose whether they want to earn LEED credits through providing alternative transportation assistance, reducing light pollution, restoring habitat, or all three. Although each of these is designed to help maintain and improve the Earth through more environmentally responsible building practices, a byproduct of that is improved building efficiency, which ultimately reduces overhead. Case in point: By following LEED criteria in the development process of its Torrance, Calif., campus, Toyota saves about $400,000 a year in energy costs. LEED is a capitalist's best friend.
Those already ensconced in an office building also needn't build from the ground up to go green. LEED has special ratings systems for existing buildings, and here, too, substantial savings can exist. When the California EPA headquarters in Sacramento updated its building according to platinum LEED specifications, there was an initial investment of $500,000 for efficiency upgrades, but the outcome is an annual savings of $610,000.
Smog: Shashwat Nagpal/Flickr
Chair: Herman Miller