Green at work: Employees affect companies’ environmental policies


Recycling is second nature to many of us. It’s relatively easy to make changes that matter at home: buying second-hand items when possible, giving things away rather than adding to the landfill, buying paper plates rather than Styrofoam ones. You probably have your own list of ways to help save the planet. But how about at work? We often spend almost as much time there as at home. The Minnesota Women’s Press talked to local employers to find out how it is easy to be green at work.

Grass roots
Area employers agree: Their employees are the driving force behind workplace environmental initiatives. Bloomington-based Quality Bike Products (QBP), a distributor of bicycle and motorcycle parts and accessories, is a case in point. “Most [environmental] evolution in the company is employee-driven,” said Gary Sjoquist, QBP bike advocate. Sjoquist says it’s not just about making employees feel good. “Ecologically sound ideas do pay back-it’s not just some wild idea,” he said.

It’s a no-brainer to expect an organization like Fresh Energy (formerly ME3), a St. Paul research and advocacy organization focusing on clean and efficient energy, to lead the way on in-house initiatives. What’s impressive is that when employees consider which policies to implement, each staff person has a vote.

The process isn’t as formal at St. Paul’s Northwest Area Foundation, an anti-poverty philanthropic foundation, but Human Resources Lead Jim Sisson noted, “There’s a high level of consciousness … [environmental initiatives] happen organically or naturally.” The large corporations MWP spoke with tend to be more, well, corporate in their decision making, though representatives of General Mills and Best Buy pointed out that their companies have committees where employees can volunteer to work on environmental issues both within the company and in the wider community.

Getting there
It’s not uncommon for “green” employers to encourage their staffs to carpool or hop a bus to work. Best Buy provides free bus passes to employees and provides reserved parking for those who carpool. Fresh Energy not only subsidizes public transportation by providing stored-fare bus cards at a significantly reduced price, it also provides free bus passes to employees traveling to meetings or other work functions. In fact, Fresh Energy is so serious about encouraging employees to use public transportation that it has a policy of not reimbursing for parking expenses. And the policy seems to work; Business Administrator Libby Ungar noted that Fresh Energy’s bus card program “has changed the minds of several of us who used to commute [by car].”

QBP goes even further. Since many of its employees are, according to Sjoquist, “bike junkies,” the company reimburses staff up to $4 each way (the amount depends on distance traveled) to ride their bikes to work. QBP makes the commute as easy as possible, providing showers, a casual dress code and an in-house lunch program so that staff don’t have to bike with their lunchboxes in tow. Staff are similarly reimbursed for carpooling or using public transportation.

Northwest Area Foundation also reimburses staff who carpool, walk, or bike to work up to $3 per day. In addition, it reimburses employees who ride the bus or use vanpools up to $105 per month. The Foundation is a pioneer in its reimbursement policies; according to Sisson, “[Only] 15 percent of foundations offer a transportation policy similar to ours.”

Walkin’ the talk
While most businesses provide recycling bins for the usual suspects-papers, cans, and bottles-some companies are taking their recycling programs even further. General Mills runs an office-supply recycling center to cut down on interoffice waste. Fresh Energy has done away with paper towels in the break room; instead, employees alternate taking home and washing reusable cloth towels. Even Fresh Energy’s walls are recycled. The cubicle walls, the bamboo flooring, and the carpet made of recycled material are ways employees at Fresh Energy “walk the talk,” as Ungar puts it, in their daily work lives.

Marie Podratz, Northwest Area Foundation’s office manager, notes that the foundation “orders as many recycled products as we can.” The foundation is also working toward a less paper-intensive office by using its technological resources more efficiently.

QBP recycles everything from rainwater, which is siphoned off its semi-porous parking lot into nearby gardens, to its implementation of vermiculture (worm composting) of in-house food waste. “[The compost bins] sit subtly back in the lunchroom,” explained Beth Simon, who works in human resources at QBP. This employee-driven initiative has an added incentive: free fertilizer to interested staff and possibly fodder for a future community vegetable garden staffed by employee volunteers.

Green buildings
Some employers offer workspaces that are environmentally sound, with initiatives often driven by staff. Lisa Anderson, environmental coordinator at QBP, is looking to other businesses to determine the best way to make the company’s newly expanded building more energy efficient. “I have a lot of support from other employees,” she stated, listing the various initiatives already in place at QBP, including solar panels and a ramped-up waste reduction program. Companies are also reducing energy consumption and environmental impact in their daily operations. Fresh Energy uses energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs. General Mills operates a program to ensure that equipment is “powered off” when not in use and Northwest Area Foundation is housed in a building made of “a lot of recycled and/or renewable or natural materials,” according to Podratz. The result is a business environment in which employees are being more “green” simply by doing their job.

Spreading the word
Environmental activism and community work is so innate to Fresh Energy’s mission that it has no problem staffing volunteer events such as the Eco Experience at the State Fair. “We’re all so mindful of it-it’s a concern of our employees anyway,” Ungar stated.

QBP even goes so far as to reimburse employees for volunteer community work. Among the “green” projects staff participate in are adopt-a-trail programs and park cleanups. The company pays employees up to $10 per hour for any volunteer work done off the clock. “[Community service] is one of our core values,” explained Beth Simon.

Northwest Area Foundation’s Podratz noted the impact its “green” building has on the wider community when guests visit the Foundation, which hosts a large number of meetings. “[There’s] a real sense of welcome when you come in the building. There’s a lot of natural lighting as part of the design. The materials we’ve used are very warm [and inviting].”

Podratz’s colleague, Jim Sisson, is mindful that his organization is a role model for others, and welcomes the opportunity to educate and inform visitors about the use of renewable materials and commitment to the environment. “Even those little conversations can turn into changed behavior,” he pointed out. Sometimes the most effective messages, though, are nonverbal ones. It’s the culture that really makes a difference, Podratz remarked. “There’s an unspoken language in our office, that we make the environment safe and be environmentally conscious,” she said thoughtfully.