Sustainability as the New Safety

A culture of sustainability exists when green practices become a habit.

(By Tommy Linstroth, as published in EDC Magazine, June 2012)

Government regulation and oversight is often looked at as cumbersome, bureaucratic and unnecessary. But it’s amazing when such oversight becomes soingrained into business practices that it simply becomes part of the corporate culture — so much so that it’s just how businesses operate, no questions asked.

I’ve been fortunate to be spending a fair amount of time lately working with a Fortune 500-type company to embed sustainability into its core culture. Greening a building is relatively straightforward, but an entire organization? That’s another story. There are plenty of great examples out there from Interface to Patagonia, but those initiatives were driven by passionate environmental visionaries rather than from the bottom or middle up. This process has been eye-opening to say the least, but in no way more so than my new perspective that for the sustainability movement to be truly successful, it needs to be 100 percent ingrained into the core corporate culture.

“Of course it does,” you might say. “Thanks for pointing out the obvious.” But it’s not so simple, especially for those with a design and construction mindset. It’s relatively easy to design and construct a green building — energy and water efficient, healthy IAQ, etc. And it gets more challenging as we push the design intent to net zero and off grid, for sure. But the crux of the problem is that when you hand over the keys to the front door of your super energy-efficient building to the owners or occupants, a lot of that can go right out the window (natural ventilation, I guess). You can install the most efficient lighting system, but if the occupants don’t turn them off, there go the savings. Recycling bins at every desk and compost bins in the cafeteria are worthless if people keep throwing everything in the trash. Low-VOC interiors are great until maintenance comes back with high-VOC paints to repair the scuffs on the wall.

The only way to maximize the benefit of these systems is to see a complete corporate culture shift to sustainability. Easier said than done, right? But these types of culture shifts have been done successfully in the past, even if it was kicking and screaming. My time with this particular corporate client has helped me see the type of culture that is needed for this shift, and it is the culture of safety.

Highlighting safety programs is taken for granted now because it is such a standard operating procedure. But back in 1970 when the Occupational Health and Safety Act created OSHA with the mission to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance,” it was a different story. I’m sure people responded the same way then as they do today when you suggest implementing a sustainability culture — oh, that won’t work, that’s not needed, etc. But what happened? When you walk through a manufacturing or assembly facility, you can’t go more than 20 feet without seeing signs for safety glasses, hard hats, stay outside the line, report accidents, ear protection required, and on and on.

These same companies now have weekly safety meetings to talk about safety-related issues and make sure everyone is in compliance. Can you imagine how much more efficient our buildings would be if there were constant reminders to turn out the lights, shut down computers, recycle your waste, turn off the water, unplug you phones, eliminate your phantom loads? Can you picture weekly meetings where everyone in the building is getting together to remind each other to eliminate unnecessary energy use, and to hold each other accountable? Well I for one can, and that type of culture is what will truly have sustainable buildings and operations.

Do we need an Occupational Sustainability and Efficiency Administration, an OSEA, for the 21st century? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t — but we need the same type of attention and commitment that is embedded in the safety culture to ingrain a lasting culture of sustainability — and that’s what’s going to make the difference.