If firms are serious about reducing their carbon footprint, they must consider how their workers behave at home as well as in the office, Ben Hopkins writes
As an architectural practice we have always had leading policies and exemplar buildings with which to demonstrate our commitment to tackling climate change. But we realised that, if we were to ingrain the need for action across every decision in the business, then we needed to have and articulate a clear message.
Everything we do is measured in our annual carbon footprint, and various office refits that we have done recently have just moved around existing materials rather than buying in furniture and fittings. We want to make thinking about the climate as ubiquitous as possible to our staff, with the intention that this should feed into the design decisions that are where we can have the most impact as a practice.
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This is why we introduced a scheme which incentivises our staff to think carefully about their individual carbon footprints.
Although the industry is rushing to measure the carbon emissions of buildings, we want to make sure that reductions are actually achieved, Ben Hopkins writes. To do that we need everyone to understand why some things are higher carbon than others, and what a tonne of carbon actually means.
In a day-to-day context this means that, while the specification choice between two types of carpets may not mean much in the grand scheme of the carbon emissions of the project, the difference may still be 10 times someone’s annual personal footprint. We hope that kind of context will lead to marginal gains across all decisions as well as the more fundamental changes required to the way we design.
Every year we complete a personal carbon footprint exercise. It isn’t mandatory, but each year we target – and meet – a 70% response rate.
About 65% of our staff (32) are now on 100% renewable energy tariffs. We don’t compensate them for the increased price, but we nudge staff towards the BigCleanSwitch campaign that we co-run as part of the Islington Sustainable Energy Partnership.
You will end up paying less in the long run
There, staff can compare 100% renewables companies and get the cheapest rate. And often if you are not the sort of person who switches every year, you will find that you will end up paying less in the long run, as most companies are more ethical and tend to have cheaper rates on average – albeit with fewer offers with which to lure customers in.
The personal footprint exercise helps staff to get a data-driven understanding of what changes they can make, and our sustainability team often answers questions that are not always related to architecture.
Climate perks scheme
In addition to encouraging staff to understand how they can reduce their personal footprint, we have launched an initiative called the climate perks scheme. It is designed by Possible, a climate change charity. An individual’s annual emissions savings from avoiding a handful of short-haul flights far outweigh the savings made from living car-free, recycling or eating a plant-based diet.
The scheme gives two extra days of holiday to members of staff to compensate them for using low-carbon travel arrangements that are slower than going by plane. The policy does unlock one of the key reasons why people don’t travel long-distance by train – the time it takes – but it also means that people start to discuss these impacts and it nudges social norms towards a lower carbon choice.
It costs money, and the more successful it is the more money it will cost. But we think that few other policies would make it as clear to our staff just how seriously we are taking the climate emergency.
We hope that it won’t be a differentiator for long
The scheme has only been in place since 1 January, but we have already helped two members of staff to travel to see their families for Christmas in Bulgaria and Denmark by train. There are also other members of staff who are now planning to travel on their summer holidays by train. Previously they would not have considered this.
It is early in the process, but recruitment agencies we have talked to have mentioned the scheme as something they would lead with when talking to potential recruits. By talking about it and sharing, however, we hope that it won’t be a differentiator for long as we feel every business should be doing similar things.
Firms should seriously consider introducing environmental perks for their staff. The obvious first step is to declare a climate emergency. Once that is done, then people can hold you to account (both internally and externally) and so that is likely to accelerate your progress.
Beyond that there are not really that many barriers once you decide you want to do the right thing. You can provide facilities such as bicycle storage and showers and then make the step up from there.
We are always happy to share our work, and we think our sustainability targets and policies form a pretty good roadmap to get started
It is important to remember that you should never dictate what staff do in their personal lives. But equally, no HR policy is ever neutral in terms of sustainability. We want to make sure that we balance the policies so that they remove barriers to staff who want to lower their impact.
For those practices that are at the start of their journey we are always happy to share our work, and we think our sustainability targets and policies form a pretty good roadmap to get started, and an easy guide to where the emissions hotspots will be in an architectural practice.
Any responsible business should make sure that its policies support staff in reducing their impact.
Ben Hopkins is an associate of Bennetts Associates, an architectural practice founded in 1987 and based in Clerkenwell, central London
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