Green Office Week kicks off with a focus on individual behaviour

elephant-in-the-roomThis week is Green Office Week. Obviously it’s corporate sponsored, self-designated and arbitrarily timed with all the ways that leaves it open to criticism. It also offers pretty standard advice for the most part and many people and organisations will be well aware of it.  What is interesting is that so much of the advice is about individual behaviour, across the daily themed topics. In some ways this is a welcome reminder that the solution to environmental issues is as much about personal behaviour and management as it is  technology. The answer to needlessly burning lights should be somebody remembering to turn them off, rather than a movement sensor. Or it should be both. In practice, people don’t meet their own stated commitments to the environment and there are some pretty good reasons for this.

Not many people claim they are unconcerned about the environment. Research by Avery, the office supplies firm behind Green Office Week, found that only 12 percent of office workers feel that the environment is now less of a priority for their business than before the economic downturn and discovered 42 per cent of workers believe the financial crisis has actually increased the need for their workplace to be eco-friendly.

This public commitment to the environment does not always translate into meaningful action.  There is the regular exhortation for people to ‘do their bit’, which is repeated on the Green Office Week website. This is the level of eco-awareness that encourages companies to use recycled paper and toner cartridges, send cans and plastic cups for recycling and so on. Welcome though this is, it is essentially a salve for the conscience rather than salvation of the environment. This is the meagre response to a major threat as spoofed by the comedian Sean Lock (strong language).

But what could really make a difference means some very difficult decisions for business owners, organisations and policy makers. Commercial buildings, for example, are responsible for around 14 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions and so for their owners and managers there is a genuine need to address their impact on the environment, tied up with the drive to reduce costs.

A further problem is that we are not generally hardwired to make rational decisions about risks and our response to them. According to a report published in April by the Economic and Social Research Council, we often struggle to make rational decisions on major issues for a number of reasons not least a series of fallacious mental equations, evasions and equivocations that leave us exposed to genuine disaster while taking misguided steps to address the issue.

So the challenge is to become aware of the fallacies that underlie our inappropriate responses to risk and take meaningful action to balance it all out properly. This problem is evident in the approach of the people behind Green Office Week who have an interesting structured theme for each day (today focuses on energy), but who too often don’t challenge firms and individuals enough. And so not one of the five tips offered up for the Focus on Purchasing day on Thursday  is ‘instigate a major project looking at every aspect of your supply chain’ rather than ‘use re-manufactured ink cartridges’.

The little things are welcome but it’s the big things that matter.

by Mark Eltringham