Sustainability is simple
If you can spare 5 minutes, please read this through to the end. It is not a very special, wonderful or even great story (no offence to the author). What Tyler Caine (working with COOKFOX Architects) shows in his piece – not in a belligerent, but sympathetic way – is that we are not only creatures of habit, but that these habits keep us very busy, which distracts us from thinking critically.
Nothing new there, but this leads to us not seeing simple improvements. And he comes up with a great example, because it is so simple.
With a problem as large as ‘sustainability’ there is a tendency to look for large scale solutions: carbon pricing, national recycling programs, grid-scale renewable energy, power plant emissions.
The danger here is the misconception that the only solutions are difficult solutions or that sustainability itself is overly complicated. Once these impressions set in it becomes very easy for us to distance ourselves from contributing. After all, aside from a letter to elected officials and signing some petitions, how much can one do to support the construction of offshore wind turbines or improve state energy codes? Difficult questions have a way of dissuading us.
The truth is that there are countless opportunities for sustainable improvement that are very simple and the fact that they remain underutilized is not because the solutions or difficult, let alone impossible, but because no one has spoken up yet. Sometimes all we have to do is ask.
In walking around the office of COOKFOX Architects it is hard not to be impressed with the thought and effort that has been devoted to achieving a sustainable work place. The creative studio flooded with natural light was the answer of the firm’s partners to the goal of creating a healthy environment to promote environmentally responsible creativity. Rapidly renewable materials? Absolutely. Low-VOC finishes? Sure. Low-flow bathroom fixtures and waterless urinals? Of course. These were questions that did not even needed to be asked when the firm was working to design their new space. Beyond being the first LEED Platinum project in the state of New York, the office gives money to each employee for the purchase of a plant for their desk to complement the 10,000 square foot green roof that they planted. Clearly, the office has demonstrated its commitment to sustainability.
When I was walking to pick up a document from the printer I glanced at the reams of unopened printer paper and saw “30% Recycled Content” on all of them. The fact that our paper had recycled content wasn’t as surprising as why it was only 30%. There was a time not long ago where 30% recycled content was at the upper end of the threshold that one could buy while still maintaining color clarity and quality, but the industry has evolved to the point where getting 100% recycled content paper (especially copy paper) is easily done. I had to wonder how an office with so much positive momentum hadn’t taken advantage of another superior product. Perhaps there was a reason.
I set off to ask the head of the communications team if there was something keeping us from 100% R.C. copy paper. The inquiry earned a shrug and a shake of his head. I continued on to the head of the firm’s finances and repeated the question, thinking maybe the topic had come up before and been nixed for some reason. The response was similar to the first, but he pointed me in the direction of the office manager who was in charge of ordering supplies. With my curiosity having only grown more by this point, I went to the manager’s desk and asked, “I was wondering if there was a specific reason that we do not use 100% recycled content copy paper.”
With a pause the manager shook her head and replied, “Not that I know of.” After another pause and a smile she continued, “Would you like us to start?”
It struck me as a peculiar question, or maybe just peculiar that no one else had asked up to now, but I nodded with a smile in return saying, “Yes… Yes I would. Thank you.” *As it turns out the same process was surprisingly similar at the last office I worked at as well.
When the office needs more paper we will be replacing it with stock containing 100% recycled content. Done. While I may not buy a great deal of paper for home use, an office of 65 people buys a considerable amount. As it turned out, there was no complicated, harrowing, demoralizing reason that we hadn’t seized an opportunity. The only thing between 70% more recycled content was some persistence and a few honest questions.
Collectively, we have many of these same chances to make easy changes with benefits that extend from ourselves, beyond ourselves and then eventually back to ourselves. Don’t forget to ask the simple questions because often the only thing between us as the answer we’re looking for is the act of asking.