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In elementary school, I planted trees; cleaned up the beach; and made recycle, reduce, and reuse posters every Earth Day. After a month of learning about “going green” and estimating our own carbon footprint, I remember telling my parents they couldn’t purchase an SUV, and we needed to stop using plastic straws and be more sustainable.
Since then, my environmental awareness has taken a nosedive. However, this spring, I have been thinking about whether remote work supports sustainable living. Are we all sustainable superheroes now that we don’t commute in our pollution producing cars? Or, have we become extra energy consumers working from home?
From one office to thousands
While the future of work is unknown, we can all agree that going back to a commute would be tough. Eliminating daily commutes to work in gas guzzling cars is a major point for the affirmative side. No commute means better air quality, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and less consumption of fossil fuels. Sounds like sustainable living to me!
Highway vehicles alone put out almost 35% of the total nitrogen dioxide and contribute to the 3.3 million world-wide deaths due to poor air quality every year. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the USA came from transportation in 2017. Conversely, remote workers in the United States avoid emitting 3.6 million tons of greenhouse gasses every year, which is the equivalent of planting 91 million trees.
Sustainable living in a singular office
While getting to one office might have had a negative impact, working in one might have been positive. Companies were making huge efforts to reduce their carbon footprint before the pandemic. Fast Company shared how Shopify launched a sustainability fund in 2019, committing to invest at least $5 million every year into technology and projects to fight climate change. Since then, they have offered remote work to all of their employees indefinitely.
Whereas before they could control their sustainability by making environmentally friendly choices for one massive building, they are now dealing with “more than 5,000 offices scattered around the globe. All these offices have different heating systems, different energy grids, and each employee making different decisions now that they’re untethered from a central office.” Therefore, sustainability is not only less controllable but also less trackable. Without clear data, the jury is still out on which is better for the planet.
Different region, different impact
In addition to the inability to track everyone’s home energy usage, where you live and work complicates the questions of whether working from home is having a positive or negative effect on sustainable living. BBC brings up two important factors.
The first factor is workers in other countries, such as Norway, were using electric vehicles at high rates. Therefore, the lack of a commute is far less impactful there than in other countries that are highly reliant on petroleum, including the US and UK. In other words, sustainable living practices were already in place.
Additionally, cities where public transportation is used at large to get to and from work might not see any major changes in energy consumed since buses, trains, and metros are still running.
Where you derive your energy matters
Secondly, where your energy comes from plays a role in determining whether working from home positively contributes to sustainable living. For example, if you live in Iceland (where a significant amount of clean geothermal energy powers commercial buildings), virtual work is not scoring you many brownie points. Conversely, if you live in a U.S. city where coal power is the main source of commercial electricity but many homes have solar power, remote work could have a positive impact.
Similarly, the temperature varies greatly across the U.S. and the globe. In places like Florida where the heat is treacherous, fossil fuels are pumping from every home all day and required in large office spaces. Therefore, cutting out the cooling of big buildings could be beneficial. Versus if you live in San Francisco where the weather is mostly mild, heating or cooling systems might be turned off when leaving the house so the change is negligible.
Small habits or big changes
On the other side of the coin, I see plastic Starbucks cups on everyone’s desk at the office, a product of getting their morning vice on the way to work. Yet, my guess is most drink the energizer from a reusable mug when working from home.
Also, what about the lights? In my apartment, I get great natural light all day so I don’t use much electricity, while my office is required to power overhead lights from 7am to 5pm.
More Sustainable? The takeway
Not everyone is environmentally conscious. Therefore, minor habits might not hold a candle to the millions of dollars that corporations can put into environmental efforts. For example, Zapier offset 647 tonnes of carbon through reforestation and Microsoft charges an internal fine of $15 per metric ton of carbon emission to encourage its departments to be as sustainable as possible.
At Hardly, we are striving to be environmentally conscious on all fronts. From our commitment to the sustainable packaging of products to our CEO’s use of S’well bottles, Hardly is making sure we do our part as a company of remote workers. Are you doing yours?
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