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Neil Usher: green talk versus green action

Paradoxically speaking on the delta between lofty goals and day-to-day reality.

15/04/2022 3 min read
Part of Neil Usher’s Paradoxically Speaking series, this article first featured in Mix issue 219.

Green was once a shade reserved for eccentrics. When I first became involved in the movement in the late 1980s there was little general interest. A local election campaign I helped run amassed just over 100 votes, as we came a narrow last; a small but committed crowd. It’s come a long way, but for an overriding reason we’d be far happier didn’t exist: the climate emergency.

We now have a new corporate acronym in play, ESG – the E being environmental. That, along with a host of must-have construction, fit-out and operational accreditations that no one who occupies a workspace is interested in. There’s barely an organisation that doesn’t trumpet its sustainability credentials. Even those busy destroying the planet.

It reveals the problem at the heart of ‘green’ – the delta between lofty goals and day-to-day reality. That is, a reality in which the aim of reversing climate change is shattered into thousands of tiny fragments, each of which might be set aside as alone they make so little difference. Even though, when summed, they do.

The paradox therefore becomes: I fully support my organisation’s green agenda, but I need my own desk when I come into the office. Of course, there are many more statements that may be placed after the ‘but’. Yet for office occupiers, accustomed as we are to seeing waste in tangible terms, the biggest problem has always been emptiness.

Office occupancy in London was reported, the week of writing, to be up to a whopping 27%. That’s about half of what it was pre-COVID, when it sat just about the halfway mark. That’s half of a 10-hour stretched working day, five days a week. So even then offices were being used for around 15% of the available hours a week. Right now, at 27%, that’s comfortably in single digits.

It’s estimated that the commercial real estate sector consumes 40% of global energy annually and accounts for more than one third of international carbon emissions. Each unused desk in the office equates to the creation of approximately one tonne of unnecessary C02 every year (on average) according to the CIBSE. That’s the equivalent of driving a diesel car 6,000 km.

Many of the initiatives advocating ‘getting people back to the office’ – in addition to our paradox – conflict with a sustainable agenda. Free choice of when to attend drives a demand for workspace that can accommodate everyone if they exercise their will simultaneously. Offering more space per person can exacerbate that problem. Encouraging attendance on Tuesday to Thursday narrows even the potential for increasing beneficial use.

Which is why we need the triple bottom line approach: balancing the needs of people, the organisation and planet. A focus on one can often negatively impact one or both of the others. If we were more environmentally aware, we’d be more willing to make balanced choices. If we’re happy to use a refillable bottle we can accept that a smaller, more focused and specific workplace with shared settings and space allocation technology is part of a green future. We’re all renewable now.

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