Toward a climate-conscious law office

Small changes can make a big difference, says Kevin Cheung

Kevin Cheung

Climate-related issues continued to make headlines last year, and from Australian wildfires and extreme weather to Greta Thunberg, environmental health remains a pressing issue in the public consciousness. Major business players are now turning their attention to climate impact in making their business decisions, as customers and employees demand action.

At Amazon's last annual shareholder meeting, employees called on the company to create a climate change plan; it responded with a "Climate Pledge” to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. Microsoft has laid out an ambitious plan to become carbon negative by 2030. Starbucks recently announced a goal of reducing its waste, water use and carbon emission by 50% by 2030. Apple is striving to produce its products completely through renewable energy, without reliance on fossil fuels.

And recently Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of global asset management company BlackRock Inc., wrote an open letter to CEOs saying that BlackRock would start to exit investments "that present a high sustainability-related risk.” Fink wrote that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.” He linked climate risk to investment risk, stating that “we believe that sustainable investing is the strongest foundation for client portfolios going forward.”

Where people park their money and who they choose to do business with reflects their values. How a company addresses its climate impact is becoming a factor in attracting customers and employees.

With influential companies taking bold action on climate impact, law firms must also take action to position themselves positively to a public increasingly sensitive to this issue. The following are 10 suggestions, doable by law firms of any size, to kickstart turning an office into a more environmentally conscious place of business.

Recycle coffee pods. Many offices use single-cup coffee makers that rely on coffee pods. These are convenient and fast, but create tremendous waste. Thankfully, many pods are now recyclable. If your office uses these machines, purchase recyclable coffee pods and have a dedicated bin to dispose of them. Someone will need to be tasked with removing the grounds and filter from the pods; but this action will go a long way to reducing the waste generated by these machines.

Practise proper recycling. Different cities have different recycling rules, and many people are confused about what can be recycled where they live and work. Learn how to properly recycle materials in your office and make it easy for staff to do so. Have clearly marked bins and signage indicating what products go where.

Refine your relationship with paper. Law firms are notorious paper consumers, and this is an area where being smart about what we print can have a meaningful impact. Storing and accessing files on the firm’s computer network rather than printing hardcopies significantly reduces paper waste. Office policy and procedure manuals can likewise be stored on the firm network for easy access and updating. And think before printing emails. You likely have seen email footers asking you to consider the environment before printing. Consider adding this to the signature of your own email messages, too.

Reduce power consumption. Many of us do not turn off our computers at the end of the day, and we leave lights on even when they are not in use for extended periods. Make it a policy to shut down computers each night; not only is this beneficial for power consumption, but for network security as well. Additionally, rather than using a screen saver, have the monitor power down after a period of inactivity. And, if possible, invest in motion-activated lights to combat lights being left on too long.

Keep mailing lists up-to-date. By updating mailing lists regularly you avoid wasted mailings and and save time, paper, postage and ink.

Eliminate disposable pens. Every office has more pens than anybody knows what to do with, and many of these are single-use items. Supplying the office with refillable pens and stocking refills for them can force staff to be more mindful of their pen-disposing habits. Generally, such pens are more pleasant to use and save money in the long run.

Support “casual” days. The occasional “casual” day is a nice break from wearing a suit. A collateral benefit is that less suit wear means less dry cleaning, which is better for the environment.

Work from home more. Do not be shy about having regularly scheduled work-from-home days for you and your staff. Reducing the frequency of commuting to the office can be a great way to reduce your office’s carbon footprint. Furthermore, the ability to work from home occasionally can be an employment perk that can attract talent and facilitate positive mental wellbeing.

Encourage employee initiatives. Your staff probably have some fantastic ideas on how to make your office greener. Encourage strategizing amongst them, and adopt incentive programs to reward efforts.

Support environmental organizations and initiatives. Lawyers have been good at dedicating energy and resources to tackling issues facing the profession such as equality, diversity and inclusivity. There is no reason why lawyers cannot dedicate even a fraction of such energy to our industry’s climate impact.

 Law firms are regular and proud sponsors of organization or events that address a multitude of important issues. If you have not done so already, consider adding initiatives with a climate focus to the list.

 Climate change is an increasingly important issue for the people we work for and with. Failing to act on our relationship with climate change risks alienating these people, and risks lawyers becoming out of step with our clients’ values. As leaders in the business community are prioritizing being mindful of their environmental impact, so too should law firms.

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