A Yearlong Road to Green Certification

A Yearlong Road to Green Certification

San Francisco's Hanson Bridgett became a certified green business a few months ago. The process took about a year, and the law firm has had to change the way it did some things.

Many came down to basic human behavior, like convincing people they really didn't need to print that memo or drink water from a plastic throw away bottle. But in other cases, the company had to work closely with building management to fix other things like changing that toilet that seemed to take forever to flush.

Rachel Patterson is Hanson Bridgett's administrative services manager. I recently caught up with Rachel to talk about the experience, as well as a surprise she came across along the way.

Tilde Herrera: Hey, Rachel. Thank you for joining me today.

Rachel Patterson: Thank you.

TH: Well, first of all, why did Hanson Bridgett decide that green certification was the way to go?

RP: Well, first of all, it's kind of the right thing to do. It's kind of the trend everyone's heading towards. The environment is first and foremost on everyone's mind and businesses are basically just a collection of individuals, and I think especially in the Bay Area people are very environmentally aware. And if you can get more power with a collective, as in a business, I think that makes a big difference.

And Hanson Bridgett's always been very community oriented. We definitely encourage our staff to get involved in whatever cause that they believe in and that moves them. There are definitely some people in our firm that believe in the environment. And also, we hope it brings in more business because of other like-minded businesses that are interested in working with green companies.

TH: Now can you take us through the process?

RP: Sure, it was a long process for us. Oh, good heavens. We started over a year before we got certified. It was actually started by our business practice group. They said, 'Hey, there's this certification. It would be great and we would really like to get going on that." So we started and when you get the form, which is pretty big and extensive, you start looking at it and saying, 'Wow, there's a lot of stuff you have to do here.'

It's really important that you get involved with your building management and you work with them. We had several, several meetings where we sat down with building management and we all just went over the checklist. They answered some of the questions that we didn't necessarily have answers for, and then we kind of asked them, "Well, O.K., if we implemented this, is this something this building can support?" Those sort of situations.

And then once you finally go back and forth and make the changes that you can, then you submit the form. You're just waiting now for S.F. Environment. There are five departments that come through and they check to make sure that you're actually doing the things that are on your checklist.

And the great thing about S.F. Environment was that they would come in and if they felt like, 'Oh, you know what? This isn't exactly what we'd like to see, so go ahead and do this and then once you've corrected that, just call us and let us know, and either we'll come back and check it out or we'll just take your word for it that you've taken care of it.'

And so there were a couple of things like when the water person came through and had to go check all the sinks and all the toilets, there was this one toilet that was just flushing for a very long time that nobody ever paid attention to or knew. And so then we had to have the building come up and see what they can do to fix that. And so once we got it fixed, they said, 'O.K. Great. Thank you.'

TH: Can you give us some examples of specific things that your company had to do in order to comply with the certification standards?

RP: Well, we just moved into our building. We just did a remodel and moved from across the street into this building. And a lot of the stuff was just part of our build-out and what our architect had designed. We had a lot of all natural light coming in from outside, so that helps a lot with our certification.

But some of the things that we had to do is we got rid of our bottled water, which I think everyone should get rid of bottled water. And then one of the more challenging things that we've had to deal with is duplex printing, and we're a law firm and the courts don't accept anything that's duplex. They only accept simplex.

That was a little bit more on the challenging side. But trying to educate people saying, 'Hey, I know these things that are going to court have to be simplex, but when you're doing a draft, try and print it double-sided. Or if you're doing research on the Internet, make it a PDF and make it searchable so you don't have to print the 500 pages. You can just look for the pages that you need and just print those direct pages.'

So a lot of it is education of our staff on ways to save and changing your habits. The printing and the paper, law firms go through a lot of paper, so trying to reduce the amount of paper that we go through but still meeting the court deadlines and guidelines.

TH: How much of it was behavioral?

RP: I want to say a lot of the stuff that is very consumable is all habit driven. The stuff like the light bulbs -- you know, nobody here really changes their light bulbs. We get the building on that and those are decisions that we can make unilaterally across the board. O.K., we're going do this. I switched to 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and I just kind of said, "O.K., this is what we're doing."

As long as people had paper, they were fine with it. But it's trying to break old habits and develop new habits. No, not every single thing needs to be printed. So we're just trying to educate people. I think it's a problem a lot of companies have is how do you get education out there to your individuals.

Emails -- everyone's overwhelmed with emails all day long so that's not always the easiest way but email is one way. We have an internal blog that we use. And then we have these green gatherings that we do once a month and I have speakers that come in and talk about specific subjects. It's just education and breaking old habits and developing new, better, and greener habits.

TH: Now what do you think overall when you consider everything that you've done to become certified -- what were the major challenges for your company?

RP: Wow. Well, as I said, the double sided printing. And then the surprising thing was paper plates vs. durable plates. Our building does not currently have the capability of composting. If we could compost, then we could use the biodegradable plates that we were purchasing. SF Environment, their guidelines are if your building can compost, then you can use paper plates or biodegradable plates or whatever. But if they don't compost, then you need to use durable plates. So we went out and bought durable plates and there was quite a curve that we had to deal with.

It was like, "O.K., wait." We have all these dishes that we constantly have to wash. When there's a big party, all of a sudden, we have 150 plates. We have several dishwashers, but it's just taking up a lot of staff time to do a lot of dish washing.

TH: You said that that was a surprise. Were there other surprises along the way or maybe things that you had never even thought of?

RP: That was kind of the biggest one that (we thought) was kind of an easy thing. You're just eating off paper plates or whatever and you don't think about it, but now that you have to actually think about it, and you say, "Oh, wow. How do we work around this and how do we make this work for us?" Durable plates are much heavier than paper plates, so when you're setting up for a meeting that has 50 people there, you're really hauling a lot of plates with you rather than just a stack of paper plates. But I think mostly that, in my opinion, was probably the biggest change. I'm sure if you ask someone else, they might have something else that directly affected them that mattered more.

TH: Was it expensive to go through this certification? You just talked about having to purchase all of this dishware. What other expenses did the company have to incur in order to meet the standards?

RP: The paper, the 100 percent post-consumer paper is a little more expensive than regular paper, 30 percent recycle paper, but that's going down. I think the fact that we purchased all this durable plates and bowls and flatware and so on, I think in the long run is going to save us money because we don't have to keep buying paper plates every couple of weeks. So this is something that's going to last us for a long period of time.

But I think, you know, we've already saved money by getting rid of our plastic bottles. I don't have to spend a fortune every two weeks on plastic bottles when we already have filtered water in our office. So we've saved money on some things. Some things the initial cost was definitely more expensive, but I think in the long run it's going to average out and it's going to save us money.

TH: A lot of things in the certification call for reducing water or energy use. Have you been able to measure whether or not those things have happened for the company?

RP: We are working with the building to find a way to do that. Our building is pretty good about their energy conservation. Right now we're just kind of lumped in as a group and that's on our lease, so we're working with them on how can we separate us out from the rest of the building. Like this is how much energy we've used, this is how much water we've used -- that sort of thing so we can evaluate that in the long run.

So we're working with the building. Right now, we don't, but the building is working with us, and I have to say building management's been really great about helping us solve some of these problems.

TH: Can you offer advice for other companies who want to make changes in their operations, but in many cases, they need to go through their building? Can you offer some advice for companies as far as the interaction of working with your building?

RP: Just get to be on a good, first name basis with them and have meetings. We had them several times up to our office. They understood what our goals were. We weren't picking on them and making them do something, but we wanted to work on this together. And it's actually a good thing for them. If this is something they can do, they can sell it to other people because we're not going to be the only people in our building that are going to go green.

So other businesses will and it'll be so much easier down the road for them to go, "Oh, yeah, we do that and this and this and this." Sometimes they said, about the composting, "We just don't have the capability of doing that at this current time, but it's something we might be able to revisit later."

They really worked with us on the toilet thing. They were like, "Oh, sure, we're going to fix that. We're going to work with this. We're going get this going," They made sure all of our cleaning products that the cleaning company uses are all green certified cleaning products, all of the hand towels and stuff are recycled materials. So they really worked with us on a lot of that stuff.

TH: Rachel, can you talk about some of the benefits to being certified green?

RP: Right now there are actually a lot of businesses out there that are looking for other businesses that are green and like- minded. So we're actually finding that we're being able to market ourselves in a different arena that we weren't previously able to do. I think interestingly enough, because we're green certified as a business, we have also educated our staff and that has been translated to them going home and becoming a little more green at home.

People that might not have realized that you can recycle all of these things instead of just throwing away, people are now recycling more, people I talk to -- even my staff. Some of them said, "Oh, I never recycle." I'm like, "No, no, no. You need to recycle. This is why." And now they do recycle. So I think it's just not only educating on what we're doing in the office, but how this can translate to you in your personal life.

So I think overall, we were motivated to become green because of individuals, but now as a company, we're educating those individuals so that they can go back to their own personal lives and make some changes.

TH: Now, Rachel, having gone through the process, what are, say, three things that companies need to know?

RP: Get to know your building management well. Get on a good first name basis with them. You're going work closely with them through this process.

Find different ways and interesting ways to educate your staff and get the majority of people on board. There are always gonna be some people that are going to say, "Well, I don't really believe all of this." Really find some interesting ways to get the information out there to your employees as to why as a firm you're doing it and why as individuals we feel it's important.

And then the other thing is for a law firm, and I'm assuming a lot of firms, fight the good fight on paper because paper is something that we waste a lot of. There's a lot of water that goes into creating paper and chemicals, and if we can reduce the amount of paper that we use, that would be a big help in the environment.

TH: Say for companies that maybe don't have a local certification program like we do here in the Bay Area, what are some of the quick hits or action steps that they can take to make their operations more environmentally friendly, aside from the paper use and the bottled water?

RP: You know, think about ways to reduce waste. There's a lot of things that we buy simply because we need this or we think we need this at the moment, but there's other products that you perhaps have in your office that will meet those demands and you just haven't thought of it in that way. So finding alternative uses for the items that you currently have within your business.

Utilizing all of your staff to come up with ways. I mean there's things that I haven't thought of that somebody else thought of and went, "Oh, yeah, that's a great idea. Let's use that instead."

I think just communicating with people and listening to what other people and how they are doing it. Even though you're in the same business and company, everyone does something slightly different, and then just finding those people that do it in a more green way. And telling other people, "Oh, so and so did it this way. Isn't that great?" Oh, yeah. I didn't even think about that. So just educate people and share other ideas with each other.

But definitely, I can't stress enough getting rid of the bottled water and think about it before you print anything. We print a lot of stuff we don't need to print.

Tilde Herrera is associate editor of GreenBiz.com.