Bicycle commuting succeeds, coffee grounds fail
By Steven C. Berman, Stoll Berne
Steven C. Berman is an attorney with Stoll Berne. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-227-1600.
I work at a law firm that prides itself on its commitment to sustainability. Despite our best intentions, not all of our sustainability initiatives are successful. I’ve become fascinated with why certain sustainability efforts work while others don’t. I think our experiences might provide others with guidance why some workplace sustainability efforts thrive, while others fail.
On any given day, 20 percent of the people at my office bike commute. During the summer, we might get as high as 35 percent. It wasn’t always this way. When I began working at the firm in 2001, there was only one other consistent bicycle commuter. In the past decade, we’ve become a workplace that embraces bicycle commuting.
I consider this an unmitigated success. Not everyone I work with can bike to work. Some people live too far away, some have family commitments that would make cycling impractical, and at least one person has expressed an irrational disdain for cyclists. But many of us who can bike commute do. As a workplace we’ve made small, but meaningful, strides in reducing our carbon footprint, improving employee health and enhancing our good corporate citizen street credibility.
Compare this to the office's least successful sustainability initiative of recent memory — the coffee grounds/home composting project. It seemed like a good idea. The firm goes through gallons of coffee every day. Coffee grounds make great composting material. The firm’s sustainability committee proposed that rather than toss the coffee grounds, we have people who want them take them home, for the garden or compost bin.
A half dozen of us eagerly signed up. We set a schedule. Each week's coffee grounds were saved and, at the end of the week, one of us would take the grounds home. The coffee grounds/home composting project lasted about six months before it was quietly abandoned.
I consider this an unmitigated failure. The coffee grounds now go into the trash, and into landfill. Nothing changed.
What caused bicycle commuting to succeed and coffee grounds recycling to fail? There’s the obvious. Coffee grounds smell. Bicycles do not. But I think that oversimplifies it. Each was targeted to our own self-interest. Bicycle commuting is fun. But, those of us who brought home the coffee grounds did so because we like gardening, and we wanted better tomatoes or flowers.
I think the predominant reason bicycle commuting succeeded in our office was because it started from the bottom up. A couple of us liked riding to work. Others saw that it was okay, and decided to give it a try. The firm administration caught on, provided us with space to store our clothes and change, and a wall rack to hang our bikes. When we hit critical mass, we asked for economic incentives for bike commuters, similar to the tax breaks car and public transportation commuters receive through the office’s cafeteria plan. The firm agreed, recognizing that the benefits from having happy workers outweighed the de minimis costs. Our managing partner even learned how to ride a bike.
Bicycle commuting also imposes no meaningful burden on the people in the workplace who are not bicycle commuters. It is always optional, for the commuters or for anyone who wants to become a commuter. But beyond the occasional sighting of middle-aged lawyers in spandex, there’s no harm or inconvenience to others.
Of course, factors outside of our control also had a major influence. Portland caught cycling fever. The city has made it easier and easier for bike commuters, and is continuously adding cycle-friendly routes and bicycle lanes. There are substantially more bicycle commuters now than there were a decade ago. However, many downtown workplaces — including law firms — have not experienced any significant uptick in bicycle commuters. While governments and employers can encourage changes in individual behavior, the motivation needs to come from within for a program to be truly successful. It is clear to me that outside factors may have helped change my office’s bicycle commuting culture, but those factors were incidental, not determinative.
In contrast, I think the coffee grounds recycling project failed precisely because it was not organic. The idea was the brainchild of a well-intentioned “green” committee tasked with coming up with good ideas to make the office more sustainable. It had no relationship to existing behaviors or anything people already were doing. The project did involve inconveniencing others. Someone had to save the weeks coffee grounds. Coffee grounds smell. There was a set schedule, you had to remember when it was your week to take home the grounds and then you had to transport a week’s worth of grounds home. There was nothing particularly convenient about the program and, unlike hopping on a bike — which you can choose to do or not to do on any given day — there was nothing spontaneous about lugging home a week’s work of grounds.
I miss the coffee grounds. They were a great asset to my vegetable beds. But, I do not miss lugging the sack of grounds home on my bicycle, or the smell of the week’s grounds as they accumulated in a dry bag in the office kitchen. And, I have no doubt that the grounds project may well succeed in some other office where bicycle commuting would never take off.
For workplace sustainability initiatives to succeed, they need to be tied to the identities, behaviors and goals that are familiar to the people in that workplace.
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