Happy Earth Day! Today, I decided to finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to address something that has been bothering me for years: the blatant disregard for immense waste within office spaces. I’ll be focusing on 500 Startups here, but the message extends: if you manage a coworking space and haven’t made any effort to green up your office, you’re not only incredibly behind the times, but you will also soon find that your lack of foresight represents your Achilles heel in other aspects of business. (And let’s be honest: if society can build hover boards, augmented reality glasses, and self-driving cars, we should be able to find a solution to ensure that recycling goes in the recycle bin.)
For five months, I worked out of 500 Startups’ Mountain View headquarters. And for five months, I asked these same questions:
- “Why are there no washcloths?”
- “Why are these bins unmarked?”
- “Why aren’t people using mugs instead of disposable cups?”
- “Why are people using three paper towels to dry their hands?”
And most importantly:
- “What is 500 as a company doing to reduce their carbon footprint?”
I never got a satisfactory response. My one victory, forcing the space to buy a dishrack so we could at least eliminate the daily ream of paper towels used to dry dishes, was only achieved after speaking to at least three separate people on staff, the first two who acted like I was an radical hippie for even suggesting it. (Thanks, Chandini, for taking this issue seriously and making it happen!)
Take it from Clif Bar’s “corporate ecologist” Elysa Hammond, who helped the company become the first certified organic energy bar as well as shed 90,000 pounds of shrink wrap every year by a smart redesign of their packaging.
“Any time an office creates waste, it is not using resources as efficiently as possible. ..It makes good business sense to reduce waste.” — Elysa Hammond
Having helped run a coworking space myself, I know that it’s not easy to manage the various demands on your time, capabilities, and resources. But if you’re only doing what’s minimally permissible to call yourself a space and aren’t willing to put in the extra mile to apply startup best practices to your own facilities, you need to stop what you’re doing immediately and return to the basics.
I can already hear it. “But the basics of our business is investment! Our primary goal is to get our financial goals met; everything else is secondary!”
On one hand: Fair enough. Stop running a space, and focus on your investment firm. There’s no need to do both, and believe me, the companies involved would appreciate their $25K in “program fees” back.
But on the other hand: Forty companies are paying $25K each to participate in a quarterly accelerator program, meaning the organization is making $1M per batch, or $4M per year. With this investment, they should at least be able to:
- Buy a power dryer (so bathroom paper towel use is reduced).
- Hire a laundry service (so they can cycle washclothes daily).
- Print a sign that indicates which bins are for what purpose (so that all bins don’t automatically become trash).
- Call a plumber the minute a leak is discovered (so water isn’t leaking for days, causing a hazard).
The Nature Conservancy reports that “Over 16 billion paper cups are used for coffee every year. This translates to over 6.5 million trees cut down, 4 billion gallons of water wasted, and enough energy used to power nearly 54,000 homes for a year.” The point of the article is to encourage readers to bring their own mug to the coffee shop, and it’s assumed that within an office environment, employees would default to using mugs naturally. What does it say about a space when members are disposing two or three cups a day, and the staff hasn’t done anything to curb that behavior?
The startup mantra is to “move fast and break things” — or in other words, experiment frequently and question the status quo. But where’s that same attitude towards encouraging reducing, reusing, and recycling in the real world? When the status quo is to dismiss the concerns of the physical in exchange for the acceleration of the virtual, it’s the responsibility of connectors — the spaces that bridge the offline and online — to remind residents of their earthly impact.
For example, a common problem coworking spaces face is getting residents to do their dishes. But without the tools necessary — sponges, dish racks, handtowels — busy entrepreneurs will either leave their dirty mug in the sink or opt for a plastic cup if available. It’s up to the space to address these issues organically, not to consider the issue done when the cups are thrown in the trash. Not only is this behavior cheap, tacky, and disrespectful, it’s ultimately unsustainable — both as a business and environmental practice.
Successful entrepreneurs become successful by being super focused on their business. 500 Startups — you know this! Give them the tools they need and the quality of service that they’re paying for so that everyone can be sustainable without losing sight of business goals.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to improve or build out your coworking space, please fill out the contact form on the original post. I also recommend you download my free Green Guide, which provides helpful pointers on quickly and efficiently greening your coworking space.