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How to make working from home more sustainable

March 14, 2023

Benefits for employees, the bottom line, and the environment.

The unsustainable aspects of office life—daily car commutes, carbon-intensive workplaces, and the waste generated from disposables—create an existential nightmare for the environmentally conscious. Then COVID-19 changed everything and shepherded (read: forced) a worldwide work-from-home culture, and with it, a chance to hit the reset button on how we think about sustainability and work.  

Now, even with the coronavirus pandemic under better control, the remote work model is the new normal. Companies with entirely remote and hybrid workforces have seen the benefits for employees, their bottom line, and the environment. (FYI, Sustain.Life has an entirely remote workforce.)  

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A recent analysis suggests that working from home cuts overall energy use thanks to decreased work travel and office energy consumption. It’s promising evidence that the WFH model can be more sustainable in the long run. Outside of obvious benefits like more time with loved ones, working from home is also better for business, but you have to take some steps to do it right.

Time = Gas

If your organization doesn’t have a formalized WFH policy, consider this: Staying home to work is already a sustainable act. That’s because commuter traffic jams burn over 3 billion gallons of gasoline annually. Then, there’s all the wasted time. A 2020 study on the effects of WFH since COVID-19 found that commuters in major cities got 12–16% of their time back by not commuting.  

Sure, less commuting time improves health and reduces stress, but it also makes us more productive. According to Bloomberg, “the work-from-home boom will lift productivity in the U.S. economy by 5%, mostly because of savings in commuting time.”  

Ditch the disposables

Even as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in April 2020, polls showed that 68% of people actively worried about the negative impact of their work-related activities. Understandable when you consider that all those plastic bottles in your office might never get recycled.  

At home, you have more control over the active management of your waste streams. Access to a full kitchen means you can (and should) ditch your typical to-go packaged foods and single-use cutlery. You should also say goodbye to plastic bottles and aluminum cans in favor of options like in-home seltzer makers and water filtration systems. And now that you eat the majority of your meals at home, you have all the more reason to start composting any food waste.     

Cut out paper

Speaking of waste, the average office worker generates 10,000 sheets of paper waste every year, and most of the 375 million ink and toner cartridges end up in a landfill to release volatile organic compounds and heavy metals into the environment.

When you do need to hit print, always default to double-sided, use narrow margins, and try draft mode and lighter-weight fonts—both will reduce ink and toner use.

Want to quantify your environmental impact? A single tree pulls up to 14.7 pounds of CO2 from the air. Saving a ton of paper—about 20,000 sheets—saves 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 2000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. Plus, it saves you money.

Fans are your friends

On average, heating and cooling account for over half of at-home energy consumption, but now with more people working and studying from home, Americans spend $6 billion more on at-home power consumption. Fortunately, there are a few quick and simple fixes for sustainable home climate control rather than reaching for the thermostat.  

Natural light, passive ventilation techniques, and low-intensity mechanical support such as overhead or personal fans can reduce your reliance on air conditioning and heat. Simply using bi-directional air circulation techniques to push warm air down in the winter and pull warm air up in the summer can save you money. And if you’re in the market for a new fan, look for ENERGY STAR-rated fans, which are, on average, 60% more efficient than conventional alternatives.  

The energy-efficient office

The WFH shift has brought with it a need for most of us to upgrade our home office spaces. Many companies try to alleviate the financial burden on their remote workers by funding home-office purchases. No matter who funds that next monitor purchase, consider the e-waste you generate and opt for sustainable alternatives. (Sustain.Life only purchases energy-efficient laptops and hardware for its employees.)  

Look for reputable sustainability labels or refurbished equipment to help curb e-waste. Again, ENERGY STAR-rated computers, monitors, and other office equipment can be anywhere from 20% to 60% more energy-efficient and include energy-saving features that also extend the life of your equipment.

But did you know, when not in use, office equipment pulls phantom energy? It’s a problem you can alleviate with smart power strips and plugs, which allow you to automate your energy reduction. “I have smart plugs on everything from my monitor and office lights to my coffee maker and baby wipe warmer,” says Jacob Pastrovich, content strategist at Sustain.Life who takes pride in finding ways to cut energy use in his Brooklyn apartment.  

The growing WFH movement offers an opportunity to implement a major shift in workplace sustainability through our individual and collective action. With the right approach, a sustainable WFH model benefits employers and employees alike by improving productivity, decreasing costs, reducing your carbon footprint and offering a better quality of life.

Editorial statement
At Sustain.Life, our goal is to provide the most up-to-date, objective, and research-based information to help readers make informed decisions. Written by practitioners and experts, articles are grounded in research and experience-based practices. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by our team of sustainability professionals to ensure content is accurate and aligns with current industry standards. Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.
Graceann Barrett
Graceann Barrett is a freelance writer with over five years of experience covering sustainability, human and animal rights, political policy, mental health, and fitness and nutrition.
Alyssa Rade
Alyssa Rade is the chief sustainability officer at Sustain.Life. She has over ten years of corporate sustainability experience and guides Sustain.Life’s platform features.
The takeaway

• Those in major cities get 12–16% of their time back by not commuting.

• 68% of the workforce actively worries about the impact of their work-related activities.

• ENERGY STAR-rated computers, monitors, and other office equipment can be anywhere from 20% to 60% more energy-efficient.