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Work therapy: can a climate campaigner help a coworking space go green? | Australian lifestyle

Small business owners have a lot to grapple with, so tackling the climate crisis in a meaningful way can feel like too big a plough to push. Happily, there are ways to do it that are not only pretty simple, but might even save money.

Josephine Palermo
Josephine Palermo, co-founder of Higher Spaces.

In the latest of our Work Therapy series, we delve into how small businesses can become cleaner, greener operations.

The case: Organisational psychologist Josephine Palermo is co-founder of Higher Spaces, a co-working space in Melbourne.

Lucy Piper
Lucy Piper, the director of Work for Climate.

The expert: Lucy Piper is the director of non-for-profit Work for Climate, a platform equipping people with the information, tools and networks to take meaningful climate action.

The session

By its very nature of sharing resources, a co-working space is an eco-friendly way of working, particularly for spaces outside of CBDs which encourage people to stay local.

Higher Spaces sits in an old cotton mill in Abbotsford on the Yarra river. In warmer months, the members – four organisations plus sole traders – can let in fresh air by opening doors and windows. “I used to work in a skyscraper in the city and in the summertime the air conditioner blew to a point where you’d need a jumper,” Josephine says. “How does that make sense?”

In establishing their space, Josephine and her business partner, Shu Tan, wanted to avoid plastics. They stripped the floors to their natural stone and used that wood to build desks. They planted 40 monsteras, brought in recycling bins and installed a dishwasher.

It’s also a paperless office. Members can bring in their own printers, but often they’ll realise printing is a habit they don’t really need.

Lucy applauds this kind of leading by example. “You have all of those networks … in your space and they’re all influencing each other, but you’re curating that and leading them towards different behaviours,” she says.

Work for Climate divides its advice into four key areas. “It’s almost like an engagement ladder for companies,” Lucy says. “You do one rung then climb to the next.”

The first is switching to 100% renewable energy. Josephine is a leaseholder rather than a building owner, but even so, she might be able to influence a switch to renewable energy.

Monstera plants
When Josephine and her business partner started their co-working space, they avoided plastics, built desks from recycled wood, and ‘planted 40 monsteras’. Photograph: TorriPhoto/Getty Images

That switch “does a lot of heavy lifting for you,” Lucy explains. “It covers all of your scope two emissions [emissions released from purchased energy], and that’s going to be where you get the most bang for your buck when you’re reducing your carbon footprint.”

Lucy recommends renewable energy certificates such as Power Purchase Agreements or GreenPower, available from larger energy providers. “You’ve just got to look at your energy use over a quarter or a month and then you can figure out the best pathway,” she says.

“The other thing is energy prices are so volatile right now, but when you enter into these agreements, you’re locking in prices. That helps businesses with their forecasting and saves money over the long run.”

“I’m thinking about it this from an influencing perspective too, because I’m on a site with 30 other businesses,” says Josephine. “I’m imagining if all of us in the body corporate talked to an energy provider, there might be savings as well as … that renewable outcome.”

Lucy recommends any business that achieves 100% renewable energy should mention that in marketing materials. “It’s a genuine badge of honour,” she says. Many businesses greenwash by heralding that they’re committed to net zero by 2050, but getting there takes renewable energy.

“The next thing I would guide you through is emissions reduction,” Lucy tells Josephine. “You’re not in manufacturing so you wouldn’t have heavy direct emissions. It would more be things like travel.

“There are powerful frameworks like the science-based targets initiative that can help you reduce your emissions without using offsets.”

Josephine’s next steps, which Lucy says are “really exciting territory for you” are around money and influence. “When I say money, I’m referring to corporate cash, investments, and superannuation, and it’s how you can influence the other organisations utilising your space.

“I’m guessing that most would be sole traders, so they will be managing their own superannuation, but you can encourage people to use ethical super funds and banks.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Josephine enthuses. “ A co-working space is as much about creating a community of knowledge and practice. We’ve had webinars and people coming in and talking to our members, but this is something that we haven’t done.”

“I love that phrase, ‘a community of practice’,” Lucy says. “So there’s this opportunity for collective activity that is greater than the sum of the parts.”

The final rung on Lucy’s ladder is influence. “It’s sometimes referred to as ‘Scope X’,” she says. It’s where a company takes a leading role. “What are the carbon emissions that you have the power to reduce through your advocacy, through your relationships?”

Josephine thinks these conversations might expand from informal chats in the shared kitchen. Much better than leaving passive-aggressive Post-its everywhere.

“Throughout Covid there was this small talk that happened in the virtual space before you got into the meeting,” Josephine says. “Now that people are face to face, there’s an opportunity to spread that rapport-building to other topics. It could be, ‘Hey, I met Lucy Piper the other day.’”

Lucy tells Josephine about an app called One Small Step which uses behavioural science to create tailored programs to help cut carbon footprints. “This technology could help people feel like they’re taking those collective actions, even though they’re sole traders and individuals,” she suggests.

Josephine’s takeaways

The day after the session, Josephine got a to-do list together, including checking out the One Small Step app, making sure her energy provider has renewable energy certificates and talking to the other businesses she works alongside.

“I think people like me think, ‘Oh, I’m not sure what else I can do’,” she says, “but it’s actually about just leaning into that, and having conversations.”

“That idea of using influence was easy-peasy,” she says. She was also uplifted to hear she was already on the right track.

“To tell you the truth, when I first was approached about this I wasn’t that keen, because I’m a small business facing all these pressures already,” she says. “Ask me to do one more thing and I’ll explode!

“So that was my mindset, but just talking to Lucy made me realise it’s something that’s very much within my control and a value-add for my business, rather than a burden.”


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