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Is remote work really sustainable?

How to make your remote company sustainable – and avoid greenwashing

Is remote work really sustainable?

How to make your remote company sustainable – and avoid greenwashing

Last updated
October 13, 2022
Written by
Melanie Broder

In 2020, when every office shut down, we saw some positive effects on the environment - including significant decreases in energy demand, emissions, and overall consumption. Remote leaders took this as a win. But as human activity picks up again, it's become clear that when it comes to remote work and sustainability, the relationship is complicated. We've always been curious about this - in fact, we did some research on remote emissions back in 2020.

And as it turns out, remote companies are just as accountable as everyone else.

Simply going remote is not enough

As remote workers, we like to pride ourselves on doing good for the planet. The most common PR talking points on how remote work reduces carbon emissions are:

  • No commute
  • No heating and cooling and lighting large offices
  • Less consumption of paper and plastic

But, as an excellent HBR article published earlier this year points out, these benefits can easily be canceled out by:

  • Personal trips being taken by car and plane
  • Global teams gathering for All-hands meetings in far-flung destinations
  • Increased energy use at home (high-speed internet, video chat, at-home office setups)
  • Companies supplying superfluous electronic devices (laptops, phones)

If we're not careful, we can easily surpass pre-COVID emissions rates while working remotely.

What can remote leaders do about it?

Time is of the essence. CEOs, technical leaders, and People teams need to be proactive about sustainability practices from the second they decide to go remote.

Here are some ways you can manage impact from day 1:

  1. Measure your  emissions (per worker and as a team) and set a concrete goal for reduction. At Slite, our goal is to reduce emissions to 1.5 tons per employee/year (We're currently at 2.0).
  2. Reduce number of events, such as offsites and conferences, that require plane travel.
  3. Maintain an up-to-date tech inventory - not every new employee needs a new laptop, and old tech can be recycled. We rent our laptops from mobile.club.
  4. Incentivize single location and/or "slowmad" living - constant relocation is a big waste of energy.
  5. Create "hiring hubs" - hire from specific regional areas so that employees can reach each other by train (or at least without traveling too far).
  6. Sustainable swag - if you do want to put the company logo on merch, buy from a sustainable supplier that uses recycled materials (we recommend Merchery)

Each of these steps can be taken without sacrificing your competitive status, the global diversity of your team, beloved company perks, and using the latest technology — it's about reduction, not elimination.

That being said here are some steps that are not as effective.

The deception of "greenwashing"

Some companies (cough cough, major corporations) try to mask their harmful effects on the environment with greenwashing measures. Some of these to avoid, if you truly want to build a sustainable business:

  • Buying offsets to compensate for energy expenditures - it will only increase your carbon debt.
  • Adding solar panels to your office building - if you decide to go hybrid instead of full remote, solar panels won't make up for the energy wasted on cooling empty conference rooms.
  • benchmarking your impact against poor eco-performing competitors
  • Investing in funds that claim to be "green," but actually support fossil fuels and other polluting industries

Read more about sustainability from other remote leaders:

Buffer - Is Remote Work Greener? We Calculated Buffer’s Carbon Footprint to Find Out

Hootsuite - The Hidden Environmental Costs of Downsizing an Office: What We Learned

Oyster - What's the impact of remote work on the environment?

Slite - Is remote better or worse for the planet?

Drop us a line

Hey I'm Mel,
Publishing online sometimes feel like shouting into a void so I want you hear what you'd like to read about! How do you want to improve remote work? Drop us a line.
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Written by

Melanie Broder is on the Marketing team at Slite, where she works on all things content. She helps Slite users gain new skills through guides, templates, and videos. She lives in New York City, where she likes to read novels and run loops around Central Park.

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