The Chicago Green Office Challenge: Encouraging Sustainability in Business

Earlier this month I found out about the City of Chicago's "Chicago Green Office Challenge," designed to engage the City of Chicago's business community and encourage them to consider what they could do to operate in a more environmentally conscious manner. Last week I had a chance to speak with Alex Moree of the Delta Institute, to learn more about the program.

Andrew DeCanniere (AD): I just recently learned of the “Chicago Green Office Challenge” myself, and I’m sure that there are many other people who haven’t heard of it, or perhaps -- like myself -- just learned of its existence. Perhaps you could give us a bit of background. What is it? How did it come to be? And, for that matter, what’s the City’s motivation for putting this kind of a program in place?

Alex Moree (AM): I would say it has a little bit of a fun and funny history. It began in 2008, as a City of Chicago program. The Department of Environment and the City of Chicago were working on it with a non-profit called ICLEI. They previously had an office in Chicago, and I actually used to work for them. They are headquartered in California and closed their Chicago office. They are an environmentally focused non-profit that works specifically with local governments -- so cities and counties and some rural areas -- on sustainability programs. They were talking with the City of Chicago about ways to engage commercial offices, because the City didn’t previously have a really robust program for that, and they wanted to develop one. So ICLEI decided to develop the program with the Department of Environment and the City. I wasn’t around for that -- that was in 2008 and I came on in 2010. Between 2008 and 2012, it was just for Loop area buildings, so it really was just focused on the Loop, River North and the business district. It didn’t really allow for all of the offices and different types of buildings all over the City to participate. For the first time this year it will include the whole City of Chicago. Any office or building that feels like they can and want to participate, it’s free to sign up, it’s free to come to our events throughout the year. We’re able to offer that because of our generous corporate sponsors, which is really terrific. In 2013 it will be a little bit of a bigger program than it has been in the past. I worked for ICLEI from 2010 to 2011, and the Department of Environment in the City of Chicago was disassembled -- it was during the budget cuts, but ultimately Mayor Emanuel said that he didn’t want to have just one department focusing on the environment. He wanted to make sure that sustainability was part of the operations of every City department. So, he’s held true to that, and there are a lot of people operating all over the City -- in the Department of Buildings, in the Mayor’s Office we worked with the Chief Sustainability Officer Karen Weigert. She’s our main contact for the program. Mayor Emanuel has really put the focus on environmental issues all over the city. So that’s who we’ve been working with, and since then -- about six months ago -- Delta Institute decided that they could really do some good things by running the “Green Office Challenge.” So, it’s still a City of Chicago program, but Delta is the one administrating everything and bringing people together, making sure that the program continues to grow and be successful.

AD: And I guess there’s a lot of information on your website about the program as well, right?

AM: There are tons of resources just to learn more about the things you can do in a space, or in an entire building to promote sustainability. Nothing too hefty. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend a lot of money. Some people do decide to put in all-new lighting systems and everything, but it isn’t required at all, and there are definitely things to do that are fairly easy and don’t take a lot of time and construction or anything like that.


AD: Speaking of the site, it alludes to the fact that the challenge has changed over the years. What sorts of changes or improvements, specifically, does this version have as compared to past years?

AM: There are a few main changes, and a lot of small ones. A couple of the big ones are that it will include the whole city this year. That’s a first for us. It will also be a much larger group of people participating, which we’re excited about. We’re hoping to bring in many more small businesses and different types of buildings, not just skyscrapers and corporate businesses located in the Loop. We’re really excited to work with all different sorts of people who are interested in sustainability. Another big one is the brand-new website, which we developed with a local start-up called GreenPoint Partners. They do a lot of web systems work, but they also work really closely on sustainable building solutions. It’s a really great partnership, and we’ve been working with them since November to create this website. They got it done in a record amount of time. So the front end is fairly straight-forward, but a lot more beautiful than the previous website. Then, when you’re able to log in, the way that the activities have been structured is much more engaging than in the past. Previously there were 40 questions and they added up to 100 points. It was kind of this questionnaire people would fill out. They answered “yes” or “no” to a given question and then would move on to the next one. It wasn’t based on activities or doing things together. We’re really focusing more on forming green teams within offices, so that you’re working with other people. In the past, sometimes, there would be an office manager or somebody like that who would be working on this and they would just be doing it alone, because they were asked to do so by their company’s leadership and they didn’t have anybody else to do it with. We’re really encouraging people getting together, working out these issues, coming up with solutions together, rather than just filling out a form and feeling like you didn’t learn anything and didn’t make sustainable changes in your office. That’s the kind of thing we want to avoid, and that’s why we’re having more events this year and communicating more, and just giving folks a lot of information to try and tackle some of the activities that are trickier for them, or that they felt they wouldn’t be able to accomplish. We’re trying to really make it fun, we’re communicating with them and providing them with a ton of information.

AD: It sounds like a great thing to just sort of connect with others who share that interest. It builds more of a community.

AM: Exactly. It includes a lot of people who already know a ton about how to do this. They’re really into it and want to work with us, and they’d like to meet other people who share that interest. Then we work with a ton of people who haven’t even thought about sustainable practices before they got involved in the program. They found it really interesting and started to understand more specifically why it’s important for the Chicago community. It’s really amazing, as you can imagine, to see those people -- you know, we’re not telling them to do anything, because it’s a totally voluntary program, but it’s really fun to see them learning more about how they can save energy and why that matters. They can save their company money. The Mayor hands out awards at the end of each round of the program. So, sometimes they get to meet the Mayor and be in a photo with him, which a lot of people think is cool. It really is just getting the conversation started. It’s not about numbers and hitting a specific number of kilowatt hour reductions. We do talk about that, and we do set goals, but it’s really just about spreading the word and engaging people -- making them aware that sustainability can be easy and accessible and enjoyable.


AD: I’d think that it would really change the outlook or relationship a lot of people have to the environment, because it clearly illustrates that you can have a real impact, particularly collectively. I mean, I know that there are those people who doubt what sort of an impact they can have themselves. There’s the idea of “it’s only me,” but when you take into account how many “only me”s there are, that can really add up. You know?

AM: Right. Even if they just spread the message in their office -- if you have 20 people or 200 people in your office and you’re able to talk to them about it -- you get those people involved in at least caring and thinking about this [the environment] when making decisions, and I think that everybody would agree that matters. It makes a huge difference.

AD: Which brings me to my next point. I was wondering how many businesses took part in the challenge in the past, and how many are registered already for this year?

AM: In 2011, there were 263 offices and 98 buildings that participated. One of our goals this year is to have over 75 percent of participants finish the program, because in 2011 about 50 percent finished. We decided that a whole year, 12 months, was too long. There just wasn’t enough to do in 12 months and a lot of people were just kind of like “OK. I did everything. I think I’m done.” For this year we just launched last week -- in the middle of February -- and we’ll be wrapping it up by about the end of October, and making time for an awards ceremony. So, we’re looking at about nine months this year. In 2011, 47 buildings and 98 offices finished, which means that about 150 participants total finished out of about 350. We want to up that number. We’ll probably have much larger numbers participating this year. We are doing outreach now to get people to sign up, so we don’t know what the numbers will be, but we anticipate hundreds of offices and probably at least a couple hundred buildings. It will just be much larger, partly because the entire City of Chicago is now able to participate, and partly because we have a little bit more time and money dedicated to spreading the word, talking to people about it, and doing more media work to get the word out further.

AD: I really hope that the expansion of the program in and of itself makes more people aware of the issues and of the importance of doing business in a sustainable manner.

AM: We’re hoping that it will just be more of a common conversation piece instead of being something that people are just doing at work. People that work on the north side and the west side and the south side and -- you know, a lot of people work in their community, so if this is something that they hear about and that they participate in at work, it is more likely to become part of what they talk about with friends or think about doing in their home. That’s the kind of impact the City of Chicago would like to have, to change the way that we think about our environment and why we do things that matter for it. We’re anticipating we might have really huge numbers this year. We’re already looking really good, we already have over 100 signed up and we haven’t even really done any big outreach pushes yet. So we’re optimistic and really excited. It’s definitely going to be a fun year.


AD: What sorts of businesses participate in the program? I would assume that there would be a wide range, from a variety of sectors in the business community.

AM: Traditionally we’ve had a lot of banks and law firms. Design firms are really into it because a lot of them use sustainability in their everyday. So, design, architecture, engineering firms, offices of construction companies, and other professional services like accounting firms were the big participants in the past. They all have offices in Loop high-rises. This year we’re definitely bringing all of those folks back. We’ve had a lot of them sign up again, but we’re also really excited about bringing in small businesses, tech businesses, social media ventures. One company that signed up that we really like is Mightybytes. They’re a digital social marketing company based in Ravenswood. Really, really cool. They’re also a B Corp., so they made a legal commitment to a triple bottom line, which is awesome. We just want to bring in small businesses that are doing awesome things, so we have accountants talking to lawyers talking to social marketers talking to people who are working from home talking to people who started a business around food, you know? We just want to bring all of those different sorts of people in. We’re also talking to the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition about possibly getting the offices of a couple of restaurants to participate. I used to work in restaurants, and I think it’s really important. Food is a big issue in Chicago, and it’s becoming increasingly important. I think that bringing in restaurants and showing them how they can make sustainable choices in the way that they operate is important.

AD: I actually heard of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition before and heard a little bit about what they’re doing. So, to be eligible do you have to be in the city?

AM: The short answer is “yes,” but actually a couple of our corporate sponsors like Siemens and Abbott Laboratories are based in the suburbs. They’re headquarters are there. So after a few conversations with the City, we decided that we would allow offices and buildings in the surrounding suburbs to participate. They may not be eligible for all of the prizes that are handed out at the end of the year, but we will still recognize them on the website and when we do Press Releases and things like that. We’re trying to make it a habit not to say “no” to people, unless there is a really strong reason that they should not be participating. So we have quite a few buildings in the suburbs signed up already, and they’re definitely free to come to the events. It might be a little bit tougher for them to travel into the city, but if not we’re looking forward to welcoming them to events -- and hopefully to spreading the word outside the City of Chicago as well. If they are interested in participating, we’re happy to welcome them.


AD: That’s great, because no one -- no community -- exists in a bubble. What we each do impacts the other.

AM: Exactly, and we want to spread the word to people in the suburbs. The makeup of what you can do is different, but a lot of people still care and want to connect with people in Chicago more. I think that this is a great way to do it.

AD: Is there any one particular reason -- or set of reasons, for that matter -- that businesses tend to get involved in the program?

AM: I’ve heard all different sorts of reasons, and been surprised many times. Obviously, one of the biggest is to benefit the environment. A lot of people are just interested in doing good and in operating more responsibly.

AD: Which, to me, is the best reason.

AM: But, when you save materials you also save money, which can definitely help your bottom line. Also, a lot of people do it to engage with the Chicago community. A lot of corporations are interested in community outreach, and this helps them connect with their employees and helps them meet corporate social responsibility goals by encouraging employees to talk with one another, organize into groups, do community outreach, do things that matter in their community. That’s a huge one because we help people do that. We plan events and welcome everybody to come, we also help people connect with other non-profits around the city to do work with them as well. So that’s big on the corporate social responsibility front. It helps other people meet their environmental goals in general. A lot of companies are developing waste and energy use reduction goals, and participating in the program is a free and fun way to help meet those goals. So there are definitely a ton of benefits, and some people just like to do it because it’s interesting, fun and it’s something difference that mixes up their day. Then some people are like “We’ve committed to save 20 percent on our energy in five years, and this is something that we have to do to meet that goal.”

AD: It’s great that so many people are just motivated to do something for the environment.But there are definite bonuses, which you alluded to as well, for a company’s bottom line. The ability for a company to save a little bit at the same time definitely couldn’t hurt. I don’t think that anyone’s going to complain about that.

AM: It’s definitely a nice additional benefit. 

AD: Even where it costs ore, which in some cases it might, I think that it’s worth it to spend more on environmentally friendly options over those that aren’t. For instance, if you have to spend a little more on electricity generated by renewables, rather than traditional sources, I think it’s worth doing. There’s no question in my mind about that.

AM: Yeah, and there can be a bit of a cost premium, but we try to help mitigate that where we can. One way that we do that is through working with Office Depot. They’re our underwriting sponsor, so they’ve been our sponsor since the beginning, and they are by far our biggest contributor. They’re huge in supporting us, both in providing information about ways that offices can make greener purchasing happen and save money. They’re actually offering a special deal for all Green Office Challenge participants to sign up. I was just talking with an Office Depot rep. They’re really, really nice guys that I work with everyday, and they can just help you look at what you’re purchasing in your office and ways that you can purchase greener products. Because they’re offering a discount, sometimes it won’t cost a penny more. You’re buying greener items, they’re giving you a discount. They really take care of their business accounts in terms of offering them all sorts of information about ways to do things better.


AD: If someone is a business owner, and this sparks some sort of an interest in “going green,” in participating in the Chicago Green Office Challenge, but they don’t know how to get started, are there any resources to guide them?

AM: The best resources that we have -- anybody can e-mail me with questions, always -- and though I used to consult and really like it, we’re not a consulting company, since we’re non-profit. We don’t have a ton of manhours, since it is a voluntary program that’s free, but I am always happy to answer questions for anybody who has them. We also have flyers and there are a ton of resources when somebody signs up. We have something called a “Knowledge Base.” It is pages and pages full of information about each topic that we cover in the program. There’s tons of information we’ve pulled together. We work with our partners and our sponsors to pull information together, so it’s something like 30 pages of resources about things that you can do and how to do them. That is by far the biggest offering to help people get started. They can read it and read about what e-waste is, why it’s not a good thing, how to reduce e-waste, companies that you can call to take away your e-waste, or non-profits that you can work with to learn more about it. There are just tons of resources to help you get started and understand all of the issues.

AD: I didn’t see that. I have to check it out myself. Sounds like a great tool for businesses interested in becoming environmentally friendly.

AM: Yeah, if you register for it and sign in, you’ll see the “Knowledge Base,” and you can go and look under each activity and there’s just tons of information for you.


Program Achievements:

As a result of 2011’s Chicago Green Office Challenge, more than 124 kilowatt hours of electricity was saved (which is equivalent to the energy used by 45,000 homes or 120,000 barrels of oil), 85,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide was kept from the atmosphere (which is the equivalent of removing more than 16,000 cars from the city’s streets), $17,503,891 were saved by property managers who reduced energy use, and 53 business district buildings diverted an average of 43 percent of waste from landfills.

(Program achievements have been obtained from a City of Chicago Press Release, issued by the Office of the Mayor on May 30, 2012.)


For more information regarding the Chicago Green Office Challenge, or to register for the challenge, please visit You can also follow the Chicago Green Office Challenge on Twitter at or @ChiGreenOffice.


Photos: Bernadette Aguilar

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