Being green and being employed

A man hiding his face behind a green piece of paperI had a lot of trouble coming up with a topic for today’s post. I’ve got some things I’d like to talk about that aren’t quite ready to share (I should wear my bike helmet at least once before I mention it). Maggie’s been doing a lot of cool stuff recently too, but I’ve mostly just been working and arranging my work space. Not much fodder for posts there.

And then Student Doctor Green came to my rescue with a post title I know why the caged musician does a line of cocaine. In it, SDG talks about a particularly difficult form of social pressure. It’s like peer pressure except that the people pressuring you are often superiors or can affect your relationship with your superiors, which makes it even more difficult to ignore.

Just yesterday, I was reading about a similar situation in, of all things, an expose on car dealerships. The author, a writer for Edmunds.com, went “undercover” at two dealerships and worked as a salesman for several weeks at each place. In one entry, he talks about how he started to fit in:

I spent all my time with other salesmen. They were my friends. Believe it or not, I tried to fit in, to belong. So I began to develop an interest in gold ties, white shirts and dress shoes. I even grew a goatee because a lot of the guys had beards. And I put gel on my hair and combed it straight back.

Wearing gold ties and growing a goatee aren’t bad habits (they might be bad choices still), but it’s easy to see how the same type of thing can make it difficult for you to stay true to yourself. If everyone around you is talking about their latest trip to Europe, it’s going to be hard to stick to your goal of not flying. It’s easier to rationalize a new car when everyone you know is getting them too.

This topic also reminds me of The Millionaire Next Door. The authors found that the richest profession wasn’t the one with the highest income (like professional sports players, lawyers, and doctors) because those also had high social pressure to seem wealthy (fancy houses, cars, etc.). The profession that had the most millionaires per capita was actually auctioneers. Nobody thinks twice when an auctioneer wears blue jeans and drives a ratty old pickup, so they often do. That allows them to save more money, which makes them wealthier than those earning more money.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to become rich as a doctor or lawyer. In the same way, I think it’s possible to stay green even if you’re not a gardener or self-employed.

If you’re lucky, you might find a subset of your profession that has similar goals. For example, as a doctor, you might look into doctors without borders. These are doctors who aren’t primarily motivated by wealth, so they should be more tolerant of other motivations (like making the world a better place, which jibes quite nicely with the green movement).

The most common active response is probably to try and green your group. Although that might work, I think it’s a long-term process, so it would be easy to burn out early on and turn your co-workers–or yourself–off of sustainability.

Another possibility, if the drawbacks aren’t too bad, is to carve a niche for yourself. Stake a claim in the areas in which you’d like to be defined and let the others go. If it’s important to you that you’re vegetarian, don’t hesitate to let people know (just don’t preach to them). On the other hand, if it’s not important that, as SDG says, you leave your thermostat at 78, you don’t have to tell them that. Hopefully, this’ll give you a reputation (“oh, he knows the good vegetarian places in town”) without annoying your coworkers.

The most drastic possibility is to switch careers. Work for yourself and pick new peers. Start a green landscaping business. Find a group of people who’ll help you achieve your goals and figure out how you can join them in what they do.

Of course, I’m lucky in that I don’t have to deal with other people’s expectations. I work with friends who are willing to listen as a ramble on about whatever crazy idea I’ve had most recently. And the fact that nobody can fire me helps too.

How do the rest of you deal with expectations at work?

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6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Linnea said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    I work for a green firm (www.perkinswill.com), and the Space Needle finally decided to recycle all those ticket stubs and provide reuseable cups in the break room. So… My green situation at work? gravy.

  2. 2

    Angel said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 8:56 pm

    Hmmm. . . we waste a ton of paper, although the new system has the potential to lessen that. Is it really necessary to do everything in triplicate? Apparently, it is when you work in a bank.

    As for peer pressure, I don’t like conflict. So, when my entire lunch table of co-workers starts talking about the evils of Harry Potter, the Golden Compass, and Halloween, I don’t want to make the rest of my working days absolutely miserable so I let my opportunities to retort pass me by. Is it ever really possible to win in the face of evangelism? I feel guilty about it, but I just put my head down and choose my battles (hey, check out this nifty reusable water bottle I just got. It would help you save money if you didn’t have to buy all those plastic ones. . .).

  3. 3

    Andy said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

    I don’t worry about greening my workplace thankfully! It is a small non-profit carsharing organization with big ideas, and it is growing like crazy. We just started in late June with 6 cars, and now we have 10 (including a pickup truck) and 300 members. The greatest part is that over half of our members have said they can now own one less car because of this great service.

    As for the workplace, neither of us own a car, we bike almost everywhere, take the bus often when biking isn’t as fast, print on the back sides only (unless it needs to be “official” which is about 1% of the time), we recycle everything in the office, buy goods that have the highest recycled content available, support any local business before thinking of looking elsewhere, etc. We both bring in lunch each day in reusable containers, so our office “kitchen” just has a minifridge. Our small trash bin gets emptied about once a week, maybe. The recycling and compost tend to go faster actually!

    I read too much about people wanting to be green but feeling like they cannot make the changes because of whatever living and job situations they are in, and I think that is just lies all around. As a couple graduating from college, my girlfriend and I knew we wanted to live in a place that wouldn’t require a car to get around, since that seemed to be one of the highest costs of people our age other than rent. We both own bikes (multiple), I have a moped which rarely gets used (maybe 20 miles a month) and she has a car which we use for longer trips occasionally (and the recent looking for furniture). Although neither of us make huge salaries, our living choices mean that we save over 50% of what we make in a regular month. Our main problem is finding a way to have fun and eventually spend that money once we feel like every contingency and savings goals are met.

  4. 4

    Lori said,

    August 28, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

    I had a hard time with this for a while, as I work in a large architecture firm with a somewhat corporate mentality. But then I noticed that there were other people in my office that were sureptitiously bringing home boxes of cans and bottles they’d collected under their desks, so we got together to establish an official recycling system for everyone. As our industry has started to move in the direction of green construction, it has become easier for people like us to be more openly green. People slowly stopped looking at me funny when I said I take public transit to work, asked restaurants to put take-out in the bag I had tucked in my purse, and turned the lights off when it’s bright outside. I just kept doing my thing in small ways, and talking about it to people who seemed receptive.

    A few months ago, a group of us decided to put together a corporate sustainable operations plan. Much to my surprise, the draft was well received at our last board meeting, and it looks like it will be approved. This document states that we’ll significantly reduce our paper and energy consumption, support and subsidize the use of public transit, buy dishes for each office rather than providing disposables, reduce and offset our business-related travel, switch to 100% recycled products, and generally make our day to day operations more sustainable.

    If you’d asked me two years ago, I would have laughed at the idea that this would actually go through. Now I’m already wondering what else I can do. It’s amazing how much things can change in a short time, if you just stick with it. If you’re interested in hearing more about what we pulled together for our company, I hope to post about it within the next couple of weeks on my blog. Feel free to stop on by.

  5. 5

    Dana said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    With regards to the actual topic of your post, my work place is already pretty green, for the most part, since the university is already big on recycling. The one thing I wish I could change would be the dependence everyone seems to have on printing out everything and putting it in a physical file somewhere, which then just has to be thrown out/shredded/recycled years later. And it all takes up so much space! I’m hoping the larger university drive to do more stuff online and paperless will have an effect on my office, too.

    For peer pressure at work, I don’t feel much overtly, but I have definitely felt pressure to “look more professional,” especially since people keep taking me for a student. (Flattering, maybe, but not professionally helpful, since senior faculty and administrators tend to be very dismissive.) Once you get into that realm of women’s professional wear, there is no end of pressure to conform. Have to wear heels, have to wear these kinds of clothes (not too formal, not too casual), have to have styled hair… I gave up on the shoes, have made a few additions of skirts and somewhat nicer shirts to my wardrobe, and flat-out refuse to cut my hair, so I’ve started trying to learn some new ways to put it up that don’t make me look like a high schooler. And then I spend a lot of time trying to think of business models that would allow me to work from home, so I wouldn’t have to deal with this ever again.

  6. 6

    Will said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    Wow, it sounds like all of you have job situations that range from pretty green to super green! That’s pretty gratifying since it tells me that the sustainable mindset is already making its way through corporate America. I especially like your comment, Lori, since it shows how much change you can make from the bottom up. It’s also cool that there were other green people around that you didn’t even notice until you started looking!

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