Headline: Sustainability Research in a Sustainable Workplace

Scientists working at the IASS address diverse topics across the field of sustainability research. But how sustainable is our institute? In the summer of 2014 staff at the IASS launched an initiative to seek answers to this question. Our goal is to promote sustainability at the institute and minimise its ecological footprint. We aim to reduce emissions, improve resource efficiency at the institute, and make sustainability a part of our everyday professional practice. The initiative focuses not just on the ecological and economic dimensions of sustainability, but also on the social dimension of sustainable development within the workplace.

Our efforts span three central areas: the generation of awareness for and the collection of information on sustainability issues, the preparation of a status report, and the identification and implementation of potential measures. We would like to gather information on similar initiatives at other institutes and establish a platform for exchange, for example with meetings and lectures. We also plan to evaluate the institute’s overall sustainability (and its deficits) and identify key levers for improvement. This will involve the collection of environmental data, including data on annual mileage (rail and air) and electricity consumption. Gathering this data will enable us to identify effective measures and to assess their actual impact.

IASS-Mitarbeiter pflanzen während eines Workshops der Nachhaltigkeitsinitiative im Dachgarten Kräuter. © Jennyfer Brendel

Employee-led initiatives of this kind bring together colleagues from diverse departments – including scientists from various projects and administrative and technical staff – to work on a common goal: the creation of a more sustainable future. Participating in the initiative also grants us first-hand experience in the development and implementation of sustainability goals. The institute becomes a kind of “laboratory” in this process, enabling us to explore on a small scale all the challenges that we face in larger projects with external actors. Our initiative comprises a coordination group and a number of thematic focus groups:  business trips, buildings and materials procurement, food and garden, and workplace social sustainability. These are a few insights from our work:

Business trips are an indispensable part of the work of science. Sharing ideas with colleagues and presenting research findings are an important part of our work. But we still need to consider how often, how far, and how we travel. Could researchers reach their destinations by train? How long is too long? Increasingly, scientists can participate in workshops and attend meetings online, reducing their carbon footprint and contributing to better air quality in the process. As a publicly-funded research institute, the IASS must operate in compliance with the Federal Travel Expenses Act, which often requires researchers to choose the most affordable travel option even if more sustainable alternatives are available.

Buildings: We need offices to do our work. The IASS operates from a building formerly used by the German Federal Bank and efforts have been made to ensure its efficient use. Technical solutions such as the use of energy efficient appliances and utilities could help us to keep energy consumption to a minimum. But in many cases, creating a more sustainable institute is about the decisions that we make in our workplaces – using less paper and switching off office lights and computers at night does make a difference. In sustainability, the small stuff matters. A small change, adopted by all 120 scientists and administrative staff, can nudge the institute’s resource consumption toward sustainability.

Auf Initiative der Arbeitsgruppe „Soziale Nachhaltigkeit“ wurde für Kollegen aus den Großraumbüros ein Ruhearbeitsraum eingerichtet. © Moritz Mues
Auf Initiative der Arbeitsgruppe „Soziale Nachhaltigkeit“ wurde für Kollegen aus den Großraumbüros ein Ruhearbeitsraum eingerichtet. © Moritz Mues

Workshops and conferences: As part of the institute’s transdisciplinary approach, the IASS regularly brings stakeholders, scientists, and policymakers together at workshops and conferences. Arrangements for transportation, accommodation, and catering have to be made for events of this kind. We feel that environmentally friendly options should always be considered as far as possible. The meals provided by our caterer, for example, are prepared using predominantly regionally sourced, organic, and seasonal foodstuffs. This catering service also supplies our canteen. We could also consider providing primarily or exclusively vegetarian foods at events and/or at our canteen in the future. While we can’t dictate how people travel to our workshops, we do make a point of informing participants of the option to purchase carbon offsets when they book their flights.

Social sustainability: As part of our work on social sustainability in the workplace, this group considers how the institute’s organisational structure could be modified to better reflect the diversity of our staff with respect to their nationalities, cultural backgrounds, and education. We are also working on the development of institute-wide guidelines to ensure fair and flexible working conditions, and to promote a pleasant workplace culture and communication.

The initiative is now well-established and operates under the title “IASS Internal Sustainability Initiative” (IASS-ISI) with the active support of our sustainability manager. She will build on our ideas and previous work to develop an internal sustainability strategy for the institute. We will continue our work as an employee-led initiative open to everyone at the IASS.

Header image: Jennyfer Brendel