How a Big Four accounting firm is going green

A 25-year veteran of Ernst & Young, Leisha John was tasked in 2008 with the newly-created position of Americas Director of Environmental Sustainability.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

A 25-year veteran of Ernst & Young, Leisha John was tasked in 2008 with the newly-created position of Americas Director of Environmental Sustainability. Her job is to focus on the internal ‘greening' of the accounting firm's 180 offices across the Americas.

We spoke last week about how the company's sustainability program has evolved - and whether all this eco-friendliness has rubbed off on John's home life.

Your position was created in 2008. What was the feeling in the company at the time that led to its creation?

We had had a grassroots effort in place since about 2001. Our EcoCare volunteers were out in the field and were very passionate about going green and being environmentally sustainable. In fact, they put forth a business case for a director of environmental sustainability because they felt the firm was at the point where they needed to formalize this function.

So you weren't starting from scratch. What initiatives had the EcoCare program already put into place?

We have a three-pronged strategy in environmental sustainability. Employee engagement is one of those prongs and that's exactly where EcoCare fits in. We're trying to reduce our impact on the environment, enhance credibility with our clients and engage our people to change their behaviors. That's what EcoCare had been doing for those prior seven or eight years. They had been working in the local offices, recycling batteries and eyeglasses, promoting double-sided printing. They've worked on using fewer coffee cups. One of the ideas they pushed was the use of remanufactured toner cartridges. That saves our firm about a half-million dollars a year and it avoids all those toner cartridges going into a landfill.

Talk about the environmental changes you've made at Ernst & Young since 2008.

They really run the gamut. With energy efficiency, you might know about our large lighting retrofit project that we have in our U.S. headquarters in Times Square. We're retrofitting 15,000 fixtures. That's going to have a measurable impact on our carbon footprint. We have a LEED strategy in place. We're looking to have 30 percent of our real estate LEED certified by 2012.

Travel is a big part of our carbon footprint. It's about 62 percent. We have invested pretty heavily in videoconferencing equipment, encouraging people to find that right balance between when you travel to a client versus when you use video conferencing.

We work on engagement pieces, which are the day-to-day things. That gets back to printing responsibly, using recycled content paper, greening our cafes and ensuring we have a robust recycling program in place.

What impact - both on the environment and the company's bottom line - have these initiatives had?

One great example is our lighting retrofit in New York. We expect that when that project is completed we're going to be saving almost a million dollars a year in electricity bills. Reducing the amount of paper we're using is a huge cost savings.

We're in the third year of measuring our carbon footprint, so we expect to see year-to-year reductions in our overall footprint, as well.

Have you seen reductions in your carbon footprint so far?

Compared to our baseline year, which was fiscal year 2008, the first year we did have a 15 percent reduction. That resulted from a reduction in travel and also a reduction in energy usage. Those are the two main components of our footprint.

What are the biggest challenges for you in this effort?

Sometimes it's a little difficult to communicate with our people because we have a very mobile workforce. Only about 50 percent of our people actually have a dedicated workspace in an office. They're very busy people. Sometimes it's hard to get their attention, which is why when they are back in the office we want to make sure we have a very eco-friendly office and they notice some of the changes we've made.

Another thing that's helped us in the last year is our clients are showing that they care about this. Every month, I receive at least one score card or survey from a client and they ask questions about what we're doing to be more sustainable. That's been very impactful with our people. When they see what other leading companies are doing, what our clients are doing, what our clients are asking of us, that has helped raise their awareness.

What motivates you in this effort?

It's always been a personal passion of mine. I've always been a lover of the planet and knowing that our resources are limited. I grew up in Montana and my first job out of school with Ernst & Young was in Alaska. I've always lived in very beautiful places where the environment is part of day-to-day life. What's most fulfilling about my job is that I can see I'm making a difference everyday.

Are you ‘green' in your home life, too?

I'm extremely green - and so is my husband. We both have green jobs. We do all the right things around the house. We have really low utility bills. We do composting. We planted a vegetable garden this year. We buy locally-grown produce through community-supported agriculture. We have shower timers. All of our light bulbs are changed out to CFLs. Both my husband and I volunteer with the U.S. Green Building Council.

What's next the environmental effort at your company?

We have an office in Secaucus, N.J., and we're working with our climate change and sustainability services professionals to get that building LEED certified. That's going to allow our professionals to actually work on a building we occupy. We hope to have LEED certification on that building in 2011.

We also have a great program with Earthwatch Institute where we send people to Costa Rica to work on climate change projects. They do scientific research in the field and they also do skills-based volunteerism. That program this year is going to be expanding into one of our emerging markets. It's directed to people under the management level, so it's a great way to get people early in their careers really knowledgeable about the impacts of climate change and also the business aspect, as well.

Do you have any tips for businesses that want to institute sustainability efforts?

The No. 1 tidbit is that what we're doing can apply to smaller businesses. Everyone can do this. It's very scalable. You can start with small things, like recycling and paper usage. Every business can measure their carbon footprint. They can find out what the major impacts are and can take steps to reduce it.

Photo: Leisha John

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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