subscribe to our newsletter sign up
Is the green light still on?

Is the green light still on?

Law firms have long shined in the world of environmental responsibility. But how has the global economic downturn impacted this green leaning? Biwa Kwan and Kate Gibbs report

Recycled carpets, bathroom lights on sensors, eco-friendly paint, the list of environmental refurbishments made by Australian law firms goes on. It is with a veritable ‘green’ brush that firms have been updating offices in recent years. The cost has been high but the value-for-money has been higher, they have claimed. But, as the economy spirals downwards, will firms remain as eco-conscious, and do they need to?

Deacons, an Australian firm with offices in Brisbane Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Perth, on top of other non-Australian jurisdictions, opened an innovative new office in Grosvenor Place, Sydney in July last year. Despite the bright colours on the walls, a different one for each floor, the predominant colour in the new office was a definite ‘green’. 

On opening night, Deacons’ Sydney chairman Nick Abrahams talked up the green theme. The firm was cutting emissions by having the lights off in the bathrooms, illuminated by sensors when lawyers and their clients walk in. On weekend, all lights are off until sensing some lawyer working beyond the nine-to-five. On top of that, smart printing and carbon neutral furniture was the new fit-out. 

Nixon Peabody, the US law firm, proudly announced in 2007 that it was opening the first environment-friendly office in San Francisco. “The firm’s new office is a model of sustainable design, green building techniques, and a healthy work environment,” the firm said. 

Nixon Peabody applied for a certification from the US Green Building Council to recognise its green design and sustainable building practice that same year. “With this new ‘green office’, we can serve as a model and showcase for clients … Sustainable development can be done on a practical, cost-effective basis,” it said. 

But such luxuries are well and good when the economy is booming. While Deacons, for one, said the refit would save the firm energy costs, the implementation was a costly one. Would a firm like Deacons implement such a costly refit now the economy is unstable? 

Deacons, and its top-tier counterpart Freehills, says the need for ‘green’ initiatives cannot be ignored during the recession. Both agree the pressures on firms to adhere to their corporate social responsibilities have not waned, while the cost savings still cannot be ignored. 

In the past five years the environmental sustainability movement in Australia has grown in influence, while government policy, building codes and clients brought the issue to a head.  

“Law firms have a major corporate responsibility to society and clearly the climate change is the major thing of our time… they [law firms] can’t ignore it,” says Deacons’ director of business information systems, Phil Scorgie. 

Law firms such as Deacons and Freehills argue there are a trifecta of gains to be made in the areas of environmental impact, cost-savings and corporate social responsibility. “It is certainly a win, win, win situation,” says Scorgie. 

Freehills managing partner and head of the firm’s environment committee, Peter Butler argues the downside is minimal, if it exists at all. “One of the things I stress internally is that the huge advantage of moving into a carbon neutral space is that almost everything you do not only lifts staff engagement, it is what our clients want to see us do. It is doing the right thing by our environment and it usually saves us money.”

But both acknowledge challenges lie ahead for law firms seeking to achieve gains in environmental sustainability field. 

Deacons predicts it will save $150,000 this year, after achieving cost neutral results from spending $100,000 in the first year of implementing its environmental sustainability charter in 2008. The firm also set itself the carbon reduction target of 30 per cent by mid 2008, the equivalent of planting 5,550 trees. 

Scorgie says Deacons, still one of three Australian law firms listed as ‘carbon verified’ by external audit the Carbon Footprint Report 2008, had made significant carbon footprint reductions through its office fit-outs and environmental sustainable initiatives. 

But, says Scorgie, efforts to achieve carbon reduction targets are being hampered by the carbon footprint generated by the various buildings Deacons is housed. 

In the last seven years, all of Deacons’ offices nationally have been fitted out with carbon positive desk stations, joinery and chairs; recyclable wool carpets, cork linoleum made from renewable materials and energy efficient T5 lights. Low VOC paint was used and the design involved a lot of glass to allow natural light. 

Lindy Mace, Deacons’ national facilities and procurement manager, said fit-out considerations today need to involve environment sustainable design simply because the fit-out must last the seven- to ten-year term of the office lease contract.

“Certainly from a facilities perspective, when you look at fit outs, it is now just what everybody does. The designers will push it, the landlords will push it. If you’re going into a new leases, a lot of new leases say you need to build a four or four-and-a-half star fit out, so it has been driven all the way down the line that it is now just becoming the norm,” she said. 

Freehills has been implementing environmentally sustainable initiatives for the past five years. It has saved $100,000 in the past year by replacing $1 water bottles with refillable plastic bottles. 

In addition to having a person appointed to work solely on the firm’s sustainability management issues, the firm plans to undertake its first internal audit on its environmental sustainability performance later this year.

Freehills and Deacons are not alone. Baker & McKenzie’s Sydney and Melbourne offices hosted one of five workshops last year that looked at ways to improve the greenhouse gas emission performance of current office buildings. 

Minter Ellison implemented 60 per cent GreenPower-accredited electricity in July 2007, as well as automatic shut-down of all computers after hours. Meanwhile, Allens Arthur Robinson moved to using 75 per cent GreenPower-accredited electricity, also in 2007, thus cuttings its emissions by 30 to 40 per cent, the firm said at the time. 

But as recruitment is no longer a significant driving factor, and saving costs is imperative in this economic climate, will firms still prioritise ‘green’ over the initial outlay of ‘gold’?

Freehills suggests they will. The firm is now considering whether to move out or refit its Sydney office after fitting out its Melbourne office three years ago. “There are quick gains … the next steps will be more challenging. They include the office building itself – how to turn an older-style office building into a more energy efficient one,” said Butler. 

Freehills’ decision on what to do will perhaps be most telling. As the economy worsens, firms’ decisions around environmental sustainability will perhaps represent how far green issues will be considered in a financial downturn. And then it will become more clear whether the initial outlay outweighs the eventual cost-savings, and whether a ‘green’ conscience will outweigh a justified concern around cost. 

Promoted content
Recommended by Spike Native Network