What does it take to boost a company’s green cred?

Worms under desks, sustainable potlucks and loans for bikes, for starters
Eco-friendly bottom lines
Photograph by Brian Howell

Wade Janzen has a worm composter under his desk. Most employers might discourage vermicomposting at the office, but the Vancouver Aquarium is an exception. “I learned how to make a compost [in a workshop] on my lunch hour,” says Janzen, 30, the aquarium’s coordinator of curriculum. He plans to give away the worms (which process organic waste into fertilizer) to teachers as an outreach project in local schools. “It’s really nice working here, where we’re supported in our efforts to live sustainably,” he says.

The Vancouver Aquarium is one of this year’s “Green 30”—organizations whose employees are most positive about their record of environmental stewardship, according to Aon Hewitt. The global consulting and outsourcing firm surveyed more than 112,000 employees in Canada, asking them about their employers’ commitment to the environment. Among the 30 that came out on top—including the Vancouver Aquarium, Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics, Mountain Equipment Co-op, and Nexen Inc., an oil and gas company—82 per cent of employees have a positive perception of their employers’ eco-friendly initiatives, the survey found.

The Green 30 list provides an “inside view” into a company’s practices, since it shows how its own employees view it, says Aon Hewitt partner Neil Crawford, leader of the Best Employers in Canada study. Green initiatives not only help attract and engage workers; they’re appealing to the public, too. “It’s good business to say you’re socially and environmentally responsible,” says Crawford. For companies at the top of the list, expectations around being green are set high.

The Vancouver Aquarium has more than 50,000 animals—including three belugas, two dolphins and two harbour porpoises—and sees about a million visitors each year, but “the physical site is just the gateway,” says Dolf DeJong, vice-president of conservation and education. “We’re looking beyond our walls.”

Two of the aquarium’s most high-profile initiatives have spread across the country. Since 1994, it’s coordinated the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, which started with a few volunteers picking up trash around Stanley Park, where the aquarium is located. Last year, more than 56,200 people registered, and 3,144 km of shoreline across the country was cleaned. Meanwhile, the Ocean Wise program is aimed at educating consumers about sustainable seafood. Working with restaurants, markets and food suppliers, Ocean Wise uses its symbol, a fish inside a circle, to highlight more eco-friendly choices. It’s now used at over 3,100 locations across the country.

At the aquarium itself, plenty of smaller efforts are under way. “We just moved to 100 per cent compostable dishes in our cafés,” DeJong says. “We’re now diverting 84 per cent of our waste,” so it doesn’t end up in a landfill. The AquaVan, an aquarium on wheels that will travel to the Northwest Territories this summer, “buys carbon offsets to make sure it’s carbon neutral,” DeJong says. The aquarium has a Marine Mammal Rescue Centre that admits animals in distress; last year, it helped 150.

Environmentally minded employees can also join the Green Team, a group dedicated to exploring other sustainable practices. “In January, we had a clothing swap,” says Jonathan Hultquist, 39, manager of curriculum programs. “In February, we made Valentine’s Day cards using recycled materials. In March, we did a sustainable potluck.” (He brought wild-caught B.C. salmon and locally made bagels and cream cheese.) The aquarium’s green policies were a major attraction to Hultquist, 39, who moved to Vancouver from Maui five years ago and bikes to work. “My values are to try to lessen my footprint on the planet,” he says. “The Vancouver Aquarium really walks its talk. Its values align with my own life.”

Other businesses are using green policies to lure environmentally conscious employees too. Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is famous for its green buildings, like its 18,000-sq.-foot store in Barrie, Ont., which opened in 2010. It has a “rooftop photovoltaic array where we generate power on site that’s fed into the Ontario power grid,” says Esther Speck, director of sustainability. It was built to be 70 per cent more efficient than an average retail building. “It makes it a positive environment for our members and employees,” she says. MEC also offers staff interest-free loans toward a bike purchase. According to Speck, MEC made almost 60 bike loans in 2011.

At Lush, which has its North American headquarters in Vancouver, “sustainability was embedded from the get-go,” says Shama Alexander, environmental officer for its North American operation. The company works to design products that don’t require much packaging, like shampoos or soaps sold in solid forms “like a brownie,” she says. About 60 per cent of Lush’s global sales are unpackaged products, notes Alexander, who says the company estimates it saves three million plastic bottles a year as a result.

MEC and Lush have environmentalism built into their brands, but for Nexen, achieving green credentials was a little tougher. The Calgary-based oil and gas company has development projects offshore in West Africa and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Canada’s oil sands, among other locations. The Green 30 company has implemented several policies aimed at environmental issues. Between 1997 and 2007, methane gas from Nexen’s heavy oil division, which would normally be vented into the atmosphere, was converted into a fuel source to be used in its own operations and sold elsewhere. The company says this prevented the release of the equivalent of almost eight million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Nexen is a founding member of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, committed to “sustainable growth of the oil sands,” says Quinn Wilson, vice-president of human resources and corporate services. “People seek us out as an employer because of our reputation as a responsible developer.” One of the most visible signs of Nexen’s ecological efforts is the company-owned Chevrolet Volt, an electric car, which employees drive to various community events around Calgary.

Wilson says controversy around the oil sands “ups the game a bit,” and makes it even more critical to convey the company’s efforts to the public. Nexen’s inclusion in the Green 30 suggests the organization’s employees support its efforts toward sustainability.

The Vancouver Aquarium has faced debate about some of its practices. In September, Tiqa, a baby beluga, died of heart failure—a little over a year after the death of another baby beluga, Nala. It reignited a discussion about whether the aquarium should continue to keep cetaceans at all, or put them on show. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioural biology at Emory University’s Center for Ethics, was in Vancouver in February to discuss her research into cetacean brains. She believes aquariums should phase out the exhibits. “The Vancouver Aquarium has some really great initiatives, like the shoreline cleanup,” Marino says. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “I think they’re not very green when it comes to marine mammals, especially dolphins and whales.”

DeJong recognizes there’s been debate. “We’re a conservation-based organization,” he counters. Beyond the aquarium’s educational mandate, “we use [these animals] as research tools, to help our ability to conserve them in the wild.” He cites one study at the aquarium, in which Pacific white-sided dolphins are “blindfolded” with eyecups to understand how they use echolocation to find prey and avoid hazards. The hope is to improve fishing gear and methods, so dolphins won’t get caught in fishing nets. As DeJong says, the aquarium has earned a name for itself as a scientific institution: this year, in a North American first, its researchers successfully bred Arctic cod in captivity, opening more opportunities to study this fish, which is hard to access in its natural habitat.

For Canada’s Green 30, having a roster of eco-friendly practices in place is good business—especially if employees can participate and engage with them, too. Like Hultquist, Janzen agrees that the Vancouver Aquarium’s green initiatives were a major draw when he moved to Vancouver and took the job. “It’s very important to me,” he says. “The Vancouver Aquarium and its institutions make it easy for [us] to incorporate those values into our lives.”

Find the complete Green 30 list here.