The Current

How building a 'climate squad' at work could be the small change that makes a big difference

Experts say avoiding the worst outcomes of the climate crisis will require significant structural change, but part of that change could start with individuals coming together at work.

Collective climate action can start at work and lead to larger advocacy: Elizabeth Sheehan

Alexis Esseltine and Tim Scoon co-own Tin Whistle Brewing Company in Penticton, B.C., where they've made changes to reduce the company's carbon footprint. (Submitted by Alexis Esseltine)

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A brewery in B.C. is exploring novel ideas to reduce its environmental impact, including potentially using live algae in the fermentation process.

"As beer ferments, it releases carbon dioxide," said Alexis Esseltine, who co-owns Tin Whistle Brewing Company in Penticton, B.C., with her husband, Tim Scoon.

"Living algae … absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Esseltine said the company is in talks with researchers at Okanagan College to design a study that diverts their beer's CO2 emissions into a vat of algae, and measures the impact on both the product and its carbon footprint.

"Our goal is to produce incredible beer, but to do it thoughtfully and to use beer as an opportunity to do incredible work in this community and in the environment," Esseltine said.

The goal of this work, and the sustainability work we do is to inspire others, show it can be done- Alexis Esseltine

The couple took over the brewery in Oct. 2020, and immediately started to look for ways to reduce its carbon footprint. 

"Within six months, we were carbon neutral," Esseltine said.

They assessed how much water, electricity and natural gas the company used, and set about reducing that usage with new equipment and more efficient lighting and heating systems. They bought offsets for the remaining carbon footprint that they couldn't reduce by other means. The company also made changes to their packaging, and the ways their beer is stored and shipped.

"The goal of this work, and the sustainability work we do, is to inspire others, show it can be done, so that others will join the fight," she said.

Esseltine has plenty of fellow business people to inspire; the latest government figures record over 1.2 million small and medium businesses in Canada at the end of 2019.

Elizabeth Sheehan, director of strategic engagement at Climate Smart Business (CSB), said the scale of that business landscape amounts to "a whole bunch of emissions."

Listeners share what they’ve been doing to tackle the climate crisis.

But conversely, it also means that even small efforts in those workplaces can build momentum in the larger fight against climate change.

"We've really discovered that small adds up," Sheehan said, explaining that CSB has helped more than 1,200 small and medium-sized businesses to reduce their emissions.

Making changes around "these small, different pieces — with one's fleet and buildings, thinking about their waste stream — really do make a difference," she said.

How to get started

A workplace plan should start with mapping out where the emissions are coming from, Sheehan said. 

A company's highest carbon costs might involve vehicles that move goods or people, or work-generated waste, or the emissions related to running equipment. But once that's been figured out, it's easier to decide what to do about it, she said.

She said her organization has helped companies with everything from engaging staff and implementing their good ideas, to finding "the best electric forklift."

Workplaces and businesses should start by identifying where their emissions come from, said Elizabeth Sheehan of Climate Smart Business. (Shutterstock)

The decision to act can come from anyone in the company, she said. 

"Sometimes you have a passionate founder and CEO, and sometimes you have someone at the front desk saying, 'This waste is driving me crazy, and I have a really good idea, and I'm going to form a green team,'" she said.

Author Katharine Wilkinson said workers should "scout their superpowers" by thinking about the talents and passions they can bring to greening their own workplace.

But she said that individual efforts must translate into collective action, and recommended joining a climate action group, or "cultivating a climate squad."

People can "do that whether it's our workplace, our community, our larger network of 'good troublemakers,'" said Wilkinson, co-author of several books on climate solutions, including All We Can Save and Drawdown

Given the dire warnings about the impact of unmitigated climate change, Wilkinson said there is no time to "tweak around the edges." 

"We're really talking about more systemic, more structural change. And that means we need to be linking arms as kind of the mightiest 'we' we can muster," she said.

Sheehan agreed, and said she's seen companies start with an internal plan, and then use the knowledge gained to join bigger conversations around government policy.

"I actually think it's a stepping stone," she said. "Measuring your footprint and reducing your operational emissions aren't sufficient — we need the advocacy that Katharine mentioned as well."

'Do something, not nothing'

At his fire and flood restoration company in B.C., Jamie Madill assessed emissions in 2016 and discovered that a key source was its fleet of 90 vehicles.

The company has spent the six years since electrifying that fleet, and seen big results.

"You have to start small. We started with three Chevy Volts in 2016 and a couple of chargers that we installed at our facility, and we've added a few every year," said Madill, CFO of Platinum Pro-Claim.

Jamie Madill has worked to replace a portion of his company's fleet of 90 vehicles with electric alternatives. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The company now has nine chargers and 20 electric vehicles, and will surpass its own target of a 25 per cent electric fleet by 2023.

He said those changes have allowed the company to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 22 per cent since 2016, and also saved roughly $185,000 in fuel.

"Setting up the infrastructure over time … it seems like it should be more expensive, but over time, we've actually found that it makes good economic sense," he said.

Madill said his message to other businesses is "do something, not nothing," and that he's keen to build momentum not just among his own staff, but among the other businesses in his supply chain.

"Everybody can make a difference; you just have to start somewhere," he said.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler and Lindsay Rempel.

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