Environmental Impact: Seen to be green

Carbon neutrality is a “tough subject,” says Eversheds environmental manager Claire Shepherd. “Carbon neutrality shouldn’t just be about offsetting carbon outlay, but about reducing it in the first place.”

Much in the way that clients are now demanding diversity statistics from their law firms, their environmental policies are also coming under scrutiny by clients, and there are increasingly important boxes that firms must tick if they hope to win big mandates.

But are firms driving far enough down into the root cause of their environmental impact? Or do such carbon-neutral and environmental policies boil down to hype?For example, at the end of last year Simmons & Simmons and SJ Berwin became embroiled in a tug-of-war over which firm was the first to become carbon-neutral.

The debate was sparked off last November when Simmons issued a statement declaring itself to be “the world’s first carbon-neutral international law firm”. An environmental audit found that the firm needed to pay £114,000 to offset its carbon footprint, prompting Simmons to pledge to cut carbon emissions by 7.5 per cent by April 2007.

However, SJ Berwin went carbon-neutral five years ago and has since planted an estimated 15,000 trees as part of its planting programme to offset the carbon dioxide produced by the firm’s UK offices annually.

But Shepherd questions whether such programmes are enough. “Ultimately people should be reducing carbon emissions at the outset rather than just planting a few trees. We work with a woodland trust, which advises us how to plant trees correctly, because if it’s done incorrectly, it can also be damaging.”

Expenditure issue

It can be further argued that for too long the commercial price of being ‘environmentally friendly’ has outweighed the social responsibility for many firms.

At somewhere between £7 and £10 to buy an offset credit per tonne of carbon, firms with large workforces and lots of air travel have been reluctant to get on board. Eversheds, however, is one of the handful of firms actively exploring alternate ways by which it can become more environmentally friendly.

“In law firms you have to get top-level support because it’s an expenditure issue,” explains Shepherd. “We’re working towards it at the moment and are going to look at what our carbon footprint is.”

Linklaters has similarly been an early entrant into the sphere of carbon neutrality. In 2002 the firm commissioned an environmental impact audit to look at electricity usage and waste and recycling programmes. The outcome was the Linklaters Environmental Policy.

As Linklaters head of premises and facilities Bob Jones explains: “We paid an absolute premium. It was a conscious decision by the firm to take renewable-supplied electricity.”

Jones and engineering manager Phil Rulton have overseen the implementation of the environmental policy, which has resulted in an improved building management and lighting control systems, which automatically adjust or switch off lights and shut down air-conditioning in unused areas.

The policy has also seen Linklaters enter into a venture with E.ON to ensure that part of the electricity supplied to its Silk Street headquarters is derived from renewable sources, such as wind or water, with none from a nuclear reactor.

Linklaters is the only firm to have tapped E.ON’s combined heat and power (CHP) plant, Citigen. The project at Smithfield Market uses its by-products of heat in the winter and chilled water in the summer to service heating systems and air-conditioning systems respectively.

The venture is expected save Linklaters 22,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions over the two-year lifespan of the deal. Had the firm chosen to pay to offset those emissions, it would have cost up to £220,000.

“Every 1kw from the CHP plant [produces] half the amount of emissions [to that of a regular power source]. The firm made a commitment to this project and we’ve been running with it since 2002,” says Rulton.

The firm declines to put a figure on the cost, but it is understood to gain the firm an exemption from paying the Government’s climate change levy.

Changing attitudes

Herbert Smith corporate social responsibility manager Richard Brophy identifies the need for “shifts in behaviour” in order for law firms to become more environmentally friendly. “You’d be surprised how quickly things do change when people are aware of a wider movement. People feel it’s about time to take these issues seriously. It’s not going away,” Brophy says.

“It costs the firm more to have our recycling and composting programmes in place,” says Linklaters’ Jones, revealing that his firm sends some seven tonnes of packing waste to be recycled each week. “But Linklaters as a firm feels strongly that this needs to be done and that outweighs any cost impact.”

Linklaters has also instigated a system to offset the carbon footprint for its annual partner retreats. Currently, whenever there is a partner retreat or similar large gathering of partners or firm staff, details such as where attendees are coming from and how long the retreat will last are given to Climate Care, one of many carbon-offsetting enterprises marketing renewable energy projects to the commercial community, which calculates the total number of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and produces a cost figure for the firm to pay.

Climate Care puts the money it makes from fees such as Linklaters’ towards a range of offsetting projects in the developing world.

“There is a certain amount of carbon that you can’t offset – things such as waste and bus and taxi travel,” says Rulton. “But we’re looking into various ideas and ways to reduce it rather than offset it. Rather than just pay out, we’d prefer to reduce and reuse our waste where possible.”

Addleshaw Goddard is another firm that has moved environmental responsibility higher up its agenda. The firm has preprogrammed all of its photocopiers to automatically double-side everything that is photocopied, halving its paper usage. It has also saved an estimated 150,000 bottles of water a year by revamping its meeting room stock system.

In the longer term Addleshaws is planning to restructure its seven environmental focus groups across the firm’s three offices to feed directly to the senior management committee.

Addressing the problem

Lovells head of corporate responsibility and dispute resolution partner Neil Fagan last year commissioned an internal environmental review to evaluate waste and energy use.

“Reducing our environmental impact has been made a priority within our corporate responsibility programme over the next year,” Fagan says. “We’re also developing an internal campaign to promote personal as well as corporate responsibility in this area.”

Switching to biodegradable or organic cleaning products, purchasing locally produced and organic food for the office cafeteria, supplying Fairtrade coffee and recyclable cups, and even fining staff for leaving lights or computer monitors on, are all options being considered by firms to improve their environmental friendliness.

Moving offices can be a good opportunity to address environmental issues. Norton Rose, which will be moving into new premises in July, tells The Lawyer that its new building will have the facilities to recycle all plastics, cans and tins, and that motion sensors will turn off lights automatically when they are not needed.

The firm’s environmental committee has been advised by external consultants that the firm should carry out a full environmental audit six months after it has moved to its new premises. Only then will Norton Rose be able to establish the level of its carbon footprint and how to minimise it most efficiently.

However, Norton Rose is looking beyond its carbon footprint to address the root causes and is seeking to further offset its emissions by negotiating to move to a green tariff to power the new building.

The firm has also set up a ‘cycle to work’ scheme, whereby the firm will cover up to half of the cost of a new bicycle for each employee, providing that they use it to travel to and from the office.

Global impact

Many of these initiatives are UK-centric, despite most firms rapidly expanding internationally. As a result many firms are beginning to look to the impact of their international offices, and it is a problem with no cheap solution.

DLA Piper, which is hosting former US Vice-President Al Gore at a climate change seminar at its Sheffield office this week (7 February), has launched a sustainability initiative across its international network encompassing all 62 offices across 24 countries.

The firm has set strict targets for reducing its emissions, targeting energy, waste, air travel and procurement as areas to cut down on. The firm’s UK offices have already been certified as meeting the International ISO 14001 standard for environmental management systems, and the firm is aiming to achieve worldwide certification during 2007.

“The goal of this initiative is to create a culture of sustainability and environmental responsibility across all our offices,” says the firm’s chairman George Mitchell, a former US senator. “We’re extending our commitment beyond basic environmental compliance in order to significantly reduce, not just offset, our negative impact on the world’s ecosystems.”

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is another firm that is taking a global approach to the problem, electing to purchase offsetting credits for emissions and working towards reducing its emissions over a period of time.

The firm is working with the CarbonNeutral Company to audit its total emissions across its global network and find ways to reduce that as part of the corporate social responsibility programme it introduced in January 2006.

Freshfields joint senior partner Guy Morton said at the time: “Actively taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of doing business is a high priority for us. It’s important to our partners, our clients and our employees. We take environmental considerations seriously.”

As the public’s awareness of environmental impact grows, so too will the role commercial organisations are forced to play. Where clients lead, the professional services organisations must follow.

Having genuine green credentials to boast about is one more string to a firm’s bow in the war for talent and clients. Only this time, it is benefiting something other than just firms’ own interests.