I've long maintained that "legal brief" was an oxymoron, given the blizzard of paper most law firms consume. Despite the digitization of just about everything, the legal world still revolves pretty much around dead trees. Sure, those walls full of law books have given way to CD-ROMs, and e-mail is part of the picture, but legal pads are still very much in vogue, as are copiers, fax machines, and high-speed printers. All of these machines, it seems, crank 24/7.
Consider a study done a few years ago by my colleagues at GreenOrder. It set out to help a well-known technology company understand how it could help customers better manage paper -- everything from document creation to production, distribution, archiving, and retrieval. GreenOrder evaluated the potential for such services at a large New York law firm, which in the previous year had consumed 12,500 cases of paper -- about 312.5 tons -- for its copying and printing needs. More pointedly, each of the firm's 300 lawyers was responsible for, on average, 800 sheets of paper each workday during the year, nearly all of it from 100% virgin pulp.
"Legal brief," indeed.
It's not just paper, of course. Law firms, like most professional operations, have buildings, furnishings, employee commuting, business travel, vehicles, foodservice, and other operations and activities that comprise their environmental impact. As environmental awareness has grown overall, law firms increasingly are positioning themselves as environmental leaders as a means of attracting both clients and job applicants.
Given all this, I was pleased, though not surprised, to see the recent launch of the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge, a seemingly well-thought-out effort to encourage law firms to more efficiently use paper, energy, and other resources.
This is not the first time a group of lawyers has tried to do justice to their environmental impacts. More than a decade ago, for example, a group of firms in the Seattle area founded the Law Firm Waste Reduction Network, which published a booklet and computer disk package called "The Case for Waste Prevention: A How-to Guidebook By and For Legal Professionals" to help educate their legal brethren about source reduction, recycling, and recycled-content purchasing. (Neither the group nor the guidebook seems to be around anymore -- at least not online.) Since then, several individual firms have staked their green claims. In my home town of Oakland, Calif., for example, Wendel, Rosen, Black & Dean in 2003 became the first law firm in the U.S. to gain third-party certification as a "green business." With good reason: The nearly 100-year-old firm has a growing number of clients in the sustainability arena, from solar power providers to organic food companies.
But the collaboration between the American Bar Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency takes all of this to the next level. Law firms participating in the Climate Challenge are being asked to sign on to any of three EPA programs: WasteWise, which helps companies better manage and reduce solid waste; Green Power Partnership, which promotes company purchases of renewable energy; and Energy Star, which helps companies invest in more energy-efficient products and technologies. According to the Climate Challenge website:
Law offices may meet the Climate Challenge by participating in one or more of three EPA partnership (i.e., voluntary) programs, or by simply undertaking certain office management "best practices:"
1) Adopt "best practices" for office paper management by reducing paper usage, increasing recycled content, or increasing recycling. Alternatively, implement these actions by participating in EPA's WasteWise program, which encourages organizations to save energy by reducing waste.
2) Participate in EPA's Green Power Partnership (Green Power) program by purchasing energy from renewable sources to cover at least a portion of electricity usage.
3) Participate in EPA's ENERGY STAR program, which encourages law offices to reduce energy use by at least 10% through, among other things, the purchase of ENERGY STAR-designated equipment and implementation of better energy management practices. This program has features that recognize the issues associated with tenant law offices.
One of the innovative and refreshing things about this program is that it rolls up several different activities -- saving energy, buying renewable power, and reducing waste -- instead of showcasing them individually, as is typically the case with green business initiatives. Even better, it connects all three to climate change. Typically, solid waste isn't associated with climate, though the greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste disposal can be significant. Moreover, all three EPA programs stress the bottom-line improvements that can come from engaging in these activities (though the case for buying green power remains elusive at times).
The bottom-line impacts are real. Consider the GreenOrder law firm study. It found that by establishing a companywide policy mandating double-sided printing of all documents unless single-sided printing is requested, the New York firm in question could reduce paper use by 15% to 20%, saving up to 570 trees per year. Increasing the percentage of copies made double-sided to just 10% in "convenience copiers" (smaller, networked printers) and 15% in its copy center (larger, high-volume machines) would save the firm $23,754 in paper costs alone. Because double-sided copies are lighter to mail, the potential savings in postage could amount to $8,741 per year. The greenhouse gas reductions from double-sided copying would be nearly 130,000 pounds a year, assuming only virgin paper was used.
Beyond the value to law firms, the ABA-EPA initiative also appears to represent a watershed for the EPA itself: a well-designed effort to bundle several of its voluntary programs. EPA has about 200 of these programs -- no one in the agency seems to know the exact number -- and nearly all of them have different, often overlapping, marketing and outreach efforts, with very little coordination among them. (You can view 59 of the more prominent programs here.) I've had conversations with my friends at EPA for nearly a decade about the need to coordinate and co-market these programs. A few years ago, the agency finally hired someone to research best practices among the programs with the aim of harmonizing their operations, but that initiative seems to be slow-going. EPA's partnership with ABA to court law firms may be the agency's breakthrough moment in this regard.
All told, the ABA-EPA Law Office Climate Challenge represents a pretty good template for other sectors and professionals. If lawyers -- with all their protocols, traditions, and professional requirements -- can put environmental responsibility on the docket, there's a case to be made that pretty much anyone else can, too.
Joel Makower is the founder and Executive Editor of Greenbiz.com
This article first appeared at Greenbiz.com
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