20th anniversary of WWF Green Office – how the environmental management system has evolved

The idea of an environmental management system was originally scribbled on a coaster in a restaurant in Helsinki in 1996. In 2002, the thorough preparation and development process resulted in the creation of the WWF Green Office as we know it today. How has Green Office, which celebrates its 20th anniversary, evolved over the years and what will corporate responsibility look like in the future?

When the environmental management system was being set up in the late 1990s, public attention was almost entirely focused on the environmental impact caused by industry and energy production sectors. WWF Finland’s idea for a Green Office was based on the goal of getting a more extensive range of companies and public administration actors to work for the environment. WWF Green Office became a pioneer in Finland as an environmental management system provider, one of the great achievements of WWF Finland which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“The demand for an environmental management system came from the outside. Businesses started to contact WWF for guidance on how to take environmental issues into account in the workplace,” says Helka Julkunen, Green Office Concept Manager between 2003 and 2019, currently working as a Senior conservation officer, Climate programme for WWF Finland.

Although WWF Finland’s Green Office is a commercial activity, its purpose is to promote WWF’s conservation goals in order to stop the degradation of the natural environment. From the outset, the environmental management system has supported workplaces in minimising their carbon footprint and reducing the overconsumption of natural resources.

“The same themes and targets, such as slowing climate change, are still relevant. Twenty years ago, the people of Green Office already knew the topics to focus on in an environmental programme,” says Julkunen.

Businesses had a desire to do something to promote environmental issues but lacked the tools. “We developed a high-quality, tangible and easy-to-use environmental programme that simultaneously promoted the culture of teamwork in the work community,” says Julkunen.

“Our goal is to provide a ready-made environmental management system or to complement the sustainability work of companies and organisations and to engage employees in environmental activities. This will also enable companies and organisations to implement the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in their operations,” says Mikko Kuiri, Green Office Partnership Manager, who has been involved in the operations of the environmental management system for over 15 years.

From the beginning, the activities of Green Office have been based on meeting minimum criteria requirements and a reporting system. The Green Offices are still regularly inspected in order to monitor the implementation of the objectives set out in the environmental programme.

Companies and organisations that have passed the inspection receive the WWF Green Office label for their environmental work. The certificate serves as a reliable means of verifying that the members of the network are genuinely environmentally friendly.

The spread of the environmental management system from Helsinki to the whole of Finland

In the first years, the goal of the Green Office was to gain a foothold in Helsinki, a hub of companies’ headquarters and public administration offices. Gradually, Green Office strengthened its status as an environmental management system provider. As its popularity increased, many other organisations from various fields and other localities across Finland became interested in this ready-made model.

Word of the Green Office spread from mouth to mouth: “We didn’t go for any paid marketing because, in the early years, we simply didn’t have the resources. Instead, we gained visibility through various interviews and lectures,” says Julkunen.

At that time, the network was much smaller: “I think the first network meeting organised by Green Office was attended by about eight representatives from pioneering companies,” says Julkunen with a laugh.

(The text continues after the image)

Over the years, the logo of the WWF Green Office has also evolved.

The Green Office environmental management system is very popular today and, in early 2022, the Finnish WWF Green Office network already included more than 200 organisations and companies from various sectors, approximately 470 workplaces and about 55,000 employees.

Today, the network represents specialist companies, universities and universities of applied sciences, head offices, government agencies, sales offices, associations and other operators. Green Office is particularly suitable for specialist and service sectors and, thus, for a wide variety of workplaces.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Green Office also gained international interest, and it was expanded to China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey, for example.

“However, the idea of the Green Office environmental management system did not take root abroad as strongly as in Finland, and the system now remains in wide use only in Turkey and Pakistan. Our focus with Green Office has always been Finland, and we aim to serve our network members to the best of our ability here,” says Kuiri, recalling the internationalisation phase of the environmental management system.

Towards a more systematic environmental management system and more measurable activities

At first, organisations were instructed to pay particular attention to waste management, energy use, transport policy and paper use. Workplaces were encouraged to take practical action, switch off lights, print double-sided copies and give up disposable containers – things that are still part of everyday environmental work today.

At the end of the 2010s, the environmental management system underwent a comprehensive reform. Significant additions to the system’s themes were the consideration of the environmental impact of food and the commitment of the organisation’s management to promoting the set goals and supporting staff. The quality and quantity of communication materials also increased with the renewed online platform.

“The ready-made communication materials have been of great value to our customers in engaging the work community and sharing their environmental work with their stakeholders. In the early days, we sent e-mail to our network members once a month with current news and tips. We’ve come a long way since then,” says Julkunen.

The reform also established the current seven themes of the environmental management system: 1) management, 2) communications and engagement, 3) energy and water, 4) procurement, 5) recycling, sorting and cleaning, 6) travel and 7) food.

“The seven themes are extensively based on the areas that make up the environmental impact of workplaces today. Although the underlying idea and guiding principle of Green Office remain unchanged, the environmental management system has been developed in a more systematic direction. The aim is to measure and monitor the environmental impact more closely, and the processes are more detailed than before,” says Kuiri.

(The text continues after the image)

The seven themes of the Green Office environmental management system are extensively based on the areas that make up the environmental impact of workplaces.

Online tools developed to support environmental work

Green Office has developed online tools to support the environmental work carried out by the network members and to facilitate reporting, communications and staff motivation. The network of workplaces has access to tools such as the comprehensive online tool My Green Office, the Climate Calculator and the Consumer Habit Questionnaire.

Originally known as Compass, the online tool that served as an information channel and toolkit for Green Offices underwent a major reform in the late 2010s. The online tool was moved to a completely new platform, it was developed to be more user-friendly, and the service was renamed My Green Office. My Green Office is an online tool for building and managing the environmental management system of organisations. The website maintains annual environmental programmes, among other things. The online service also serves as a material bank where you can find all the necessary training and communication materials.

“The development of online tools was one of our decisive steps at the time. As a result, deploying Green Office in different workplaces around Finland was easy and effortless,” says Julkunen.

In addition to My Green Office, the members of the network have assessed their environmental impact with the help of the Climate Calculator, developed in 2005 to measure the carbon footprint of workplaces. The Climate Calculator allows companies and organisations to measure emissions and consumption generated by the energy use, travel, purchases and waste of their workplace. The Climate Calculator also helps monitor the development of emissions and thus improve the climate work of the workplace.

Workplaces, in turn, can analyse the environmental impact of the staff’s actions with the Consumer Habit Questionnaire. The Consumer Habit Questionnaire allows every employee to measure the environmental impact of their habits. The questions in the Consumer Habit Questionnaire follow the themes of Green Office, such as food, energy consumption and sorting waste.

Both the Climate Calculator and the Consumer Habit Questionnaire have been updated in recent years, the latest of which was the reform of the Consumer Habit Questionnaire in early 2022. The reform was based on the changes in working methods, which is why the current survey takes remote and hybrid work better into account. The aim of all the updates has been to increase the effectiveness of the system, improve the user experience and add value to customers.

“Our development is based on our model of continuous improvement, which we require from our network members, but above all from ourselves. Each year, we find new ways to develop our tools. Our customer-oriented service model has received a lot of praise,” says Kuiri.

All eyes on corporate responsibility

Business is heavily affected by the climate crisis, degradation of the natural environment and mitigation action. Therefore, it is important for companies and organisations to better understand changes in the natural environment.

“Public awareness of environmental issues has increased considerably and people are more receptive to hearing about them. Transparency in business operations is also more important than before, and Green Office plays a significant role as a credible external party capable of verifying environmental work,” says Julkunen.

Working at the Green Office has also provided a unique vantage point of corporate responsibility: both Julkunen and Kuiri have witnessed a significant change in the attitudes of companies and organisations over the years.

“One noteworthy achievement has been the launch of FSC-certified paper. With the help of the Green Office network, we influenced the market and raised awareness of environmentally certified paper,” says Julkunen.

In the future, companies will face the challenge of preserving biodiversity

Over the past twenty years, there has been a significant increase in the interest in environmental issues and a growing demand for environmental management systems among companies and organisations. They want to encouragement the entire staff to adopt environmental actions and target sustainability communications to all stakeholders.

“Environmental issues have become a permanent part of the strategic activities of companies and organisations. The emphasis is now shifting to the fact that a large number of companies want to calculate the size of their carbon footprint. However, the challenges are changing and increasing. The next big question is, how can companies take into account and reduce the impact of their activities on biodiversity?” says Julkunen.

Taking environmental concerns into account is now also important in winning tenders, and even has an impact on the maintenance of economic performance.

“Instead of a voluntary activity, environmental sustainability is becoming a necessity. Without environmental sustainability, a company can no longer succeed. In the future, it will be even more important to take into account the environmental impact of companies’ operations and value chains,” says Kuiri.

With the current flood of information and the growing number of certificates, starting and carrying out environmental work may seem like a demanding task. Operating under WWF, the world’s most influential environmental organisation, Green Office is a reliable and credible environmental management system provider for organisations and companies.

“Without WWF Finland’s extensive, in-depth expertise in nature conservation and solution-oriented approach, Green Office would hardly be as effective. As part of the Green Office team, we deliver information and experiences from the customer interface to the rest of WWF,” says Kuiri.

Green Office is one way to implement the nature conservation work of WWF Finland, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary: “We promote important environmental issues in our network and provide solutions for companies and organisations to develop sustainability. We also raise funds for WWF Finland’s nature conservation work,” says Kuiri.

Text: Maiju Kimpisalo