With the global spotlight on reducing greenhouse gases and carbon footprints, including the Obama Administration’s unprecedented attention on encouraging environmental conservation and development of renewable energy sources, it’s clear that we’re in a “go green” era.

To cut to the question posed in this blogposts’s title, the answer is “no”. There is no legal duty, at present, for a private employer to “go green”. Perhaps at some point in the future, statutory authority such as the federal Occupational Safety & Health Act and state and local counterparts will include “green workplace standards”. For example, with respect to the investment in “green jobs” the Department of Labor and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are already focusing on ensuring that OSHA standards are appropriately designed and enforced to protect workers performing that type of work. At present, however, there are no mandates and instead only various governmental and non-governmental incentives for a workplace to go green.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Pew Center on Global Climate Change estimate that commercial and industrial buildings account for nearly half of all energy consumption in the U.S., and are responsible for nearly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Star Program, administered by the EPA and U.S. Department of Energy, attempts to encourage energy efficiency in buildings to meet strict energy performance standards set by EPA and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Federal buildings are eligible to receive a High Performance Building designation.

In addition, commercial real estate and private companies are leading the green charge through voluntary compliance with standards set by a private, nonprofit membership organization, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC’s LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System™ awards points for satisfying specified green building criteria. The six major environmental categories of review include:

  • Sustainable Sites
  • Water Efficiency
  • Energy and Atmosphere
  • Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality and
  • Innovation and Design

A building, or unit therein, can be certified as LEED Silver, Gold, or Platinum based on the total number of points earned within each LEED category. For example, our firm’s Miami and Los Angeles offices are in buildings with LEED Gold certification. It was reported two days ago that a high profile commercial property investment company will spend up to $10 million retrofitting its properties for environmental sustainability. LEED can be applied to all building types including new construction, individual unit commercial interiors, core & shell developments, existing buildings, homes, neighborhood developments, schools and retail facilities. In addition, LEED for Healthcare was released in early 2008.

In sum, the green movement has not yet resulted in mandated private employer obligations. Notwithstanding the lack of affirmative duty to do so, however, based on information provided by the USGBC and EPA there are many pragmatic benefits that employers should consider for greening their workplaces:

  • Monetary and tax incentives
  • Energy Efficiency: Using energy more efficiently may save operating costs on utility bills over the life of the building; reduce the cost per unit on manufactured goods and services; and enhance resale and lease value of real estate
  • Environmental Efficiency: Reducing environmental impact may reduce waste materials and disposal costs, water usage, chemical use and disposal costs; encourage recycling and reuse of materials; develops local markets for locally produced materials, saving on transportation costs and develops economy-of-scale price reductions
  • Human Efficiency: Improving indoor environment, producing healthier places to work leading to increases productivity; reduction in absenteeism; boosting morale and corporate loyalty (also through creation of corporate “green teams”), and reduction in employee turnover
  • Green Buildings often receive high profile notoriety and increased public perception of goodwill toward employees and the community.