During the entire month of July, NEMO’s 24 employees conducted a silent negotiation. Dover, New Hampshire (where NEMO is headquartered) was experiencing record high temperatures, and some employees craved ultra-cool office temperatures. Yet the company had challenged itself to reduce its energy consumption in a month-long initiative that happened to fall in July. Cranking up the air-conditioning ran counter to that mission—so Kaitlyn Ferguson found herself watching the thermostats.
“At the beginning of every work day, I’d go around and set the temperature to 78°F,” says Ferguson, who works in NEMO’s accounting and operations departments. When reading Drawdown, she had learned that air-conditioning was the biggest energy hog in most American households and businesses, so she felt inspired to enforce a change. “Just by turning up the thermostat by one degree, you can save huge amounts of energy,” she explains. “I wanted to work toward that.”
But as she walked the 12,000 square-foot, one-story complex at the end of the day, Ferguson discovered that her coworkers dialed the thermostats down to cooler digits. It turned out that – as these challenges were intended to do – they created conversation, a little debate, and a thermostat “dance” that continued all month.
“In this old building, the air doesn’t circulate evenly, and it gets so hot that it’s distracting from our work,” pointed out Bill Kramer, who spends much of his time photographing gear in a studio at the far end of the workspace. His sentiment was shared by others who found it hard to concentrate when they were uncomfortably hot.
Ferguson and her coworker, Gabriel “Gabi” Rosenbrien, had stepped forward to head up NEMO’s energy challenge. It’s part of an ongoing project called Raise the Stakes, which was inspired by the company-wide reading of Drawdown. In that book, Paul Hawken identifies the factors that are contributing to global warming and the most effective ways to “draw down” the planet’s soaring carbon dioxide levels.
The transportation challenge
Energy use plays a pivotal role in climate change, and yet “NEMO doesn’t produce energy. We can’t build wind or solar farms,” says Rosenbrien, product development manager for tents. Thus, the company decided to prune its own fuel consumption by lowering in-office demands and asking employees to commute to work using the most sustainable transportation options.
For Rosenbrien and Ferguson, that meant biking. Both live within six miles of NEMO’s headquarters and were already in the habit of pedaling to work on some days. But the energy challenge spurred them to increase their commitment. “Drawdown has a whole section about biking and how it’s the most efficient mode of travel in our day and age,” says Ferguson, who set a personal goal of cycling to work 60 days this year.
The energy challenge “Made me take a no-excuses mindset,” says Rosenbrien, who stopped allowing himself to drive instead of bike when he was running late. “I had to do more active planning, like making changes to my wake-up time and to the clothes I wear, and planning for things like the day’s weather and after-work errands to the grocery store,” he says.
Others found it harder to shift out of their automobile dependency. One NEMO employee, who commutes 30 miles from neighboring Massachusetts, found public transportation schedules to be extremely inconvenient: She could take the train to work, but wouldn’t arrive until 10:30 a.m. and needed to leave by 3 p.m. And carpooling can’t always connect employees who live in disparate neighborhoods.
“It’s definitely more difficult than we expected,” says Ferguson. “It just goes to show that you really have to make a conscious effort every day, in a constant uphill battle, to really make a difference.”
Rosenbrien tracked employees’ commutes, noting whether they walked, biked, took the bus, drove a motorcycle or a pickup truck. The goal was to reduce the company’s gas consumption by 10 percent. “We knew that if everyone that lived within 10 miles of the office biked every single day, we’d reduce our gas consumption by 9 percent, so hitting 10 percent relied on people that lived on gas commutes to contribute,” he explains. At the end of the month, NEMO’s transportation challenge achieved a 6.7 percent reduction. “We still have some work to do there,” concludes Ferguson.
Some employees who couldn’t realistically shift away from a gas-powered commute because of childcare, schedules, or distance sought to quantify their impact and figure out if there was another way to change their behavior that perhaps had an even greater impact.
“The beauty of these challenges is that it’s less about the short-term results, and more about shifting to a mindset in which we understand and measure our impact,” shares Kate Paine, VP of Marketing. “This is about conversation and learning, which in the long run will maximize our collective impact.”
The findings: Every degree of change counts
NEMO also took its heightened energy awareness on the road. At the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver, employees made sure to group up NEMO employees to fill every seat in their Uber rides and used the city’s bike-share program.
Meanwhile, around the office, employees turned off lights, sweated through July’s heat wave, and turned off computer monitors at the end of each day. “We had already installed LED lights and smart thermostats, so there wasn’t much that we could upgrade in the office,” says Rosenbrien. As a result of the energy challenge, however, NEMO is making the switch to use 100% renewable energy, and is looking into additional investments such as motion-sensing lights that turn themselves off after people leave the room.
Beyond that, the energy team sees few easy solutions within their own office or transportation. “It’s really difficult to get information about your energy consumption, so it’s hard to know how much goes to A/C, how much to lights,” says Rosenbrien. “That makes it harder to know exactly what you’re consuming and what kind of progress you’re making.”
However, the conversation that resulted further emphasized the comparatively large impact of changes to the supply chain versus biking to work. Some quick math on the greenhouse gases resulting from one rush shipment by air made it clear that if given the choice to pedal to the office or work harder to avoid rush shipments, their efforts would be best spent on the latter.
In the end, education may have been the biggest achievement of NEMO’s energy challenge. “This was a good exposure to beneficial changes,” says Rosenbrien, who pointed out that renewable energy can sometimes be more cost-effective than coal. The challenge spurred him to look into wind energy for his apartment, and he switched to 100 percent wind sources (with no increase to his monthly bill). He found the process to be fast and easy: Logging onto his energy provider’s website (in his case, it’s www.eversource.com), he browsed various power generation sources, compared rates and early termination fees, and selected the option that he preferred. Although energy sources vary by location, most of the nation’s energy providers offer various sourcing options—if the customer knows to ask.
Change may not be easy, NEMO found—but when it comes to using fuel, every degree really does make a difference.