Yet it’s Still Greener than Returning to the Office
Climate change is a big issue in today’s news. We investigated how working from home impacts the environment.
We analyzed data from 20+ authoritative sources with a participant pool of over 457,171 employees and corporations to answer the question: Is working from home better for the environment? The answer is a definitive yes.
Overall, working from home is more environmentally friendly than working in an office. Additionally, when employers offer remote work options, they experience a better reputation, boosted customer loyalty, and have happier, healthier employees.
References and methods for this study can be found in the Methods and Procedures PDF below.
We’re sure you’re ready for the stats, so check out our original research below.
- To neutralize 34.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions predicted to be produced in 2021 by working from home, a forest of over 70,000 square miles would need to be planted.
- Companies that allow employees to work from home are experiencing customer base gains and positive boosts to reputations.
- At Xerox, working from home saved workers approximately 92 million miles of driving, which would produce 41,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide.
- Approximately 247 trillion sheets of paper are saved every year by working outside the office.
- Reduction of consumption among commercial and industrial users in the US resulted in an electricity consumption drop of 6-7% at the height of work from home use during the pandemic.
- In the United States, there was a 67% decrease in waste production for businesses in 2020 due to employees working from home.
- While numbers vary, the average worker reduces their carbon footprint by approximately 1,800 pounds by working from home.
- Between March and early June of 2020, the United States reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 15%.
- New York employees gained back 15.2% of their time by not commuting.
- Those traveling for work create approximately 50% of aviation’s carbon dioxide emissions.
- Overall, buying an existing home is more environmentally friendly than renting or building a new home.
34.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions predicted to be produced in 2021 by working from home
While working from home has been promoted as a more earth-friendly alternative to office work, this conversation has a darker side. According to a 2021 study published by Resources, Conservation and Recycling, when every worker started logging on to video streams and online meeting platforms to perform their daily duties, internet data use rose nearly 40% from January to March of last year (Obringer, et al., 2021).
If work from home models persist through the end of 2021, the result is predicted to produce 34.3 million tons of greenhouse gasses. The resources needed to negate that number would be the equivalent of over 209 billion gallons of water, 70,000+ square miles of forest, and over 500 square miles of land to house resources to produce power for data processing and transmission (Obringer, et al., 2021).
But the good news is, while data center use is five times as great now as it was ten years ago, there’s been only a 6% increase in energy usage in that time (Masanet, 2020). Additionally, there are many steps those working from home can take to decrease their carbon footprint, making working from home more environmentally friendly than office work.
Video streaming consumes data at a vastly higher rate than voice only, so turning off the camera option for your weekly catch-up video conferences will save a lot of energy. Use recycled or reusable materials such as plates, cups, and dishes to help prevent deforestation – a critical factor in climate change. If you’re able, power household appliances with renewable resources, such as wind or solar (Bernstein, 2021).
Companies that allow working from home experience positive reputation boosts and increases in customer base
Today’s consumers are becoming more selective of where they spend their money. This is particularly true of the largest population group, millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996 (Statista Research Department, 2021).
Embracing remote work signals to consumers that you’re seeking to reduce your carbon footprint. In turn, this leads to environmentally conscious buyers becoming more aware of and loyal to your brand (Thompson, 2020). One study from 2017 shows that a whopping 88% of consumers in the United States would be more loyal to a company that openly supports environmental or social justice initiatives (Cone Communications, 2017).
And this phenomenon is not limited to the US only. Nearly half of UK shoppers said they were willing to pay more for products made from recycled materials. Additionally, 59% said they would reconsider returning purchases if the environmental impact was more transparent (inRiver, 2019).
Xerox workers save 92 million miles of driving every year by working from home
Xerox started letting employees work from home over 35 years ago. Today, Xerox workers drive 92 million miles less than they would if they commuted to the office. This amount of driving would pump an extra 41,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and require a total of 4.6 million gallons of gasoline (Renolds, 2021).
All-in-all, allowing remote work options, Xerox saves over $10 million every year. In addition to the environmental and cost-saving benefits, Xerox’s vice president says that offering work from home options “help us reach and retain qualified and talented employees who play a key role in ensuring the well-being of all our stakeholders” (Onley, 2015).
Approximately 247 trillion sheets of paper are saved every year by working outside the office
Office workers waste a lot of paper. One estimate states that remote workers save 247 trillion sheets of paper every year—those who work from home use more digital documents, management systems, and e-signatures (Arun, 2021).
We had to do some math to figure out what 247 trillion sheets of paper would look like. Two hundred forty-seven trillion pages would save nearly 16.5 trillion trees. In an average forest, this would equal almost 3 million acres or 4,678 square miles.
US commercial and industrial users experienced 6-7% drop in energy consumption
In the United States, the biggest consumer of energy is the industrial sector. The industrial sector comprises equipment and facilities that power agriculture, mining, construction, and manufacturing and consumes 32% of US energy. The commercial sector comes in fourth place for energy consumption at 18% and includes offices, schools, restaurants, warehouses, and malls.
According to the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, between April and May of 2020, when working from home was at its highest, the US experienced a drop of 6-7% in energy consumption (EPIC, 2021), primarily due to a reduction in commercial and industrial power use (Citrix x Quartz Creative, 2020).
The energy consumption rate since the height of working from home has been rising but is still lower than pre-pandemic overall. The most current data from May 31st, 2021, shows an overall drop of 3.08%. Anecdotally, the two dates with the highest energy consumption were Independence Day, July 4th, 2020 (+5.45%), and Valentine’s day, February 14th, 2021 (+4.67%) (EPIC, 2021).
In the United States, there was a 67% decrease in waste production for businesses due to employees working from home.
The amount of waste that is produced by industrial and commercial businesses is hard to determine. Most corporations are not required to make those numbers available to the public. However, some estimates say the amount of garbage produced by these entities could be as high as 7.6 billion tons every year (Recover USA, 2017).
A private survey was conducted by The Environmental Research & Education Foundation and reported in Waste Advantage Magazine to get perspectives of individuals and entities that directly deal with waste management. Respondents were primarily waste haulers, consulting firms, municipalities, government agencies, and academic institutions. Their results showed a 67% decrease in waste production during the pandemic with the highest work from home rates (Waste 360, 2020).
The average worker reduces their carbon footprint by approximately 1,800 pounds by working from home.
An employee at a fully remote company specializing in social media calculated how his company’s carbon footprint would change if they changed to an onsite location. The resulting figure for an office of 90 workers in California shows a 0.9 ton reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to 1,800 pounds (Chen, 2020).
While it’s true that this is just one company, consider the fact that 98% of an on-site worker’s carbon footprint comes from a daily commute. Additionally, allowing employees to work from home 2.5 days per week produced electricity usage of 64 watts per hour, while the office used 130 watts per hour (Green Car Congress, 2008).
Between March and early June of 2020, the United States reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 15%
Transportation is the second-largest energy consumer in the US at 29% (Green Car Congress, 2008). When many USians were thrust into work from home models due to the global pandemic, fuel consumption for transportation fell by 30%. Due to the decreased demand for gasoline, sharp drop in commutes, and reduction of electricity usage, the US’s daily carbon dioxide emissions fell by an estimated 15% (Cruickshank, 2020).
New York employees gained back 15.2% of their time by not commuting
Before work from home models were widely adopted, workers in New York, NY, were spending a total of 46 hours per week getting to their job, working, then getting home. When the pandemic pushed many employees out of the office and onto their home computers, they ended up gaining back 15.2% of their time weekly. Nationally, the time gained back was 10.4% per week (CoPilot, 2020).
Regardless of a worker’s age, education, or income level, commuting to work can cause severe mental and physical health issues. Those workers with longer commutes are more likely to report recurrent pain, high cholesterol, be classified as obese, and suffer from low mood and excess worries than those with no commutes or those with a drive to work of fewer than 10 minutes (Crabtree, 2010).
Business travelers contribute approximately 50% to aviation emission
In 2020, the number of metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from aviation was predicted to be 936 million. However, due to travel restrictions during the pandemic, the actual number was approximately 495 million metric tons (Mazareanu, 2021).
The most significant amount of emissions are likely produced by only 1% of the world’s population – those that travel as part of their job. Flying in business class, first-class, or in a luxury suite increases a passenger’s carbon footprint by 5.3, 9.2, and 14.8 times, respectively (Gössling & Humpe, 2020).
Buying an existing home is more environmentally friendly than renting or building
The shift to remote work and the devaluation of urban amenities due to pandemic closures have prompted many USians to buy homes. Remote workers want more space for their home office and bigger yards for home-based activities.
Many of these new homeowners are first-time buyers or older individuals buying a second home. This has put a strain on housing markets, as the buyers aren’t leaving behind homes that can be put back on the market (Demsas, 2021).
Despite the shortage of available homes, many remote workers are still ready to take the plunge and take advantage of record-low mortgage rates. So, is it better to rent, buy an existing house, or build your dream home?
Building a new home is by far the least earth-friendly option. Clearing land, harvesting and processing raw materials, and using heavy machinery for building are much harsher on the environment than simply buying or renting an existing structure.
Whether it is better to buy or rent depends on the way you will be living. The carbon footprint could be lower than owning a home in a large rental complex with shared amenities (like pools and playgrounds) and modern, energy-efficient appliances.
However, when you own your own home, you can make decisions about things like energy and appliance choices. Having a modern, energy-efficient HVAC system and using solar energy to power your home would have less environmental impact than living in a large apartment complex without energy-efficient upgrades (Wild, 2017).
We hope you found this analysis of remote work’s impact on climate change valuable and engaging.
Our method and sources can be found here for those curious about how we came to these conclusions.
What are your thoughts on the ways working from home impacts the environment?