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September 27 2019

How Law is 'Going Green': One firms' push towards sustainability

Industry Insights

Harry Coates

Harry Coates

How Law is 'Going Green': One firms' push towards sustainability

Quite rightly discussions about our fragile planet and environment are at the forefront of social policy. As individuals, companies and governments cotton on to the overwhelming severity of the situation, Harry sat down with Fiona Nicholls, Gowling’s Head of Environment, to discuss their Planet + initiative.


Why is sustainability and the environment of such importance to Gowling WLG?

The firm started taking action on waste and carbon many years ago, tackling paper and measuring/offsetting carbon first, whilst also exploring what it means to be green and truly mean it . It's now an ever growing part of just who we are.  There is also a growing interest from our clients who are asking increasingly sophisticated questions around our carbon footprint, policy and processes amongst other things.  Our long time interest means we can respond to these extremely positively and with plenty of evidence of action.  The environmental programme was stepped up formally by adopting international standards ISO14001 (environmental management) in 2013 and ISO 50001 (energy) in 2015, and by appointing a dedicated environmental specialist to take things to another level. 


How does a firm like Gowling WLG impact the environment?

Our key impacts arise from the use of energy in our buildings, business travel and the things we buy, much like most other office based professional business.   These activities generate carbon emissions and other pollutants, waste that can be hazardous if not managed correctly and use up valuable natural finite resources such as fossil fuels. Our direct impacts are modest when compared to the collective impact of our suppliers.  Although we can't direct control them, we have a real opportunity to positively impact the environment through influence on our whole value chain, from suppliers right through to clients.  This is reflected in our environmental policy (a.k.a. the PLANET+ commitment). 


You have set some pretty ambitious targets in your Planet + environmental statement, could you explain a bit more about them?

The scale of the impact on our planet is huge and the goals reflect the challenge and the science behind it.  Businesses must play their fair role in fixing the problem so setting goals that are less than this is not an option. To achieve zero carbon and waste (100% recycling or reuse), even with the long term goal of 2030, will take a team spirit and extraordinary people and we have these in bucket loads. Of course, achieving them is dependent on other factors, some out of our control such as technological innovation and government policy, but the goals are in place to set the bar high.


Our clients, in increasing numbers, are asking sophisticated questions about our environmental practice and what we're doing about impacts, and we are well placed to respond.  We are extremely proud to have been awarded the contract as sole and official legal advisors to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. An element of the successful bid related to environmental added value of what is being touted as the sustainable games.  It's truly exciting and humbling to be able to add our voice to this.


What practical steps are you taking to achieve these goals?

So far, we have set a target to reduce building energy by 20% by 2020 (on 2015/16 baseline) and have already nearly got there, a year ahead of schedule.  Our carbon footprint has been falling since this time too.  Flights in a global law firm present hurdles with respect to carbon emissions but we are looking at this too, making the most of video conferencing technology,  reducing miles travelled and raising awareness of the issues.  In the meanwhile, and whilst we and the rest of the world grapples with aviation impacts, we are compensating for flight carbon by offsetting emissions using a Gold Standard supplier Carbon Neutral®  to support overseas renewable energy projects.  Offsetting is not a solution but until we have the answers, it certainly helps.  We are proud that all our copy paper is made from recycled paper, and waste paper from our London office goes to the factory that makes it. Digitalising and innovating processes is reducing paper demand, which is ultimately what we are aiming to achieve.  We have spent a lot of time working out how best to segregate the waste so it can be recycled easily by our colleagues, as well as the companies that convert it to new products.  Recently, we invested in recycling stations that support separation into 6 different waste streams. We plant trees for all newcomers and have done for over 10 years, contributing over 1000 saplings via the Woodland Trust to date. 


We are building know-how across the firm, including amongst our legal teams so they are better able to share ideas and solutions with clients, suppliers and each other.  We have a leading top tier legal 500 environmental legal services team too, offering a full suite of support on matters relating to climate change, regulatory compliance, pollution, land remediation and more.   Our Procurement Team has sustainability firmly on the agenda screening suppliers, partnering for innovation (including on the  environment) and sourcing from social enterprise just a small selection of practice underway.      


This is just a sample of what we're doing, there are currently 21 objectives cutting across the PLANET+ goals. We will be doing much more and the PLANET+ team are currently developing plans for the second phase of our strategy for 2020 to 2023. The new Phase will include a broadening of reach to consider wider impacts, and also more focus on suppliers and clients. We have already progressed in these areas so the foundations are in place to. To top it off our executive leadership team are fully on board too, and our General Counsel, Mary Mackintosh, is the firm's environment Board sponsor, chairing PLANET+ meetings, championing projects and sharing concerns at the highest level among other things.


How can employees at Gowling WLG get involved?

As a starting point we have our PLANET+ Ambassadors, which are a team leading the way on behalf of service areas around the firm.  Many of the improvements are being done behind the scenes, using innovation (e.g. sophisticated lighting, building management system etc), and of course we encourage everyone to reduce waste, switch off and recycle.  We have had a bright ideas competition offering a refurbished Elephant Bike as a prize, which generated over 60 idea to support environmental goals. We have had two photography competitions with environmental themes and that have generated gorgeous images, celebrated with a calendar for clients and colleagues, and of course printed with the environment in mind through leading sustainable printers Seacourt.  There is an open door policy on ideas, and green prizes for those taken forward too.   Making the environment part of everything we do and everyone's job is our ultimate aim, at which point my environment lead position in Gowling WLG UK will gladly become redundant!