The winners of Sustainable Pittsburgh's Green Workplace Challenge, Courtesy Sustainable Pittsburgh.

The employers highlighted by Sustainable Pittsburgh‘s Green Workplace Challenge are varied; some are small companies, some are universities, some are municipalities. But the small steps each employer took to make their workplaces greener can add up to a serious impact.

The friendly competition, now in its third year, ran from October 2014 for a full year and encouraged companies in the Greater Pittsburgh area to earn points in the competition by taking “green actions,” which ranged from using more energy-efficient light bulbs to encouraging carpooling. Each action was assigned a certain number of points, and everything, even the smallest act, could be counted toward the companies’ totals. In some instances, only a few points separated first place winners from runners-up.

So how did the companies do it? We asked some of the winners in the challenge for the secrets to their success. Most said it motivated their companies to buckle down on initiatives that were already in place, or that fit with the company culture.

For Highmark, which was the large business category winner, its 1,003 points came from a variety of departments, says Phyllis Barber, sustainability manager. “It helped us keep track of what we were already doing, and employees were quick to respond when we shared some of our early results with them,” Barber says. “Once you start it’s easy to build momentum.” Adding a competitive aspect helped motivate employees to get involved as well, she adds.

The company put a focus on energy conservation, including installing LED lighting at its corporate headquarters, and encouraged employees to do small things like shut off lights. The company also added to what Barber says was a bike-friendly workplace, by offering secure bike parking in its garages. It also held its annual Honeybee Awareness Day in August, serving honey-based food items in its cafeteria.

For micro business category winner Pashek Associates, vice president of sustainability Sara Thompson says the company paid more attention to the things it was buying. For instance, the landscape architecture firm started using chlorine-free paper and paper towels, installed motion sensors in lighting around the office, and used a Speck air quality monitor as well.

“And though we’ve had a fleet of office bikes since 2011, we’ve upgraded our bike storage area with a bike pump and tools for a quick tune-up,” Thompson adds.

Architecture and planning firm evolveEA, the small business category winner, found the challenge in keeping with its mission, says spokesman Daniel Klein.

“Because environmental sustainability is at the core of who we are and what we do every day, the Green Workplace Challenge was a natural fit for us to be able to practice what we preach,” he says. The competition helped the company hone its best practices, which include allowing staff to work remotely, and a recycling and composting program.

The micro nonprofit winner was Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), which also has a focus on environmental issues as part of its identity. Jamin Bogi, GASP’s policy and outreach coordinator, says he personally spent a lot of time trying to find small fixes around the GASP offices to save energy, including sealing cracks in the air ducts with foil tape and caulking windows. The organization installed a ductless HVAC system which saved both energy and money, Bogi says.

“A great part about the GWC is that not only did we save lots of money in the short term, those improvements will save that property money for decades,” he adds.

For  GTECH Strategies, which was the small nonprofit winner, the competition encouraged the company and individual employees to get serious about reducing environmental impact, says spokeswoman Kristen Matthews. The company installed solar panels, and encouraged employees to rethink their modes of transportation, she says, and their “Green Team” highlighted the company’s ongoing Green Workplace Challenge activities on its blog.

Other category winners in the challenge included:

  • Medium Nonprofit Category Winner – Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh – 743 points
  • University Category Winner: University of Pittsburgh – 770 points
  • Small Municipality/Local Government winner: Monaca Borough – 310 points
  • Large Municipality/Local Government winner: Allegheny County – 1,353 points
  • Medium Business Category Winner: The Mall at Robinson – 507 points

All winners received special awards made from reclaimed materials, produced by partners through the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse.

According to Sustainable Pittsburgh, all of the active Green Workplace Challenge competitors combined saved enough energy to power 1,541 average U.S. homes for a year.

“The organizations that have participated in the Green Workplace Challenge once again illustrate that each action to save resources contributes to a larger effort that makes a significant impact,” Matt Mehalik, program director for Sustainable Pittsburgh, said in a statement. “Our region moves along towards a more sustainable path with each and every effort. Taking green, sustainable actions in the workplace indeed make an important difference.”

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.