How Etsy Built The Greenest Office Space In Tech

The company just scored a Petal certification from the Living Building Challenge. Next on the agenda: achieving zero waste by 2020—and maybe convincing other tech companies to follow its lead.

Source: Fast Company, Pavithra Mohan
Photo: Emily Andrews

When Etsy went public in 2015, it was the largest B Corporation ever to do so—and only the second in history. The handmade goods marketplace has since retained its B Corp status, which means it’s beholden to the nonprofit B Lab’s strict guidelines for social and environmental responsibility. Of course, this comes as little surprise from a company that counts among its values being a “mindful, transparent, and humane business.”

Now, in keeping with another Etsy value—sustainability—the company is snapping up a new bragging right: the greenest office space in tech. When Etsy first built its sprawling headquarters in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, it did so with the intent of meeting Petal Certification through the Living Building Challenge, a green building certification program that is more stringent than the more recognizable LEED rating system. Etsy has now done just that, making it the first tech company to get such a certification—and the first to actively pursue it, according to Etsy’s head of sustainability, Devon Leahy.

Created by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge outlines seven Petals, or performance areas. Etsy tackled the Materials Petal, which Leahy describes as “the responsible sourcing of materials that come into the space.” She claims it is one of the most difficult to achieve.

For Etsy, that meant using reclaimed wood and screening more than 1,500 items in the office (everything from paints and adhesives to the heavy metals in A/V equipment) to ensure they didn’t contain chemicals on the “Red List,” which Leahy says are considered the most toxic to humans and the environment. The Materials Petal also required local sourcing, something Etsy’s office has in spades, between the myriad art installations and handmade furniture pieces that pepper the space.

As the largest building to receive Petal certification, Etsy’s office joins a list of just 56 buildings the world over that have been recognized and certified by the Living Building Challenge. (About 365 buildings are registered, which means they are being evaluated for certification.) After all, it requires forethought and patience, and some Petals can be impossible to pursue depending on the building site; Etsy was unable to attempt net-zero energy and water due to the space and location in Brooklyn.

But Etsy has other plans to reduce its footprint. Today’s announcement also includes its commitment to running zero waste operations by 2020—across Etsy’s 10 offices globally—and decreasing the absolute weight of its waste by 10%. “Zero waste is defined in the industry as achieving a greater than 90% diversion from landfill,” Leahy says. “In 2016 we hit an 84% diversion rate, which actually sounds closer to zero waste than it is. The last 5% to 10% is really the hardest part.”

That forces Etsy to think about the potential waste created by every single item that finds its way into the office. “If we’re bringing in bags of chips, we need a solution to divert those from landfill,” Leahy says.

To reduce food waste, Etsy has tried to move away from individually wrapped snacks and cut back on plastic wrapping or other packaging—for example, by sourcing cheese and beef jerky locally and buying in bulk.

All this isn’t possible without educating employees, so the onboarding process for new hires includes a tutorial on how to get rid of waste. “No one has an individual recycling bin or waste bin at their desk,” Leahy says. Instead, Etsy’s headquarters have three “material resource recovery stations” on each floor, according to Leahy. (That’s Etsy for trash-sorting stations.) Employees can also bring electronic waste and plastic packaging to the office for upcycling and donation. Leahy points out that this is a savvy business decision as well, given that the price of hauling waste has increased.

Etsy’s hope is to also educate companies that have been slower to adopt sustainable measures. And what better way to lure them in than with technology? To weigh and track its waste internally, Etsy developed a platform called DIVERTsy; starting today, DIVERTsy will be open-sourced and available to anyone who wishes to use it.

“This was a hardware-software combo solution to a challenge that we had,” Leahy said. “You don’t need to have crazy infrastructure or be a large company in order to use it.”
Perhaps other companies will look upon waste reduction and sustainable building as a source of innovation, as Etsy has. According to Leahy, some companies have already expressed an interest in pursuing the Living Building certification, and Etsy is conducting a DIVERTsy pilot with a handful of organizations. “Etsy may not be the larger tech company, but we definitely feel like through this project we’re able to impact our peers and our neighbors in New York,” Leahy said.

This story has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the number of buildings recognized and certified by the Living Building Challenge.


Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.