After eight years working on the business development team at Telus, Andrea Goertz was offered the company's real estate portfolio. She was a little ambivalent. “Facilities management” didn't sound all that sexy and a colleague put a none-too-fine point on it: “Real Estate? That's where careers go to die.”

But 28 years old, with a business degree and MBA under her belt, Goertz decided to make something of it. Telus’ nature-themed branding – snow leopards, tree frogs and squirrel monkeys – and “future is friendly” motto resonated strongly with Goertz and she wanted to see environmental leadership and accessibility reflected in the company’s bricks and mortar. She made it her mission to green Telus’ physical presence by pushing norms and where necessary, asking for forgiveness– rather than permission – along the way.

In the process, she greened the company itself.

In the decade since Goertz inherited Telus’ real estate file, the company has become Canada’s largest owner of sustainable designed LEED-certified office space. It has also become a leader in the realms of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, demonstrating that the pursuit of these goals need not involve sacrifices to the bottom line; to the contrary, the Telus case has been a win-win.

Goertz’s first project was a Telus office building in Ottawa. Eight-storeys high, it was relatively small, but as the company’s first foray into environmental design, it was a success and spurred Goertz on to set the bar higher for the next project in Toronto. While Telus’ Ottawa building earned LEED Silver certification in 2008, Telus House in Toronto took LEED Gold in 2010, laying the groundwork for the jewel in Telus’ crown: Telus Garden, the company’s newly opened corporate headquarters in Vancouver, the highest-scoring LEED Platinum office tower in Canada.

“I give Telus a great deal of credit for being one of the first corporations in Canada to really invest in green building,” says Thomas Mueller, President and CEO of Canada’s Green Building Council, which certifies LEED projects in Canada. “Telus is a leader in the communications sector. Buildings like Telus Garden send an important signal, both internally and externally. They stick around for a long time and become landmarks.”

For two years, Vancouverites watched as a nondescript city block was transformed into a 24-storey glass icon, with cantilevered boxes jutting out over Richards and Seymour streets and a street-level lobby with 300-metre arching ceilings inviting the public in to access top restaurants and shops, or to listen to the Fazioli grand piano being played by local musicians.

Telus Garden, completed in September 2015, aligns nicely with Vancouver’s stated goal of becoming the world’s greenest city by 2020 and demonstrates that energy efficient design is possible on a large corporate scale. With nearly 300 rooftop solar panels and a district energy system that captures waste heat from Telus’ nearby data centre that is used to heat and cool the tower, the building will achieve an estimated 80 per cent reduction in grid-energy consumption compared to conventional systems and a one million kilogram annual reduction in CO2 emissions.

District energy system

“Our buildings symbolize our conviction that you can’t rely on minimum standards,” says Goertz, who since 2013 has been Telus’ first ever Chief Communications and Sustainability Officer. “When it comes to being a good corporate citizen, you have to go beyond compliance and regulation.”

But what exactly is a responsible corporate citizen, and how do we know one to see one?

Sustainability experts break corporate citizenship down into a triumvirate of factors known as ESG: environmental, social and governance. According to Lorraine Smith, an independent sustainability consultant based in New York City, the most important component is also the least understood. While the public’s attention is typically focused on the first two – whether the paper is recycled or the shirt made by child labour –Smith says that without good corporate governance, nothing substantial can be achieved. Happily, she says, if there is one area in which corporate Canada excels, it is governance.

“This is the cultural headline,” says Smith, who was born and raised in Toronto. “Canadians have good instincts about the spirit of the law without needing to analyze the letter of the law – in other words, about doing the right thing, which is really what governance amounts to.”

In this sense, Telus is typically Canadian.

The most tangible expression of governance is reporting. Telus published its first corporate social responsibility report in 2000, long before this was standard practice. It measured the company’s performance across the board: from its supply chain to recycling and waste disposal, from labour standards to the diversity of its board members, and from water management to greenhouse gas emissions. Nobody asked Telus to provide this information, nor to take the additional step of having an external auditor provide what is known as “independent assurance” on the report.

“It’s a costly undertaking,” says Mike Harris, a partner at Price Waterhouse Coopers in Vancouver, which provided assurances early on. “And Telus did it entirely voluntarily, so it was pretty clear: they wanted to be at the forefront.”

Harris was also impressed by the thoroughness of the assurance Telus requested. Rather than asking auditors to check the same indicators each year, as is common, the company rotated through a long list of indicators, selecting different ones each year, and thus providing, over time, a much broader assurance than the norm.

But of course, sustainability is about more than just reporting; it has to be reflected in a company’s business performance and Harris, who himself provided some of Telus’ assurances early on, says he found the “sustainability angle” everywhere.

Beyond the environmental importance of what Telus is doing, Harris sees the company reflecting the priorities of the current generation. “Millennials want to work for purpose-led organizations,” he says. “They want to align their personal vision with their employers.”

Certainly this is reflected in job candidates at Telus. According to Sandy McIntosh, the company’s Executive Vice President of People and Culture, applicants say in interviews that one of their top three criteria when looking for an employer is the company’s “social conscience.” And once they have found a good match, employees tend to stick around.

Employee engagement at Telus is exceptionally high, sitting at 87 per cent: the top spot globally for a company of its size, according to Aon Hewitt. A major contributor to this is Work Styles, a flextime work program that Telus began to roll out in 2007 and which has not only boosted retention but also helped to further Telus’ sustainability journey.

Working remotely

It was a brave move, taken at a time when other major industry players were moving in the opposite direction. In 2013, Yahoo quietly ended its flex work policy while Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published “Lean In,” calling on women to be more, not less, present in the workplace. Meanwhile, Telus kept offering its employees greater freedom to decide when and where they worked.

They love it. Work Styles has now been adopted by 67 per cent of Telus’ 26,000 employees across Canada, and is one of the company’s main draws as an employer. It has also freed up over a million square feet in office space (translating to $40 million in savings) and eliminated an estimated 23 million kilometres of transit each year; that’s 1.4 million hours that Telus employees would otherwise have spent commuting and 6,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions avoided in 2014 alone, by leaving cars in their driveways.

Colleen Dix, in her 18th year at Telus, was a pioneer of the Work Styles program. It enabled her to continue working for Telus in Vancouver while moving with her partner to the Okanagan Valley. Today she is a member of Goertz’s team, responsible for preparing the annual sustainability report. She works from her home five hours north of Vancouver, where she grows much of her own food and tinkers with energy-saving modifications to her house.

“Telus has supported me all along,” says the 45-year old, on the phone from her home office, overlooking Lake Okanagan. “My work and my life are in harmony. I feel very fortunate.”

Dix is by no means alone. Goertz sees the positive and innovative energy at Telus flowing as much from the top down as from the bottom up. And a huge benefit of satisfied employees who respect the values of their employers, is that they want to give back.

Like many Telus employees, Audrey Bayens cannot imagine her life without Work Styles. The 55-year old marketing manager lives on a farm in Lemonville, a tiny hamlet of Stoufville, Ontario where she grows organic garlic and harnesses solar energy to sell to the grid. Three days a week, Bayens, who has been with Telus for 25 years, works from a home office on her farm. On the other two days, she takes the train 60 kilometres into downtown Toronto, to Telus House on York Street where she spends some of her time tending the company’s rooftop community garden.

In fact, the garden was Bayens’ initiative. When Telus House was complete, Bayens saw great garden potential in the catchment basins designed to capture rain water runoff from the 30-storey office tower. With Telus’ backing and the support of Renée Nadeau, a seasoned urban farmer and educator, the 500 square foot space was converted into an organic vegetable-producing garden run by Telus’ Green Team, a company-wide group of volunteers who organize everything from carpools to recycling drives.

Last year’s harvest included an array of vibrant vegetables from radishes, beets, carrots, eggplant, ground cherries and okra to lesser known medicinal herbs such as motherwort, yarrow and skullcap. The produce is sold to Telus employees, with all proceeds going to Green Thumbs for Growing Kids, a non-profit that brings food-growing programs to schools and parks in Toronto’s inner city.

As rewarding as the nearly 400 kilogram garden yield is, Bayens says it’s about a lot more than growing food: “Gardening builds community, it relieves stress, it teaches people about food and where it comes from. For many downtown dwellers, living in apartments or condos with postage stamp balconies, this is the only opportunity to do that.”

In the warmer months, the garden is a favourite spot for lunch breaks and meetings. And it has attracted outside interest, including other community garden groups, university students studying urban farming and the bees from the hives on the roof of the nearby Royal York Hotel, who happily help with pollinating.

Andrea Goertz loves the fact that “garden” is not just a metaphor at Telus and she looks forward to planting the terraces of Telus Garden in Vancouver, which will in turn, bear its first fruit. Telus Sky, a Calgary office tower slated for completion in 2017, will also have terrace gardens. But Goertz is not sitting back, content to watch Telus’ gardens grow.

She could – Telus has achieved its fair share of accolades. Corporate Knights, the Toronto-based media and research company that has been publishing rankings of Canadian companies based on their sustainability performance since 2002, continues to place Telus at the top of Canada’s telco industry; in 2015, Telus ranked fifth of all Canadian companies and 37th globally.

Toby Heaps, CEO and co-founder of Corporate Knights is impressed by Telus’ performance. “For some companies, sustainability belongs in the public relations department as a nice add-on. But for a few, like Telus, sustainability becomes part of the company’s brain. It guides policy, it sits on the executive floor. The company lives and dies by it.”

As Heaps points out, the sustainability push is far more than philanthropy. Telus’ bold buildings have become a point of pride for the company’s employees and this boosts productivity. It also gets the word out to customers and investors that Telus is serious about being a good corporate citizen, and this kind of commitment sells both telecommunications products and services, and shares.

According to a 2013 report on consumer trends by the Business Development Bank of Canada, over 80 per cent of Canadians say they are more likely to buy a product from a company that reports on its corporate social responsibility while the majority of Canadians say they take “green” factors into consideration when choosing products. On the investor side, a 2011 study by Abacus Data found that 26 per cent of Canadians consider a company’s “social responsibility” before investing in it and the market in ethical investment continues to grow; in 2013, the Royal Bank of Canada put the volume of Canadian assets being managed by responsible investment strategies at $1.01 trillion.

But Goertz is not satisfied. As the sustainability community continues to refine its metrics and raise its standards, she wants Telus to be at the forefront. So even with Telus Sky on the horizon, Goertz continues to explore and expand its investment in other sustainable innovations. Like other utilities, telcos have real estate beyond centrally located office buildings that could serve as the breeding ground for more innovative energy solutions powered by renewable sources – like wind.

“No goal is too ambitious when we consider the impact we have on generations to come. We have the opportunity and an obligation as a global society to commit to a more sustainable way of thinking when striving for deeper business impact – our children’s futures depend on it.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Naomi Buck

Freelance Journalist

Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based freelance journalist with broad international experience. She writes for a variety of Canadian magazines and newspapers including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Toronto Life and Corporate Knights and has produced pieces for CBC radio and German public broadcaster ZDF. She has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Her recent articles on environmental issues have looked at renewable energy in Israel, the fate of Ontario’s nuclear waste and Canada’s growing market in sustainable wines and beers. She has a Masters in Anthropology and two children.