Lock, Stock and Barrel: retrofitting our office storage to minimise our environmental impact

Setting the scene

Recent reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that we have less than twelve years to reverse greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the catastrophic impacts of runaway climate change. Meanwhile,  WWF’s 2018 Living Planet report and the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization state that action is needed urgently to prevent the ‘collapse’ of nature, which is under threat as humans encroach on natural habitats to meet the needs of our economy and lifestyles. This includes the use of more and more land to source or produce materials.

The circular economy, however, sets out a set of principles that help us address these impacts - doing more with less, by keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible, and reducing, reusing and recycling them wherever possible. These concepts minimise the carbon, water and material footprint of the goods we use, and reduce pressure on natural habitats.

At PwC, we’ve been applying these principles for over ten years, as part of our ‘Going Circular’ programme. We’ve been ‘zero to landfill’ since 2012, choosing to segregate and recycle as much of our daily waste as possible, including paper, plastic, and food waste. We send anything that can’t be recycled to incinerators that can capture the energy produced and use it to generate electricity.

We’ve also chosen to reuse and remanufacture a lot of the furniture in our offices, in line with our commitment to reduce our carbon footprint, as well as minimise operational costs. Furniture often uses a lot of wood, plastic or metal, and reuse can eliminate a large part of the environmental impacts. So, we’ve previously remanufactured hundreds of old task chairs, as described by the story about ‘Sitting Pretty’ on page 11 of our Going Circular Lessons Learned report, and we’ve also remanufactured desks, for ourselves or for charities.

But we thought we could do more.

Pre-refurbishment: Long cabinets, previously provided storage for filing documents in drawers

Post retrofit: Now, banks of lockers with colourful graphics and up-to-date finishings provide lockable employee storage

What we did

In 2018, as part of a project to ‘Reimagine [our] London’ offices, to make better use of our space and to move to more flexible working models, we decided to halve the storage allocated to each person. We’d been moving towards more digitisation of documents for a while, securely storing them electronically, instead of keeping paper copies, so people no longer needed physical filing cabinets.  

We decided to replace the old, large ‘drawer’ filing cabinets with banks of lockers, where our people can keep any items they need at the office. Importantly, these lockers are no longer located underneath the desks, but in a separate area, freeing up working spaces to be used by anyone, as part of our flexible working policy. And, with circular economy principles in mind, instead of just throwing away the old units and buying new ones, we worked with furniture company KI to convert them sustainably. We kept the outer metal carcasses, and slotted in new, smaller lockers, as well as applying attractive graphics on the front and - in some instances - adding veneer casing on the tops and sides to give the units a more contemporary look in line with the latest office design trends.

In total, over 2,200 filing units were removed from the offices in weekly phases, and shipped just 50 miles back to the factory in Suffolk over an eight month period. Each week, between 50-150 units were carefully stripped of all internal components. The slotted shelves and drawer runners were refurbished and used on other KI storage projects, and other components were sent off so the material in them could be recycled. Meanwhile, the outer shells were checked, cleaned and prepared to receive new internal partitioning and locker doors.

The refurbishment took around five days for each batch, plus the time of transportation to and from the factory. Fully loaded vehicles delivered the old drawer units to KI, and were reloaded with finished, refurbished locker units to take back to PwC. This minimised the environmental footprint of the transport, and care was taken to recycle any packaging used to protect them in transit. Once completed and installed, the newly refurbished units were issued with a 25-year warranty, extending their useful life.

Making a difference

Retrofitting our old filing cabinets into lockers had multiple benefits, and contributed to several of the global goals.

First, we were able to reuse around 50% of the materials in the original cabinets, whilst new components were made of materials that are 67% recycled content - in line with Responsible Consumption and Production principles. A total of 71 tonnes of steel storage was retained via our refurbishment, obviating the need for virgin metal and reducing our carbon, water and land-use footprint, thereby minimising our negatives impacts.

Refurbishing the storage in this way was also more economical than buying new units, with savings of up to 40%, depending on volumes and transportation arrangements.

Moreover, converting our old filing cabinets into smaller lockers, has been key to accommodating many more people in our buildings, where we now use only 6.1 square metres per person. This has helped us to drive down the energy needed to heat, light and power our offices - cutting both costs and carbon. In 2022, our total scope 1, 2 and 3 reported carbon footprint was 83% lower than in 2007, our baseline year - surpassing our 2022 target to cut our absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 40%.

“PwC is at the cutting edge of circular practices, and the first company to do a project of this kind. We really hope it will inspire many more to follow suit.”

Jonathan Hindle, Group Managing Director – EMEA, KI and Chairman, British Furniture Confederation

“Working with KI Europe on this was an exciting extension of our other, long-standing furniture remanufacturing projects, such as our task chairs and desks. With action to tackle climate change now so urgent, reusing materials in this way is an easy and practical step which delivers both environmentally and financially.”

Bridget Jackson, Chief Sustainability Officer, PwC UK

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Marissa Thomas

Marissa Thomas

Managing Partner & Chief Operating Officer, PwC United Kingdom

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