The Last Word: Leisha John, CPA

Americas Director of Environmental Sustainability, Ernst & Young LLP
Dec 1, 2011 9:00 AM ET
Leisha John participating in an environmental cleanup as part of EY Connect Day

The Last Word: Leisha John, CPA, Americas Director of Environmental Sustainabil…

Journal of Accountancy, December 2011

I grew up in Montana and moved to Alaska when I first got out of college and joined Ernst & Young. Being rooted in these majestic environments and surrounded by the very best of Mother Nature, it hit home with me that we need to take care of our depleting resources.

Since 2001, Ernst & Young has had its EcoCare program in place, a grass-roots network of more than 1,000 employee volunteers who are doing things to be more sustainable locally.

  I am the clearinghouse for ideas about what we could do in our offices to be more sustainable—and what we can do to raise employee awareness. I work closely with our national infrastructure groups, including real estate, facilities, IT and procurement. A lot of what they do trickles down to the local offices.   Our ongoing program with Earthwatch, in which we send teams of our best and brightest young people to Central and South America for one week each year for volunteer projects, is part of employee engagement. These initiatives combine scientific field research and skills-based volunteerism—all centered around climate change and sustainability issues. Our people, after they go on these expeditions, have a much greater appreciation for the relationship between the environment and business. This experience helps inform the discussions they have with clients about embedding sustainability into their business strategies, and it also helps them make big changes in their personal lives. In addition to working in Costa Rica, in the past year we had our first expedition to Brazil.   Being a CPA, gathering metrics is a favorite part of my job. Our most important achievement over the past two years is the reduction of our carbon footprint by 21%. Our carbon footprint is mainly energy consumption in our offices as well as business travel. In addition, I’m especially proud of a huge leap that we made in securing green office space. By 2012, 50% of our square footage in the United States will be in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified buildings. We have done a lot of work at our headquarters in New York City, including retrofitting 15,000 light fixtures to make them more energy efficient. In that same building, we are composting in our café, and we have secured green power in the form of Renewable Energy Certificates.   We also track savings. In our key meetings across the U.S., we eliminate waste through a variety of efforts. For example, we eliminate bottled water and batch transportation, using vans and buses instead of taxis. Those two steps alone have saved significant money. But what’s great is that they also help mitigate our environmental footprint. We also started an initiative on Earth Day a few years ago called “Refill, not Landfill,” asking employees to bring their own mugs and water bottles to work. Every year, we save about 1.5 million coffee cups from going into the landfill. What I love about these initiatives is that they work for small and medium-size accounting firms, as well as large ones.   Prior to taking on this role, I spent four years with Ernst & Young in India. What that taught me is that virtually everything can be repaired, reused or repurposed. One of my favorite sayings is that recycling is really a last resort—a failure to reduce or reuse. Changing basic behaviors—not printing unless you have to and reusing your coffee cup—are among the most important things we can do.   I practice what I preach. I do a lot of my work through email and video conferencing rather than traveling so that I keep down my carbon footprint. I also try to live a very green lifestyle. I share a hybrid car with my husband. At home in Florida, we compost and participate in community-supported agriculture and use drought-tolerant plants in our landscaping. Right now, we are working toward becoming a zero-waste household and embracing a plant-based diet. We are close to achieving both of those goals.   Nearly every day of the year, I wear green nail polish. I really like the color, but it also is a great conversation starter. Whether I’m sitting on an airplane or getting on an elevator, somebody always remarks about the color. Right away, it enables me to start a conversation around the fact that I have a green job and what sustainability means. It’s a great way to spread the word.   —As told to Gary James, ( a freelance writer from Chapel Hill, N.C.   EY19215