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Sharing Is the Key to Scaling Sustainability

Image credit: Nike

A solid argument can be made that corporate America has made significant progress in the sustainability arena. We have our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions measured, our percentage of LEED-certified square footage is rising, our RECs and offsets are in the right place, and we’re well on our way to carbon neutrality sometime in the ‘20s.

But is it enough? If you look out past the walls of our corporate gardens, it’s a different story. It’s a hot mess out there, with rising temperatures, social and political instability, fraying ecosystems and paralyzed governments. When it comes to sustainability, companies may be doing better, but the world is falling further behind.

The truth is that creating a sustainable society on a full planet is the hardest problem humans have ever faced, and in order to succeed, the world needs more from corporations than keeping their own doorsteps clean. It needs real creativity, problem-solving skills, and an ability to scale. It needs real leaders who can maximize their contribution to solutions and share those solutions with others. To be sure, it’s a very tall and challenging order, but it’s not impossible. Here are a few companies showing us the way.

Google

Google is a leader when it comes to establishing an environmental footprint, but it also looks for opportunities to use its talents and technologies to advance sustainable solutions for others.  Google created Global Fishing Watch, which uses machine learning to transform fishery management by mapping global fishing activity. The company also recently launched the Environmental Insights Explorer, an online tool that makes it easier for cities to access climate-relevant data to set local policies and measure progress. And those ubiquitous Google Street View cars? They now collect neighborhood-level data on local air quality around the world.

Google’s approach is based on the recognition that it can’t go it alone.

“Global change requires a global response,” notes Kate Brandt, Google’s Sustainability Officer. “As we make progress at Google on our own sustainability goals, we share what we’ve learned — but we need to do more to empower more businesses, governments and policymakers to take action toward building a cleaner future.”

Nike

Nike was one of the first brands to recognize that there’s no corporate wall when it comes to sustainability. The company spent seven years developing a Sustainable Materials Index to guide its designers, and then decided to share the whole thing with the rest of the industry. It even developed a free app called Making, to make it easy for any designer to choose more sustainable materials. In the end, Nike decided that creating leverage on sustainability was more important than gaining leverage over competitors.

“It’s all part of a single strategy to change the palette of the world’s materials,” said Hannah Jones, Nike’s VP of Sustainable Business and Innovation. “If we could put information out there and empower our design community to make better choices, it would be an important lever we could pull.”

VMware

Sometimes the biggest impact you can have is helping your customers be more sustainable. VMware is a virtualization and cloud computing software provider that dramatically increases the efficiency of servers. The company has an extensive sustainability program, but its primary impact on the world is what its products enable customers to do. Customers using VMware have reduced their carbon output by 340 million metric tons — the equivalent of 43 percent of US households.

OK, so your company’s not a Google, a Nike or a VMware. That doesn’t prevent you from asking a question posed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in relation to your sustainability strategy: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

By all means, keep working toward carbon neutrality and zero waste and LEED-certified buildings. But also look around and see if you can find ways to bring others along with you — then, maybe we’ll all get there a bit sooner.


Brian Lanahan is Director of Strategy for AHA, Inc. Brian's passion is building brands around change-the-world ideas. He loves connecting new technologies to people in ways that transform markets and create a more livable world. 

[Read more about Brian Lanahan]


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