"Chief Sustainability Officers:' The New Corporate Stewards of the Environment

Eliot Abel

As corporations around the world implement sustainability practices, they have restructured their operational flow chart to make space for the increasingly popular position of “Chief Sustainability Officer.” VerdeXchange News is pleased to present the following panel from the GreenXchange Conference entitled “The New Corporate Stewards of the Environment: Chief Sustainability Officers,” including Robyn Beavers, director of sustainability, Google, Inc.; Roberto Muñoz, director of neighborhood empowerment, Fresh & Easy; Rachel Webber, director of energy initiatives, News Corp.; and Eliot Abel, sustainability programs manager, G24i.

Robyn Beavers: A year ago, it would be weird to hear a company talk about how it has people spending time worrying about renewable energy, energy efficiency, organic foods, or clean transportation. But now it’s actually commonplace, not just for Google, but for many companies across many types of industries to be worrying about these types of issues. It has led to the emergence of the role of what David Abel has called a “chief sustainability officer.” We all have very different titles, but we’re all trying to do the same thing: find the relevant and appropriate ways for our companies to shift to a more sustainable role. We all have different approaches, because you really need to match it with the core values of the company and what matters most. All of us are here trying to make it a more profitable, successful endeavor for our companies. Today we’re going to showcase a few examples of the individuals who are really working hard to make this happen. I emphasize “individuals” because we are all on very small teams, or on teams of just ourselves, and it’s really been a grassroots approach...

Roberto Muñoz: Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market is a part of Tesco, a U.K.-based company, the third-largest retailer in the world, and the number one retailer in the U.K. We do non-foods as well as groceries. We operate in 13 countries. We have about 400,000 employees and about 3,200 stores.

It is possible to make a huge difference just by thinking a couple minutes longer abut something, which is a victory of all of us. That’s something that Tesco, our parent company really started getting into when they realized that our stores were using a whole lot of energy. And a whole lot of energy means a whole lot of customers. We find smart ways to be efficient—to make sure that in refrigeration, we’re reusing the coolant that is coming outside of it. It starts to add up. Our company’s motto is, “Every little helps.” “Little” changes make big differences.

We had the awesome opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper when we came to the U.S. We had formats of stores throughout the U.K. and the world that we could borrow and use here. Tesco kind of stumbled into the energy game in the ‘90s when energy costs were rising quickly. That’s when we started to get on the front end of the boat.

We’re a thought leader in the world in what we’re doing with sustainability. That’s not just in energy efficient buildings, but also in the way we build our stores, as neighborhood markets. On that scale we’re, talking about how to actually bring people back to the communities by not building huge stores where people have to come from miles and miles away. The model we have is that a store sustains about one to two miles around. You go into highly populated areas, you have lots and lots of little stores, energy efficient stores, and by making that the model, we are energy efficient just by the way we built the brand and the company.

We joined the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design...Instead of us just jumping up and down and saying that we’ve done such a good job with our buildings, we got appraised at the Gold standard to say that we’ve done it...

We have a centralized distribution center in Riverside, CA so we can make more environmentally friendly, less frequent trips to our stores to supply the stores that we operate. We have reverse logistics, which means that everything that goes into the store must come out. So all of our display-ready packaging is either reusable or recycled. We have a world-class UV radiation system that means whatever cannot be recycled can be reused. It goes through the UV rays and can actually be sanitized so it can be reused. All the flower pallets use reusable plastics; all the pallets come back through the distribution center.

I always say that empowering customers is the most important thing we can do in the company, because, really, we can do all the green initiatives until we’re blue in the face at our corporate office—we can make the most environmentally friendly trailers and the most environmentally friendly buildings, but we are an education tool for millions and millions of people who are coming in and touching our store, living our store, and buying our products and taking them home. We ultimately have a responsibility, and we’re taking that responsibility on in order to start to educate people and to become a thought leader in touching these people’s lives, because if every person does a couple of little things, the amount of work that we can do as a company is enormous.

We’ve also joined the California Climate Action Registry, which is a way for us to voluntarily disclose our greenhouse gas emissions, because we want to be open about who we are and what we’re doing, and the only way we can learn how to reduce our emissions is to know what we have.

Our Riverside distribution center is 88 acres large. This serves all of our stores in the Phoenix, Vegas, and the Southern California areas. We have the largest roof-mounted solar panel installation center in California on top our Riverside distribution center, which is 500,000 square feet. It was a $13 million investment for our company. It powers about 20 percent of our building. This was a large initiative, which was installed by Solar Integrated...

Tesco has ring-fenced £100 million fund, which is for low-carbon technology that is not yet necessarily economically viable. We have opportunities to do things that don’t have necessarily have the best return. But as a thought leader, we have to take risks sometimes, and sometimes those risks have great rewards and sometimes they don’t, but we can help other people learn from them. By doing this, we give ourselves some flexibility to go out there and do something innovative and really push the envelope.

We also have the Greener Living website, which gives ideas to people, empowering our customers to make greener decisions.
We’ve also started the Sustainable Consumption Institute (SCI) with Manchester University in the U.K. Its objective is to deliver concrete, pragmatic research that will help customers, business, and government take action on climate change. We want to put our money where our mouth is and actually get a university behind us that has some credence and credibility. Then we can actually start to use our thought leadership in this process as an opportunity to help other people. We’re very open, and we share everything we learn through SCI with the general public, because by partnering with other businesses and competitors—with government relations through the university—we can actually start to push the envelope and build dialogue through the institute...

Rachel Webber
Rachel Webber
Rachel Webber: I want to give you a brief overview of News Corp.’s approach to building leadership experience on energy, climate change, and environmental thinking at this company. At many organizations today, there’s a new approach for how to weave this issue in. At News Corp., our energy initiative was born out of business development, and I point that out because it says a lot about the drive, the motivation, and how the organization is going to continue to make it successful, day in and day out. Traditionally within companies, the issue of the environment has been seen as solely a corporate social responsibility or solely a corporate giving issue. I think it’s very important within News Corp. to demonstrate that this is about strengthening who we are as a media company. News Corp. entered this space about a year ago. There were, obviously, other media companies getting active, but I think all of us were grappling with what’s the fit for a media company to be active on energy and climate change. We’re not an airline, we’re not a big energy company; but when you check under the hood, we are using a lot of energy. We’re publishing newspapers, and we’re producing television and film content around the world....

...News Corp. is a highly decentralized business. We have operations all over the world. I think we recognized on day one that if this was going to fit at the company, it had to be owned locally. What’s going to happen on the Fox lot in L.A. is going to be very different from what happens in London or in Hong Kong. I think it had to be woven into the unique culture at each company, both as an employee engagement tool and in the first steps to reducing our impact in those places. We knew that it had to be owned locally in order to be successful.

Our best ideas were coming from people on the ground at those operations. One of the ways we tried to make that happen was by meeting with the CEO of each business unit and asking for an energy team leader to be appointed at that business. In some cases, the person that was appointed was the CFO; others appointed the chief marketing officer; in other cases, it was the executive assistant to the CEO; in other cases, it was the head of facilities. It didn’t matter very much who was appointed; what mattered the most was that they were within the organization; they knew how to get things done; they knew whom to talk to, they knew how to build a team around them, and they understood the operations from the inside out.

We started work on the initiative a little over a year ago...We have a permanent commitment to transforming the way we use energy. And we also felt that, as a media company, if we were ultimately going to be engaging with audiences on these issues in appropriate ways, then we had to demonstrate that we were doing something internally, as well.

I think one of the key questions that comes up on energy leadership, both for our very small corporate department on energy, and for all the various teams and people working on it is, what does success look like? How do you define what a big win is? It’s a hybrid of things within each business. Is it a comprehensive study of our carbon footprint every year? A big, substantive energy reduction, a lighting retrofit, a biodiesel generator, replacing a fleet of cars with hybrid models? Another piece of it is rolling out a hybrid incentive for employees and judging the excitement levels the employees are bringing to the issue and how they’re engaging with this, both in their work lives and in their home lives. One of the challenges is defining those successes and bringing a certain metric to each operation on how they can understand the actions that they’ve taken in the energy space...Energy efficiency, if it’s going to be successful in News Corp., will be about making every decision with an energy consideration. No matter who you are at the business, success on a corporate level is defined by how can we make everyone aware of the energy considerations.

Eliot Abel
Eliot Abel
Eliot Abel: ...Today, over 2 billion people in the world have no access to energy. Where the electricity doesn’t exist happens to be where the greatest solar resource is. Our initial market to develop solar technology is in developing areas.

Our technology is thin-film. It’s thin, it’s flexible, and we are focused on providing high-tech solutions based on dye-sensitized thin film for developing countries and emerging markets. Because it’s thin and flexible, it can be integrated into a whole range of products, from powering mobile telephones and laptops to water purification and LED lighting systems—which is particularly crucial in the developing world—to portable tent structures to building-integrated photovoltaics.

Our solar fabrication plant is based in Cardiff, Wales—we’re a U.K.-based company. We took over an old computer manufacturing plant that was abandoned when they moved their operations to Asia. We took over an existing facility; we didn’t have the luxury of building from the ground up, so we couldn’t design green and sustainability elements into the building from day one. We had to work with what was already there.

From day one, we’ve been committed to sustainability both in the product that we make and in the way we make that product. Our technology is silicon-free; what that means in terms of energy is that it’s a much less energy-intensive process. It’s very thin, very flexible, and it isn’t energy-intensive to make.

So we started off from a better point in terms of energy use, and we wanted to go a step further...We wanted to put renewable energy onto our site so we could be the first company to make renewable energy products using entirely renewable energy. It doesn’t make much sense if you’re making silicon solar panels and the power that’s going to your plant in the first place is from coal-fired power plants, and it takes six years of the panel being on your roof to pay back the energy that was used to produce it in the first place. When we looked at the resource we could use, it was not the sun. Unlike Mountain View, California, we do not get much sun in Cardiff, Wales. Katie Couric described it as “the gloomiest place on earth.” But we have a lot of wind, so we started early on looking for how we could put a wind turbine on our site to generate electricity for our factory to produce these solar panels.

The wind turbine is a big one. It’s a 2.5-megawatt turbine. It’s just under 500 feet tall. It would be the largest wind turbine in the U.K., installed in our front parking lot, which we certainly think will make it easier to find us.

There are a lot of reasons why we want to put it on our site. The obvious one is that that’s where the power is needed, and we want to show what we’re doing as a real demonstration of the full circle of producing electricity to use for a product that is sent out across the world to provide clean energy to a range of people in a range of different applications. We had a great connection that was suitable on our site, which gives a huge benefit. Rather than having to transfer electricity long distance, losing electricity in the transmission, we have it right there, where it’s needed. Also, the site is already developed. We’re talking about putting the wind turbine in a parking lot rather than putting it on top of a mountain or a hillside, a long distance away, and cabling to it from there...

...We are currently in the final stage of our planning process; hopefully, in six weeks, we’ll have permission to put this turbine in. Hopefully, it will be up and running in the summer of 2008...

...Finally, there are some big challenges to going green as a start-up company. One is money. As a pre-revenue company, it is a bit challenging to stomach the cost of going through all the studies that you need to do to site a giant wind turbine and then ultimately buying that wind turbine and installing it—it can be a challenge. It can be a challenge to convince people to spend money on that when there are so many other things we could be spending money on, as well. There are certainly initiatives that we’ve done that don’t require any cost and do a tremendous deal to increase energy efficiency.

Lastly, it’s time. As a start-up company, we move quickly. We try to move as fast as we can, and others don’t always want to move as quickly as we do, especially planning offices and assembly governments and those that have to stick their necks out there and actually make the decision when we apply for a permit for a 500-foot wind turbine. But we are working together, and there is a lot of buy-in across all the sectors on this project. •••

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