In just over two years, Jim Gowen has reduced Verizon's carbon footprint by 30 percent while increasing efficiency among its suppliers.
As chief of sustainability and vice president of supply chain operations, Gowen has helped place the broadband and telecommunications giant at the forefront of green innovation: At his behest, Verizon was the first carrier to establish energy efficiency standards for network equipment, prompting other telecom companies to follow suit.
The man Verizon calls its change agent took on his current role in 2009, when then-CEO Ivan Seidenberg asked him to combine the two positions of spearheading the company's sustainability efforts and overseeing its suppliers.
The two roles fit together well, Gowen told me, because managing the supply chain provides the perfect opportunity to put green into practice in daily operations.
"There's always been a very strong element of process efficiency, which in my opinion is really the definition of sustainability," said Gowen, who is responsible for $2.5 billion in purchases and $500 million worth of inventory each year.
He recently spoke with me about his responsibilities and the changes he's helped bring about. He also offers advice for others looking to shape their company's green goals.
GreenBiz: What was your career path leading up to this role?
Gowen: I started out in logistics in New York City for Airborne Express, now part of DHL. I came to Verizon via Nynex and Bell Atlantic.
GreenBiz: When you took over as chief sustainability officer in 2009, how far was Verizon into the sustainability process?
Gowen: Then chairman [Seidenberg] told me we're not going green for green's sake. In other words, make sure we have a [return on investment] for everything. The other thing was, everyone was doing their own flavor of green in a company with 200 000 employees. My job was to streamline the efforts. We'd had some good successes but we had yet to put it out in the open.
At that time, we were only 0.2 percent alternative fuel based. I'm embarrassed to say I was one of the problems, since I paid the fuel bills. Now we're up to 7 percent alternative fuel, with several solutions such as [compressed natural gas] and hybrid. We have 38,000 vehicles -- one of our forward looking goals is to have 15 percent of our fleet be alternative fuel based by 2015.
GreenBiz: How did you define your role as CSO when you first got the job?
Gowen: At a recent meeting, several CSOs shared our career paths. I found that we either come from an environmental background, a D.C. lobbyist type for climate change or the third common theme that I fit into -- the operations person. When our chairman decided to centralize sustainability he had a choice -- he could put it in our D.C office with the lobbyists or put it in operations with me. When I was given the responsibility, I walked out scratching my head. But my day job is to manage supply chain operations and each one of those has a significant carbon impact and an opportunity to reduce that, so that's the link with my afternoon job, which is to run corporate sustainability efforts.
We've fused the two jobs together -- as we deal with our suppliers, we're invoking change not only internally but also externally with our supplier community. So the two jobs intersect each other.
GreenBiz: How so?
Gowen: As an example, when we run our trucks, we use reusable totes instead of cardboard when we're moving our products from warehouses to our technicians.
GreenBiz: Do you have any pointers for others who want to effect change in their organizations?
Gowen: The first thing we did as a team at Verizon was to [clearly define] what we're doing today. When we created the office in 2009, we spent 6 months in base lining our activities, since we have business in 160 countries and we deal with many utilities and water companies.
So spend the time upfront to baseline what your company is doing now -- that's the only way to know where to focus and that's the only way to create impact, quickly.
The other thing is that we were strategic in our thinking, without reinventing the wheel with people and processes. The one I underestimated was our employees -- they’ve been the real change agents. We now have over 6000 green team members in several countries. This is really where it's taken off -- we really want to grow it from the ground up. We coordinate the teams and exchange green ideas, such as recycling events for e-waste.
GreenBiz: There are bound to be challenges when you implement change on such a broad scale.
Gowen: You are 150 percent correct. The big focus we've had is to ensure we’re enabling solutions across Verizon. We're doing pilots with solar and geo-thermal on the wireless side and based on those results we're trying it on the wire line side. It's a challenge to bring people in and give them credit as opposed to the CSO getting credit.
GreenBiz: Tell us about putting in place energy efficiency standards for network equipment and how that caused others in the industry to follow suit?
Gowen: This is one of the things Verizon can hang its hat on. I have 5 children under the age of 15 and they ask me what I actually do for work. I feel awesome about working for a company that provides a much-needed service. Our engineering folks have pushed the envelope on what networking equipment can do. The early adopters to sustainability were your big box retailers, because consumers were pushing them. But when you think of Verizon and our network equipment providers, since they're three levels behind [consumers], no one is pushing them. So we pushed them and once our suppliers adopted it, it's become the new norm in the industry.
GreenBiz: Where did the 30 percent reduction in your carbon footprint come from?
Gowen: We've set the goal of reducing our carbon footprint by 50 percent by 2020. When we baselined, we found what we're missing is a comprehensive goal. Instead of looking at just energy, we took a different approach, we looked at everything through data throughput. We run more than a 100 EnergyStar certified wireless stores, more than 60 [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified buildings, so we got energy reduction that way. With Verizon technology we've made our buildings smart buildings. Then we looked at our fleet and effected route optimization with our technology -- you know, you have to eat your own dog food. So the reduction came from across many areas.
Next page: Greening the supply chain