Why 2degrees became the hotspot for sustainability professionals

Two Steps Forward

Why 2degrees became the hotspot for sustainability professionals

One hard reality of corporate sustainability professionals is working alone. In most companies, sustainability departments — whatever they’re called — consist of armies of one or three or seven hardworking souls. They have tiny budgets and few human resources, but huge mandates and aggressive targets.

And each is, in some way or another, inventing a wheel. They’re crafting an energy-efficiency or carbon-reduction plan, a scheme to reduce solid waste or toxics, a campaign to engage employees or purchase greener products, an effort to amass and analyze data on global operations to create internal or external reports.

That is to say, they’re doing pretty much the same thing their counterparts at thousands of other companies are doing. More than likely, they’re figuring it out on their own. There are no textbooks and relatively few places you can go for expert help on these matters.

The idea of creating a trusted online network of fellow travelers, allowing them to ask questions and share what they’ve learned, has eluded a number of technology and media companies -- including mine. But a U.K. company has found the formula, building the world's largest online community of sustainability professionals “working together to drive efficiency and growth through being more sustainable.”

2degrees, the brainchild of Martin Chilcott and James Tarin, the company’s CEO and COO, respectively, was founded in Oxford, England, in 2008. (The name comes from Chilcott’s belief that there are only 2 degrees of separation “between you and the information you need,” although it has nice overtones of climate science). And while the company’s platform and business model has been tweaked a few times -- what startup’s hasn't? -- its North Star has remained consistent: to create a collaborative community, online and off, of sustainability professionals working to solve problems in their companies and value chains.

Today, that community numbers about 30,000 members from 100 countries, and grows by about 800 new members a month. That would appear to be the lion’s share of professionals working in this field, but 2degrees has bold ambitions to grow much bigger.

I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the community in recent months (albeit more as a lurker than active conversationalist) and to talk to its executives. What it has created is an impressive combination of technology and community building that has been sorely needed in the corporate-sustainability space.

The 2degrees platform is essentially divided into two parts: a free, membership-based community of practitioners looking to share information; and a private, managed platform that enables large corporations to work more efficiently with suppliers, customers and colleagues. Corporate clients include Tesco, Asda-Walmart, Glaxo-SmithKline and Kingfisher.

On the public side are more than 30 “working groups” -- communities of interest on everything from smart grid to health care. Some boast large membership: the Supply Chain group has about 5,700 members, as does the Energy & Carbon Management group; other popular groups include Managing Sustainability, Built Environment, Employee Engagement and Waste Management. At the other end of the spectrum is Small Business, whose three dozen or so members make it -- well, one of the smallest groups, even though 2degrees has a large membership of smaller firms. (To be fair, the Small Business group is one of 2degrees' newest.)

Like all such groups, the conversation varies widely, both in quality and quantity. Some questions garner scores of responses, others -- not so many. But the real action takes place in behind the curtain, in the private communities 2degrees builds on behalf of large companies.

It struck me that trust might be a huge barrier for executives seeking to participate in a free and open dialogue. Many sustainability executives I know are reluctant to share much online for fear of unwittingly drawing the attention and scrutiny of competitors, activists, media or others. I asked Tom Idle, 2degrees’ editor-in-chief, how the company had managed to overcome this barrier.

“We have a team of community members that work hard to build that trust,” says Idle. “There’s a real spirit of collaboration. I’m not sure whether that’s because we’re in this space that we’re in and there’s a different mentality among professionals, but on non‑competitive issues, there’s a real willingness to share best practices.”

He offered a couple of examples of how the community is helping big companies find solutions. “In the last couple of months, we’ve been helping Virginie Helias, the commercial director of sustainability at Procter & Gamble. Their No. 1 challenge right now is around the use of renewable materials; it’s central to their sustainability vision and their 2020 targets. They want to replace 100 percent of their petrochemical use with renewable materials and they’ve got a target of 25 percent replacement by the end of the decade.

“So she came to 2degrees and she was open about the challenge -- about the fact that they haven’t quite got this right and they’ve still got a long way to go. She was after insight from experts. She was after solutions. She wanted to make contacts with the right people. It was a good exercise for them in terms of validating internal decisions and arguments that were taking place. So she used it for a number of reasons, and it’s really helped her on her way.”

Not all cases are as open as P&G’s. Idle acknowledges, “We do get a lot of members who do want to post things anonymously, and that’s fine as well.”

Another example: The 2degrees community helped Mars, the chocolate company, look for onsite renewable solutions for the business across its European portfolio of factories. “Within days he was inundated with responses from our members offering technology solutions,” says Idle. “Other interested parties and NGOs got involved.”

2degrees is running two projects with UK retail giant Tesco: a “knowledge hub” that’s largely about helping its top 1,000 suppliers cut its products' carbon footprint; and a “producer network,” which focuses on building resilience, as well as cutting costs and risk in Tesco's food supply chain.

Beyond that, the 2degrees team is developing something it’s calling an Efficiency Builder, "where suppliers can feed in data and really benchmark themselves against each other to help them prioritize their efforts and developing things like buyers clubs to try and drive costs down around certain technologies," Idle explains.

It’s all about getting a critical mass of voices to come to share in a trusted environment. You can do certain things when you’ve got some scale that you can’t do when you’ve got just a few people in the pool, Idle says.

One thing you can do is disintermediate the consulting business, creating a peer-to-peer and crowdsource environment sufficiently robust that it renders consultants irrelevant, at least for some tasks.

Indeed, says Idle, consultants are watching 2degrees. “They are very interested in what we’re doing and desperate to move into this space. And that’s the risk for us at the moment. There’s lots of competition out there.”

To a large extent, Idle and his team are looking past that to their much bigger vision. As Idle put it, “The ultimate ambition is for us to reach a million members by the end of the decade. If we can grow the number of companies we can help to drive efficiencies in the supply chain, then we’ll be doing a fantastic job, I think. It’s about getting scale. I think that’d be a fantastic achievement.”

It certainly would. I’m looking forward to watching it happen.