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The Inside View

10 minutes with Tom Murray, EDF+Business

This column is about the people of sustainability. What makes them tick? What’s their unique way to create impact? What have they learned that works? This time, it’s Tom Murray, Vice President, EDF + Business.

Bob Langert: What does the new name of your program mean, EDF+Business?

Tom Murray: The name change from Corporate Partnerships to EDF+Business is intended to reflect the way the world and our work has changed over the last 25 years. Certainly, the kind of core partnerships that helped launch this team, like the ones we worked on with you [at McDonald’s], continue to be a big part of what EDF does, but we're also testing new ways of collaborating with companies, investors and innovators to drive change and help advance EDF policy objectives as well.

Langert: What have you seen in your experience that says a change like this makes sense?

Murray: We’ve learned a lot about the strengths and limitations of partnerships over the years. A limitation to one-on-one partnerships is that some of the problems we're trying to solve are so big that no one or even two organizations can make the kind of impact that we want to alone. Tackling climate change, sustainable agriculture, avoiding deforestation require leadership and collaboration from all corners.

Langert: What's success today versus success 10 or 15 years ago with these types of collaborations?

Murray: The teams that I see that are doing the best in this space have a combination of commitment, execution and scale. A willingness to set really big goals. An ability to focus on the hard work of executing against those goals. And then scaling best practices and innovations that work across your business or across your supply chain.

Langert: What leadership attributes have you observed to achieve this?

Murray: Two things come to mind quickly. One is personal passion and the other is this willingness to set really big goals. My thinking on this comes from what I’ve seen on the job, but also a recent trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, where I got to see both of these attributes up close from Walmart's CEO Doug McMillon. Walmart committed last fall to reducing a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain. A gigaton is huge. It's equivalent to the annual emissions of Germany. And in April, they had a kickoff meeting in Bentonville. Dozens of CEOs were there and 800 staff from suppliers and partner organizations were there to launch this collaboration.

Langert: Wow, 800? It takes some sort of courage to do that. What allows one to push the envelope that way, to break through the status quo?

Murray: It’s not getting so caught up in focusing on only the management and measurement process that we forget that this is about people and passion. It’s all about the "why" we're doing this. I think this is what creates the space and allows the courage and the risk-taking needed to set the big goals that are really going to be transformational.

Langert: Let's face it. Not every company is doing what Walmart is doing. What's preventing more leadership like this?

Murray: You see this playing out in the country and the political discourse, what I think is a powerful but false narrative about the need to choose between a thriving economy and a healthy environment. It’s become a harmful part of the political discussion right now, and it's also an excuse for companies to not do more.

We can reduce our footprint on the planet while we make better products. We can invest in clean energy while we grow our economy.

In this moment in our history, this false narrative has become a convenient excuse for not leaning in, not doing more, not running the kinds of companies we need if we want to create a thriving planet and a thriving economy.

A problem that I've seen and hear from corporate sustainability professionals is that there are so many things to work on, and that can be a roadblock.

Langert: Even committed companies struggle, too, don’t they?

Murray: A problem that I've seen and hear from corporate sustainability professionals is that there are so many things to work on, and that can be a roadblock. No doubt, there are lots of important priorities. If you’re going to be successful and if the company is going to have a big impact, they've got to focus. They've got to pick priorities. In my conversations with sustainability professionals, they feel the width and breadth of possible things to work on can be one of the things that holds them back.

Langert: What's the most difficult thing you've had to talk with a company about?

Murray: The most challenging conversation we're having with companies is that doing better is no longer enough, especially in our current political landscape. It's not enough for companies to just tend to their own sustainability gardens anymore. We're expecting them to scale their efforts across their supply chains and across their industries.

Langert: Will NGOs allow companies to focus? Companies can have countless stakeholders that all want them to do different things. You think fertilizers are the most important thing. Somebody else thinks animal welfare. Others say wages. Companies can't scale five or 10 things. Do you think the NGO world puts too much pressure and multiple demands on companies?

Murray: Part of how you manage that is with transparency and good communication. Not everyone is going to be happy, but I think if you're honest and you have good relationship management, you talk about why you set certain priorities and why you didn't. Maybe a part of what leading companies and the advocacy community could do better is to communicate about both. "Here's the priorities we set and here's the ones that we know are important, but we're gonna set aside for now."   

Langert: I still am in wonderment why more companies don't proactively communicate more. Why not?

Murray: Almost across the board, including the companies that we work with, I see opportunities to tell their sustainability stories better. Certainly they have shortcomings, but they're not getting the credit for the things that they are doing.

Langert: So, what's holding them back?

Murray: I think we've gotten to the point where environment has become a compelling tiebreaker for many customers, and I'm hopeful and optimistic that we're on the verge of moving more people to vote at the cash register and with their wallets, especially with the expanded use of social media platforms.  

Langert: Why is it that businesses resist even common-sense regulations when a lack of regulations puts big pressure and responsibilities on companies to be de facto regulators?

Murray: I'd argue that companies are made up of people just like you and me who value clean air and clean water, and I don't think those people or even the organizations they work for are resistant to the critical safeguards that protect our health and our planet. I think what they're concerned about, what they're frustrated about, and where they'd like to see improvement is where regulations make things like permitting and product approvals slower and less efficient than they'd like them to be. I'm confident there's room for improvement there, but lurching to eliminate common-sense protections is bad for business and the planet.

In fact, for most of our recent history, we've been growing our economy while protecting the environment, by putting effective environmental safeguards in place. I think smart business leaders know that their competitiveness and their ability to deliver what their customers expect are driven by long-term economics and hopefully not short-term politics. 

The next step is about leading on policy. Some of the challenges that we're trying to solve, especially climate change, can’t be solved with voluntary corporate action alone.

Langert: What is the next big thing for making our planet better?

Murray: The next step is about leading on policy. Some of the challenges that we're trying to solve, especially climate change, can’t be solved with voluntary corporate action alone. It's critically important to make progress and show what's possible, but we need government to do its job. With the current political leadership vacuum in the U.S., companies are going to have to lead, not only in their operations and supply chains, but also on effective climate and energy policy. The response by leading companies to Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris is a great start, but we need to keep going and accelerate.

Langert: If "sustainability" were a human being, what age are we at? Toddler still? Teenager? Young adult?

Murray: I'm seeing some parallels to my own life here, Bob. I think sustainability is just past 40, staring down 50 and bracing for a midlife crisis, potentially. Hopefully, not the "I want to buy a convertible sportscar" crisis, but, "What am I waiting for?" There's so much work to do, so much high-impact work that needs to be done. What's holding us back? Let's get on with doing it.

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