How a 110-year-old logistics company is repackaging sustainability

Shutterstockricochet64 (UPS photo)
Ed Rogers, global director of sustainability, UPS.

This series of articles will feature the perspectives, experiences and objectives of individuals working for member companies of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). These people have carefully and successfully navigated the interface of business and sustainability: What are the leadership skills and qualities that support this work? What motivates the people doing it? And how do they walk the potentially tenuous line between hardline business decision-making and sustainability goals? The series will explore these and other questions.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Ed Rogers joined the United Parcel Service (UPS) 23 years ago in the corporate industrial engineering department, bringing with him more than a decade of experience as a U.S. Air Force Officer and engineering management consultant. As he progressed through the company, Rogers found himself on the corporate strategy team, with a new opportunity to apply his lifelong appreciation of the environment to his work.

He helped formulate UPS’s initial sustainability strategy and most recently, as senior director of global sustainability, Rogers oversaw the company’s sustainability program and initiatives, bringing clear-minded pragmatism, experienced business reasoning and personal conviction to the role. Today, he sees B to B collaboration as the next frontier of sustainability. Examples of these efforts are highlighted in UPS’s latest Sustainability Report, released this week along with a new set of sustainability goals.

Here are highlights from a phone conversation Rogers and I had in May. 

Emily Grady: How did you end up in your current role?

Ed Rogers: Most of my career at UPS has been based here in Atlanta. I was with the corporate engineering group for about five years, and then I had a field assignment for about three years, where I directed the engineering function for one of our districts. When I transferred back to corporate, I joined our corporate strategy group, which was a cross-functional team with expertise from all around the company.

I served in corporate strategy for about 13 years, working on strategic projects and scenario planning. During this time, UPS decided to organize and staff up a sustainability program and needed help developing a long-term sustainability strategy. I raised my hand. That was about seven or eight years ago.

Grady: What inspired you to volunteer to help develop the sustainability program?

Rogers: I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the environment and for improving the social condition. My love for the environment and outdoors probably stems from many years as a Boy Scout and an adult scout leader, camping, hiking and being in nature. On the social side, my concern for people and the human condition probably stems from my upbringing and the ideals I hold dear because of my faith.

Both of these aspects of my life attracted me to this job. Also, one of the benefits of being in our corporate strategy group is that we are constantly looking over the horizon  we were looking for what was going to be the next big thing. It was clear to me that the sustainability space was going to become much more important and high-profile with our customers and other stakeholders. The company needed someone to help bring a strategic lens to it. 

After we established the initial key principles and strategic frameworks for sustainability at UPS, I continued as the strategy group’s representative on the corporate sustainability committee. This gave me occasion to speak publicly about our sustainability work. At this point, though, it was kind of a part-time role, as I was still responsible for other strategic projects. A couple of years ago, Steve Leffin, who had been directing our sustainability program, retired. I was offered the position and quickly accepted.

Grady: How do you manage balancing a central sustainability function with distributed sustainability efforts across the company in areas such as procurement, engineering or automotive?

Rogers: We do that coordination through our Sustainability Leadership Council, with all key functions represented. We meet every month for a couple of hours to discuss general sustainability topics, as well as specific initiatives at UPS that are either underway or we need to advance. For example, I’ve given briefings on the WBCSD’s low-carbon road freight project and below50.

We’ve talked about science-based targets and the importance of using science to underpin our sustainability goals. We’ve discussed renewable energy and how to grow our use of onsite solar. Topics are vetted at the monthly Sustainability Leadership Council meetings, then people work on the initiatives between meetings and report back to the group. This approach creates shared ownership to drive sustainability forward.

Grady: Why should a company such as UPS care about sustainability?

Rogers: UPS is a very large company with millions of daily customers. We operate in practically every community, picking up and delivering packages or providing other logistics solutions. As a transportation company, we obviously have a large carbon footprint. Our customers care about this.

We have hundreds of thousands of employees who are working and volunteering in communities around the world. We believe that we have this responsibility to do more for our customers and our communities. This is part of our corporate culture. Our commitment to sustainability is fully consistent with what our customers want, the mindset of people we want to attract and the type of company we want to be.

Grady: Is this something that you embed in your corporate messages and training?

Rogers: Sustainability done well tends to attract and retain good people. We know it’s important to the younger generation of UPSers joining our ranks. They’re very interested in what we’re doing in the sustainability space, both on the environmental side and on the social side. We communicate what we do to be a sustainable company, and how we do it — we like to share our story.

Grady: As you and your team propose new sustainability projects, what does it take to get the rest of the company on board?

Rogers: We always make a business case for new initiatives. There needs to be an attractive return on investment, and this can be challenging. In some cases, we have to wait for the cost of new technologies to decrease for the business case to be viable. UPS is a fact-based decision-making organization, a bunch of engineers who like data. Some companies aren’t necessarily as encumbered by those same decision-making criteria. The trick is to find the sweet spot where there’s an attractive business case and also an inherent sustainability outcome that improves the social condition, creates operating efficiencies, reduces emissions or generates new business. 

Grady: Tell me more about that.

Rogers: We talk a lot about the triple bottom line — not only social responsibility and environmental stewardship, but also economic prosperity. UPS, by its nature and its mission, enables global commerce. We’re connecting a global community with our intelligent logistics networks. This enables trade and business to flourish around the world. It allows small companies to become larger and gain access to global markets.

Grady: How do you envision bringing sustainability to the next level in terms of corporate engagement and leadership in this space? What’s on the horizon for UPS?

Rogers: To take things to the next level will require a degree of collaboration among companies that doesn’t exist today. There are inherent barriers to collaboration such as concerns about intellectual property, customer privacy and proprietary information. These are all hurdles that have to be overcome in order to achieve the solutions we’re all seeking. This also depends to some degree on each company’s corporate culture. UPS is 110 years old and we are a conservative company.

There’s a culture around privacy, and concern about how to collaborate with competitors and other industry members. There are far fewer concerns around collaborating with our customers, which we’ve done from the very beginning. But when you start talking about the whole industry becoming more sustainable, it can get challenging. This is one of the reasons why we’re involved with the WBCSD, the World Economic Forum, BSR and other sustainability-focused organizations. It takes a third party to help organize, coordinate and broker these relationships around common interests.

Grady: What would make a seemingly impossible sustainability goal possible for you?

Rogers: As a transportation company, we really need a breakthrough in affordable and scalable technology for low carbon fuels. The global freight industry relies on the combustion of liquid fuels to do business and is projected to triple in size from 2010 to 2050, yet is expected to generate a fraction of the emissions than they did in 2010. The equation currently doesn’t add up.

I hope that hydrogen fuel cells will become more cost effective, but we’re not there yet. We’re providing a significant amount of funding to advance R&D in the low carbon fuels arena. So, a seemingly impossible goal is to create a net zero carbon transportation future. But maybe that’s just because it’s 2017 and not 2050, right? In 2050, we’ll say, "It wasn’t that tough!" UPS will continue to do our part, but I think it’s going to take the whole industry and academia and some real focused R&D to succeed.

Grady: How do you see the sustainability landscape shifting in the U.S.?

Rogers: The concern for the environment and emissions is still front and center in some states here in the U.S. And in many countries and major cities around the world, emissions and traffic congestion are big issues that will affect the transportation and logistics industry, as well as access in cities to deliver goods to people. There will be new regulations and requirements about what kinds of vehicles are allowed on the roads, when you can drive them and where you can park. All of this is related to concerns around congestion, air quality and tailpipe emissions. This will affect the way companies in our industry do business. Today, we are testing different operating models and types of delivery vehicles, including electric vehicles, hybrids and electric tricycles.

One of the areas that worries me is the growing call for on-demand delivery. Rather than being able to dispatch one vehicle with hundreds of packages to be delivered in an efficient and optimal route, the alternative is to dispatch hundreds of vehicles with one package. That’s an exaggeration, but it illustrates my point. I am worried about the unintended congestion and pollution that these extra vehicles will cause for the sake of same-day delivery. It will be interesting to see how that plays out from a sustainability standpoint, especially as public demand for more sustainable and smart cities continues to grow.