How Salesforce, Google, others use tech as a ‘force multiplier’ in sustainability innovation

Sunya Norman, Salesforce
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Sunya Norman of Salesforce speaks during a recent discussion on technology innovation in sustainability, hosted by thinkPARALLAX. Also pictured: Mike Hower; Laura Franceschini, Google; and Bruce Klafter, Flex.

There is no shortage of technology companies in Silicon Valley and beyond claiming to be "making the world a better place," but too few are doing enough to address the world’s pressing environmental, social and governance (ESG) challenges. Yet, it’s encouraging to see a growing number of firms recognizing the business opportunity for developing and delivering tools that could help realize a more sustainable economy.

From clean energy to the cloud, technology alone won’t stop climate change or most other sustainability ills — although it can serve as a "force multiplier" for advancing sustainability innovation.

"Technological know-how is driving sustainable innovation," said Bruce Klafter, vice president of corporate social and environmental sustainability at Flex during the recent thinkPARALLAX Perspectives panel event at PCH International in San Francisco, which I moderated.

Joining us were three other sustainability technology leaders: Sunya Norman, director of sustainability at Salesforce; Laura Franceschini, senior manager of sustainability strategy and operations at Google; and Jason Kibbey, CEO of Higg Co. All offered their perspectives on how technology can be, and is being, used as a force for good. About 60 sustainability professionals from technology, apparel, food, energy and other sectors were in attendance.

Chief among the takeaways were these three themes: technology is important for scaling solutions; turning information into action; and creating capacities for collaboration.

Big problems demand scalable solutions

The world isn’t so small, and corporate sustainability innovations must achieve scale to produce meaningful impact. "Technology is helping us do things at scale with the transparency and openness we need," Salesforce’s Norman said.

Google’s Franceschini concurred, explaining that technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning have helped scale solutions such as energy efficiency. "There are a lot of variables in operations, and a human can’t determine all the adjustments needed to fully optimize," she said.

Several years ago, Google’s data center energy efficiency efforts plateaued but the team has seen a 30 percent improvement after applying machine learning technologies. "On the flip side, that technology for optimizing data centers can be applied across industries and all the facilities to make all facilities efficient in all kinds of ways," Franceschini added.

The power of actionable data

Living in a finite world, companies never will have the time or resources to simultaneously solve every ESG problem. But technology can help prioritize which actions can have the greatest net impact.

"It’s a world of trade-offs," Higg Co’s Kibbey said. "Technology is valuable because it helps us weigh those pros and cons to make informed, data-based decisions." 

ThinkPARALLAX, Google, Flex, Salesforce Higg Co, force multiplier
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Kibbey pointed out that over 100 billion articles of clothing are made each year, and over the next couple of years, Higg Co aims to look at how to better manage every step of the supply chain by digitizing information at each stage and sharing it more broadly.

"Until these industries are able to get information in a digital form like how much energy and water they are using, it’s nearly impossible to drive real change," he said.

Technology also can help uncover and address material issues within a company’s operations. "One of the things that is so difficult about the tech sector is the invisible nature of our sustainability challenges," Salesforce’s Norman said.

Often there is a disconnect between people and the day-to-day interactions with their favorite technological products and services. Take the concept of the cloud, nebulous as it is, which has very real environmental impacts in terms of energy expended to power data centers. Even that beloved cat video comes with a carbon, well, pawprint.

"What’s so challenging about cloud and technology is that these worlds are behind a curtain," Norman said. "We do these ‘magical’ things online where there is no feedback loop to help you understand, for example, what it means when I save all of my emails, or what’s the difference between storing a thousand photos of my kid, or using an AI algorithm that is inefficient."

Collaboration for greater impact

The technology sector is competitive, and many companies are reluctant to share proprietary solutions, although this is starting to change.

Salesforce, for example, in September launched the Salesforce Sustainability Cloud, which enables businesses to quickly track, analyze and report reliable environmental data to help them reduce their carbon emissions. Initially conceived as an internal product, the company decided to pilot it externally after realizing its potential for helping other companies. 

"The Salesforce Sustainability Cloud is a whole new era of our sustainability journey," Norman said. "Going from keeping our own house in order to using our corporate voice and collaboration, and what we do best, our [customer relationship management system], to help others with their sustainability."

The panelists agreed that there needs to be greater collaboration in the technology sector to fully leverage its power for addressing global sustainability challenges.

"I think that we need everyone working together, individuals, communities, governments, companies to make real headway on the tough issues we are facing today like climate change," Google’s Franceschini said.

In 2018, Google launched the Environmental Insights Explorer, a tool that enables automated carbon accounting at the municipal level. It works by using Google Maps transportation and building data to measure and model carbon intensity. "Cities can play with the tool and adjust pieces of their operations to test theories towards goals," Franceschini said. 

Embedded within this tool is Project Sunroof, which uses Google Earth data to estimate the potential positive financial and environmental impacts of rooftop solar power. This helps cities, companies and even homeowners avoid needing to call a provider and wait for an independent assessment. "This allows people to make the decision independently or for municipalities to measure opportunities for solar energy use, or goal setting," Franceschini said.

Getting more tech companies on board

While many big technology players are evolving their approach to sustainability, the way forward isn’t always as clear for startups, which typically lack a dedicated sustainability lead, much less a team. Where do they even begin?

"Pay attention to data-gathering," Flex’s Klafter said. "If you don’t know what you don’t know — what the impacts of your business are — it’s hard to make an informed decision." 

Higg Co’s Kibbey concurred, encouraging sustainability neophytes to begin with a materiality assessment, even an informal one asking internal employees which issues matter most.

Salesforce’s Norman suggested companies begin by thinking about governance. "It costs you very little to have a policy on your website stating what you value," she said. "Start by answering the questions: What do we want our culture to be? How do we interact with our community? How do we give back to the environment? 

"It’s way easier to start there with governance and policy, to have something to both fall back on and move forward with."

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