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The GreenBiz Interview

Meet Lindsay Baker, WeWork's first global sustainability leader

The company that attracted headlines for eliminating spending on meat seeks a global approach to climate goals.

For many, WeWork is transforming expectations about office space. It’s the largest office tenant in New York City, for example, with 60-plus locations (it's hard to keep track). At one point, my son saw both of his parents working in WeWork spaces and assumed that everyone worked in places like this. In the future he might be right, as more people are joining every day. WeWork’s global footprint has grown to nearly 690 locations across 120 cities globally, and now includes WeLive and WeGrow, which together are called the We Company. Thus, as the category leader in shared working spaces, the company’s stance on sustainability is interesting to examine.

One thing I’m exploring in this column is the tipping point at which companies realize they need this role. In Lindsay Baker’s experience from the startup world, she observed companies reaching that point at a certain number of staff.

That got me thinking about the companies I’ve worked with as a sustainability consultant and written about. In the handful of firms I’ve featured so far, two reached that tipping point after an acquisition — one as a stock exchange listing requirement, and one because the company’s social and environmental ethos had become a differentiating feature of the brand. Outside of the startup world, the number of staff can be quite varied. Yet despite the different drivers and company sizes, one thing is clear: Those getting recognized with their work are doubling down on how they can make an impact with the issues most relevant to the company.

Here’s what Baker had to say about creating this function at WeWork: 

Mia Overall: How did you find your way to WeWork?

Lindsay Baker: I’ve worked on sustainability and real estate for over 15 years. I started out at the Green Building Council at the time that LEED was developed, then did a master's in building science at the University of California at Berkeley. I started working at Google on the real estate sustainability team, and after some time joined a workplace experience startup called Comfy. WeWork became a client of Comfy so I got to know the leadership team.

Eventually I started asking why they didn’t have a full time sustainability person and they said, "Sustainability is kind of everyone’s job." We had a good relationship and they were interested in having me join the company, so I made a case for creating a dedicated sustainability program.

It’s been great to think about how the sustainability function and social issues can work in concert.
My take on it is that growing companies tend to hire their first sustainability person when they reach a headcount of around 3,000 people, so the timing was right. Often, sustainability programs are primarily about marketing, and so at first, WeWork’s leadership was skeptical that they could do it differently, but in fact there was a lot of potential for real impact. The company was growing rapidly and has real buying power, including with things like furniture — some of which we make ourselves. Plus, we’ve been able to put some structure around a spirit that was already there.

Overall: How has the role grown over time?

Baker: When I started, I had dreams of what I could achieve in this role, but that initial vision was only 1 percent of what it has become. The mindset of the leadership team here increasingly has shifted toward addressing climate change, which is really the issue of our time. WeWork houses businesses of all sizes, including many startups, so there are many types of interventions we can make to help support them.

At the same time, WeWork itself still has very much a startup mentality in that the scope of roles is always evolving. Recently, I’ve started to think about the integration of social impact and sustainability. I’ve been getting a lot more passionate about addressing the ways the sustainability industry hasn’t always done a great job of solving social problems so it’s been great to think about how the sustainability function and social issues can work in concert.

Overall: WeWork is a huge property holder. What does that mean for your role on sustainability in cities?

Baker: Roughly 70 percent of people will live in cities by 2050. Our buildings and our cities need to adapt faster to meet the challenges that come with rapid urbanization and mounting climate impact. We’re thinking about that in many ways at WeWork. We recently welcomed a new team dedicated to creating future cities. That team and mine will be working closely together on some initiatives, which are largely around thinking about sustainability at the city scale, and making sure that we are great citizens of the cities and communities we are in.

Overall: You are a LEED specialist but WeWork hasn’t pursued LEED certification.  What’s your stance on this? 

Baker: This is something I’ve had to be very thoughtful about because I have such a strong connection to third party certification as a market driver. LEED is a tool for specific categories of decision-making: new construction projects; commercial interiors projects; etc. But at WeWork, we don’t fit well in categories — we don’t just design office space, we operate our spaces, we operate spaces for other companies, we have schools within our spaces, we even make some of our own furniture and building assemblies.

So from a business perspective, it’s not a great fit as an overarching policy or a central goal. LEED is still something we pursue for some projects, and we are also really inspired by WELL, FitWel, and the other rating systems out there. But it’s really important to me that our community focuses on the impact goals, not the intermediate goals of certifications. So our sustainability work is structured towards outcomes: reduction of our carbon footprint; reduction of energy use intensity; supply chain impact reduction; health outcome metrics; indoor environmental quality metrics; etc.

If we get certifications along the path towards these goals, that’s great, but they are not the goals themselves. This isn’t something that every sustainability team can do — it’s like creating your own recipes instead of using someone else’s. But we have a stellar team and a clear directive from our leadership to innovate and blaze a new trail, so that’s what we are doing.

Overall: What are you most proud of achieving?

Baker: I’m proud of having hired a team of world renowned experts in sustainability issues that relate to real estate. They are really truly amazing and I think we are just getting to work in many ways. The accomplishments I get most excited about are the ones we haven’t finished yet.

That said, I’m proud that we’ve committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2023 and that we did it quickly and aggressively. Companies really need to start setting carbon targets and do their best to achieve them. We are trying to show that it is possible (and really, necessary) to pick up the pace.

I’m proud that we eliminated single use plastics and that the company has decided to no longer serve meat at company events.

To be clear, people can eat meat at WeWork, but we aren’t spending company money on meat.
These are examples of the kind of things other companies have done and can do, but I’m proud of our speed making decisions like this and the universal consensus around them. Also, as a result, most people in the company are now aware that protecting the environment is an important value.

Overall: How did people react to the no-meat policy?

Baker: There have been a variety of responses. At first we got a lot of questions, but now, it’s just a part of how we operate. To be clear, people can eat meat at WeWork, but we aren’t spending company money on meat. Many people think it’s really impactful. Research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact. It’s hard to argue with the policy from a carbon footprint perspective. Plus, we operate all over the world, including many communities where people don’t really eat meat at all. It was a great moment when people realized that we wanted to spend company money toward advancing our values.   

Overall: How have you navigated decisions around where to focus your time?

Baker: I was lucky that I had a couple of months before I started my job to think about this and I asked other people in similar roles. As a guiding structure, every day we think about where our biggest impacts can be, what our issues are as a company and where we can do the most good. It’s less about making sure every topic is covered or hitting square footage metrics than it is about doubling down on key issues.

For example, we’re prioritizing climate change. Compared to other issues, we see it as something we have to tackle. For us this means tackling our own climate footprint but also helping entrepreneurs start businesses to help tackle climate. We’re also disproportionately trying to have a positive impact in areas of the world that are impacted by climate change. In that sense, we’re taking a truly global/international approach which means thinking more than a U.S. company typically would about issues facing the global south. It's just really trying to stay centered and focused on a more international approach.

Overall: It sounds like we might be hearing more on this in the near future.

Baker: Stay tuned.

Overall: The scope of your role includes Wellbeing. What does this mean at WeWork? The company has a reputation for being a grinding place to work. Is this true? As the company’s leader on Wellness, what has it meant to approach "human" sustainability in the workplace?

Baker: I’ll start from the basic definition and vision here. I believe that sustainability goes hand in hand with health because it's a question of providing a world that is healthy to live in. Health is a critical part of the work we do, especially as it relates to buildings. We pay a lot of attention to indoor environmental quality everywhere, and especially in places like India and China where air quality is really bad. We also have to make sure building improvements are done with a balance of reducing consumption and making sure people are healthy. My team is most concerned about fundamental needs like acoustics, lighting, temperature and air quality, and we work hard to make sure our spaces live up to our standards on those areas.  

Over time, companies are able to [build] infrastructure to enable people to live healthy, balanced lives.
As it relates to the dynamic of the workplace, I’ve noticed that has a lot to do with the maturity of the company. Like many companies that are going through big growth spurts, people here work very hard, including by putting in long hours. As we get more mature as a company, one of the things that happens is that teams like mine show up and start to focus on ergonomics, for example. I saw the same thing at Google when I was there.

Overall: What advice do you have for other first sustainability leaders?

Baker: It strikes me that one of the common challenges experienced by first time sustainability leaders is wading through the question of who you are going to align your brand with. You will get asked hundreds of times by people to lend your brand to a specific effort. Many, if not all of those requests will be coming from a really good place.  But if we are going to have a partnership or sign up to a commitment or form an allegiance, I want it to be meaningful. We have had very few partnerships in the first year and I wanted them to be meaningful, such as joining RE100.

One thing that has been a real learning experience for me is figuring out when you want to sign up for something and to use your name sparingly. I’ve been grateful for the help of several colleagues in learning how to maneuver through this. The first thing I did was to decide on our goals and issues, what we want to take a stand on. So when well-intentioned employees and others ask for our help on something, we can decide quickly if it is a high priority or not. Then we go out proactively and look for the most amazing people and companies working on the issues we care about, and forge partnerships with them. We will have more announcements coming soon on this front, so stay tuned.

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