For Sprint, communications is core to climate resilience

Ann Goodman

In what surely is a glaring understatement, Tanya Jones, manager of Sprint Corp.’s vital Emergency Response Team Operations, observed, “We learned quite a bit from Hurricane Sandy.”

Indeed, Sprint, like all telecommunications carriers, lost cell sites on the northeastern seaboard and in New York City in the 2012 superstorm, which hurt its cellular operations. Fortunately, Sprint’s ERT was able to provide critical communications services to various first responders and emergency agencies using vehicles such as COWS (Cell On Wheels) and COLTS (Cell on Light Trucks), including those near the World Trade Center in New York, where the vehicles were parked right in front of the Freedom Tower, after police blocked it off for the Sprint workers.

Among the key learnings from the debacle, said Jones: How better to rebuild; where better to stage; how better to “future-proof our technology to ensure our equipment is upgraded and our personnel equipped” for disaster.

Her team of disaster emergency workers in multiple U.S. locations, including Dallas and Sterling, Va., is at the center — and on the front lines — of Sprint’s emerging approach to climate resilience. Having overseen the company’s disaster response for 10 years and found herself on the spot during 2,500 events — from hurricanes to fires to tornados to floodsher interpretation of such events is telling:

“While a disaster is a disaster, I subscribe to the theory that the climate is changing weather patterns. You see more forest fires in the west and more hurricanes; you see increased water and air temperatures and storm activities; and there’s been an uptick in severity of storms,” Jones said.

A communications approach to resilience

Jones’ thoughts on disaster and climate echo the observation of Sprint's director of corporate responsibility and sustainability, Amy Hargroves, who heads the company’s approach to climate resilience: “The same risks exist for climate-related events as for other disasters, but there’s a greater range of events and more of them.”Amy Hargroves

Of acute importance, Hargroves noted: “In our field, as a communications company, disaster resilience has to be core to our business, because there’s so much dependence nationally on communications.”

Indeed, while now majority owned by Japanese parent Softbank, Sprint’s network is United States-centric, serving federal, state and local governments as well as emergency responders — and, of course, the company’s 50 million-plus business and individual customers.

Because emergency response is at the core of Sprint’s resilience approach, the company is always at the cutting edge of communications technology: “LTE, high-speed data, 4G, emergency response — we can provide that now, but most of what we do is make sure we’re on top of technology, because it’s not if but when a disaster will happen,” Jones explained.

Keeping its emergency response team up to date with special equipment and mobile communications — as well as learning from each disaster — is only one part of Sprint’s four-pronged approach to implementing climate resilience, a business priority of Hargroves’ sustainability team, which has won the company a number of accolades, including the recent Compass Intelligence Eco-Focus and EPA Climate Leadership awards.

Other priorities in Sprint’s resilience approach include:

• Frequent assessments of the company’s network risks.

• Improving backup power with less carbon-intensive sources, including research on hydrogen-fuel cells, in part with the Department of Energy.

• Reviewing lessons learned to find new business opportunities, including those related to customer offerings.

Overarching goals include reducing the company’s greenhouse gas emissions and electricity use by 20 percent by 2017 from 10 years earlier and ensuring 90 percent of its supply chain meets Sprint’s environmental and social criteria. The goals are complementary, particularly given Sprint’s massive network overhaul, at a cost of nearly $5 billion over three years, now coming to an end.

That renewal has allowed Sprint to achieve its 2017 GHG reduction goal and come within 1 percent of its electricity reduction goal. Sprint provided free guidance on greenhouse gas measurement, reporting and reduction strategies to its top suppliers, including those involved in the network overhaul.

Network risks: cell sites, signaling, fleets, response prioritization

To ensure the network stays up to date — and up and running — in case of disaster, the company runs quarterly risk assessments. And Sprint expects more extreme events.

On planning for potential climate risks, Hargraves noted that since Sandy, “it’s not so much that we’ve done anything new, but that there’s increased risk recognized through insurance [coverage] and assessment. That’s how we adjust and plan.”

Fleets: Network risks also include the company’s fleet of vehicles for a range of conditions that could affect the cell sites, the most vulnerable part of the network. Fortunately, Hargroves noted, insurance companies have been building climate risk into their corporate risk models, assessing the level and nature of risk per site. With that information, Sprint can determine which sites may be most vulnerable and potential candidates for relocation. “We look at 500-year flood levels when we build our sites,” she said.

Cell sites: With some 55,000 cell sites across the country, Sprint has a lot to keep track of. The signal from the site must be accessible in order for wireless customers to complete calls. Cell site traffic is aggregated at over 100 major satellite switching sites that allow calls to be terminated between various wireless and wire-line networks. Much of the IP-based (Internet Protocol) control functionality is handled by some 30 Core sites that act as traffic directors for voice and data services.

“Networks are complicated beasts, and risk varies according to the site,” said Hargroves. “But the most important parts to protect are the switch sites, mainly because they aggregate traffic from thousands of cell sites. A single switch outage can isolate a complete market, leaving customers without critical wireless services over a large geographical area.”

Emergency response: Of rising importance to the company’s resilience plan, said Hargroves, is the sort of emergency response to disasters that Jones manages. “We anticipate greater demand for the services of our Emergency Response Team because of the increase in the number of disruptive events,” Hargroves said.

Essential to the response is the specialized mobile equipment, such as mobile communications centers, including COWs and COLTs. These are whole vans or trailers especially useful in places that are hard to access. “Demand for COWs and COLTs has increased over the past several years, so our fleet has been [growing] and is expected to continue to grow in response,” she explained.

A big part of emergency response is sequencing and prioritization: That entails determining who is “in charge” of disaster management (from a government perspective), which communications capabilities are intact and which are needed — and then developing a prioritized list of communications services and infrastructure that the company will provide.

Sprint may send out its ERT to work with government and provide critical communications services initially for the first responders — government personnel, military, FEMA, Red Cross — to enable them to communicate, especially if a lot of infrastructure, such as cell site towers, signal repeaters or switching centers, has been disabled. The Sprint ERT always works with local government, including sheriffs and firefighters. Next in line are customers.

Risk, site planning and backup power: response to storms, fires, flooding

While Sprint always has had backup power initiatives, those have expanded throughout the United States over the past few years — as has the need for backup, which has risen, along with the frequency of disasters.

“Provision of backup power is very much motivated by both natural and manmade disasters,” said John Holmes, who, as Sprint’s manager of network planning, is responsible for the company’s strategic planning efforts involving backup power, energy efficiency and sustainability for the company’s network.

The need for backup power varies by region. “In the eastern and southern coastal regions, hurricanes and tropical storms can cause widespread damage,” he said. “In the Midwest and upper Midwest, ice storms can result in widespread outages.

“Wildfires can be a problem anywhere there’s a combination of very dry weather and a lot of combustible ground or tree cover. As a general rule, they are more frequent out west. Places like California or the Pacific Northwest are susceptible to earthquakes.

“Also, don’t count out tornadoes. Heavy rainfall can result in flooding, and many times that will occur downstream of where the majority of the rainfall occurred."

Sometimes the power stays on, but Sprint “can still have widespread outages, if, say, a major backbone fiber carrying multiple backhaul circuits (which connect the BTS equipment to the switches) is cut,” Holmes pointed out. “That would prevent calls from being completed … and is often manifested to the wireless subscriber as a fast busy signal.”

What’s more, Hargroves added, the question of where to build cell sites has been complicated in recent years by the increase in frequency and severity of storms, as well as the availability of energy and water sources.

“A few years ago, we studied the impact of climate change on water scarcity and cost in the U.S. The results were shared with the C-suite and operational teams so they could use it as input for site planning. For instance, if you need a big building, you should expect it to have a water chilling system, which is a big driver of water use. If you know where water will be scarcer, and thus more expensive, you should avoid building in those areas,” Hargroves explained.

In 2013, water cost the company a mere $1.2 million, compared with $300 million for energy, “so it’s a far lower economic priority,” she said. “However, given the importance of water globally, it would be foolish not to consider drought forecasts in your site-planning process.”

By contrast, Sprint has a strong economic incentive to reduce its energy usage, which is primarily electric. The company has cut its internal electricity use by 22 percent since 2007 and reduced its electricity costs by $87 million annually. Including Clearwire, acquired — along with its emissions output — in 2013, Sprint’s electricity costs are still down by 19 percent.

Power backup and hydrogen fuel cells

When disaster strikes, electrical power from traditional sources is likely to go down, as recent climate-related events, including Superstorm Sandy, have shown. That’s why backup power is essential for telecommunications providers such as Sprint. A backup plan is needed for all critical components in the network. Because Sprint is committed to lowering carbon emissions, the company looks to cleaner backup power sources.

“Our second priority for carbon reduction is back-up power, which is a leading contributor to Sprint’s Scope 1, or direct, emissions,” said Hargroves. “Scope 1 emissions represent only 3.5 percent of our aggregate Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Within the 3.5 percent, 10 percent is emissions from back-up power sources, such as diesel fuel and propane.

“Sprint includes its Scope 1 emissions in its goal to absolutely reduce GHG emissions by 20 percent by 2017, and in fact, has reduced them by more than 41 percent so far. Increasing our use of hydrogen fuel cells and propane — and decreasing use of diesel generators — as backup power sources at cell sites has contributed to this success.”

Hargroves noted that Sprint’s fleet, with 1,000 vehicles, has a substantially smaller GHG footprint than the fleets of its direct competitors, which have 40,000 or more vehicles.

“When we talk about network resiliency, we mean the ability of the network to maintain power and functionality, particularly at the switching and cell site level,” she said. “There are multiple lines of defense, the first of which is batteries. Since we have the greatest dependency on batteries, much of our focus is on reducing the environmental impact and duration of use of our network batteries. We have partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab and the Department of Energy on battery technology, which is so critical for a communications company.”

The second line of defense is using both a diesel generator and natural gas feeds, even propane and methanol, to access multiple core electricity streams in a single place to provide backup power. While solar and wind power are sparsely used where possible, neither technology is practical, given risks (when wind is strong, a disaster could be in the making), lack of continuous availability of energy and cost-benefit balance.

Sprint is maximizing its use of hydrogen fuel cells in part through work with the DOE, whose $7.3 million grant in 2009 has supported the company’s development and deployment of 260 additional fuel cells to support its backup power systems, network planning manager Holmes said.

The innovative fuel cells use an on-site, refillable, medium-pressure hydrogen storage system, which has eliminated bottle swaps, required in earlier generations of the technology, while boosting the standby runtime of the cells to parity with that of other backup solutions such as diesel generators. The company’s 500-plus hydrogen fuel cells help Sprint ensure that its Scope 1 emissions related to back-up power stay low despite significant increases in network resilience, achieved via more sites with longer back-up power.

Customers and business opportunity

Perhaps the biggest business opportunity in climate resilience for the company is on the consumer side of the business, said Hargroves. “We’re trying to identify additional services we can provide to help customers” understand and prepare for potentially disruptive events.

So far, most of the company’s focus has been on the “survivability of network infrastructure,” Hargroves said. The company’s Japanese parent Softbank has exceptional experience in this arena, gained during the Great East Japan earthquake of March 2011.

Explained Hargroves: “Up to now, the main things we’ve done involve the survivability of our services, directly helping first responders, supporting customers on billing, and managing our service, versus providing information that can help them manage through the disaster — things like how to extend the life of your phone battery and recharge with limited electricity sources available, which is different from relaying information during a disaster, as people become more and more dependent on cell service.”

But the company imagines the opportunity to change that. Sprint may have a competitive advantage in consumer engagement, if it can leverage some other assets of Softbank such as Yahoo (in Japan) and provide disaster-related content on its customers’ phones.

She added: “We do think there are some interesting opportunities with emergency alert systems and disaster content support. So if someone can figure out a good way to do it, this is a terrific opportunity.”

Top image of Sprint store in New York City by Northfoto via Shutterstock

Denis Hayes: From Earth Day to the Bullitt Center

Mike Hower

Catch Denis Hayes in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.

The Seattle Bullitt Center has been touted as one of the world's greenest commercial buildings. Spearheaded by the Bullitt Foundation, which offers grants to organizations working to advance environmental initiatives in the Pacific Northwest, the six-story, 50,000-square-foot building was completed last year and is undergoing certification for the Living Building Challenge — a standard more ambitious than LEED.

To be declared a Living Building, a structure must be self-sufficient for energy and water for a full year and meet standards for the materials used and the indoor environment. The standard also requires that the building helps restore the natural environment.

The Bullitt Center is the brainchild of Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, who has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement since serving as national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. Since then, he has fought countless legislative, cultural and courtroom battles and authored several books and articles aimed at advancing the interests of human, urban and industrial ecology.

Next week at VERGE SF, Hayes will showcase the Bullitt Center and how it embodies the concept of human, urban and industrial ecology. I recently had a chance to chat with Hayes to learn more about the project ahead of his presentation.

Mike Hower: Can you please explain how the Bullitt Center is a 'living building'?

Denis Hayes: The Bullitt Center is an example of biomimicry in the built environment. It more or less functions like an organism. For example, it has a nervous system that senses what the temperature is outside, what the temperature is inside, whether the wind is blowing, what direction it's blowing from, how fast it's blowing, whether or not it's raining, how intense the sunlight is and how much carbon dioxide is built up inside. Just like your autonomic nervous system, the computer absorbs all of this information and plugs it into a few fairly simple algorithms that determine whether the external venetian blinds should be up or should be down and — if down — whether they should be shut or angled upward, whether they are trying to keep heat out of the building or merely reflect light further into the building and eliminate glare. The same system determines whether the windows should be open or shut just like the pores on your body.

Like an ecosystem, the Center gets all of its energy (and in fact, it's net energy positive) from sunbeams that fall on its roof in Seattle. It is a six-story office building that last year produced 50 percent more electricity than it used. It captures rainwater that falls on the roof, filters it, uses it for all purposes, including potable drinking water. It's the first commercial building in America that treats gray water and re-injects it right into the soil and the water table, right inside a city.

 cactusbones via Flickr

Hower: What other sustainable features does the Bullitt Center boast?

Hayes: We identified 362 materials that are harmful for people and other living things that are common in buildings — things that are carcinogenic or mutagenic or endocrine disrupting or something — and we kept them all out of the building. The facility has composting toilets and uses a flush toilet system that is foaming, so that in a typical flush, it uses less than a half a cup of water. All of the waste is composted right on site. It's the first office building in the United States to be project-certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is to say every piece of wood in the building is FSC-certified, so it's from a forest that has much larger buffers around its drains, doesn't cut any old growth, has longer rotation times, doesn't use herbicides and should be able to produce wood 1,000, 2,000 years from now, unlike a typical industrial forest model.

Hower: A key objective of VERGE SF is creating a dialogue between cities and tech companies to help scale solutions that ultimately will help them achieve their sustainability and resilience goals. What do you personally believe it means for a city to be resilient?

Hayes: It means that the city is redesigning itself with an awareness that the world around it is now inevitably changing and will continue to do so no matter what we do for several more decades into the future, as a consequence of changes that already have been made in the atmosphere. A resilient city is able to accommodate those — whether it's floods or droughts or hurricanes or whatever the changing climate throws at it. Resilience in human ecosystems, just as in natural ecosystems, is a measure of the flexibility to endure and prosper, regardless of what challenges arise.

 Eugene Kim via Flickr

Hower: How do you believe cities can develop successful public-private partnerships and create a marketplace for things such as smart city products and services?

Hayes: There are several things within the city that historically have been and continue to be public sector responsibilities, such as roads, transit, sewage systems, water mains. There are opportunities to privatize some of that, but it's not clear that there is much advantage in doing so, at least in American cities today. But there are a bunch of other places in the built environment, and especially in buildings and cultural institutions that give life and dynamism to a city, where the private sector, if not influenced by incentives and disincentives, will be driven by market forces to something suboptimal. The typical developer, to be financially successful, spends no more than is absolutely necessary to produce a building that will attract the tenants that it's designed to attract. He can then fully lease up the building and flip it, ideally within a year or two, to an insurance company or real estate investment trust. The developer moves on to the next project — so it's about minimizing a building's initial cost, without regard to its lifetime operating costs. That's why, for example, cities have energy codes and fire codes, and why America banned lead paint.

We have an enormous amount of wood in our building; the ceilings are all wood and the substructures of the floor underneath it and the external beams are all wood. It's the first wood beam construction in Seattle for a six-story building since 1927. We paid 10 percent more for all of that wood because it is all from FSC forests. If you're a tenant and you look at it, what you see is simply wood. If you're a structural engineer looking for its characteristics, it has the characteristics of wood. All of the additional benefits accrue to the forests where it came from and to the workers in those forests; none of them adhere to the developer or the tenants in the building. Yet if we want to continue to have forests 1,000 years from now, we need to have something that incentivizes that.

So you can have governments that encourage developers to use wood that is sustainably harvested, either by providing them a swifter path through the regulatory maze or providing them a little bit of additional space on the lot, transferable development rights, some kind of preferential treatment in real estate taxes. There are all kinds of tools available to cities, and they use them for a variety of good purposes. They use them principally for low income housing, but also to bring parks and recreational space into underserved neighborhoods. Some cities insist upon urban art.

Only rarely do cities use their tools to promote resiliency and sustainability. But the same tools should be used for those purposes, in a partnership where the private sector can say that "we would love to do this but we can't make it pencil-out unless we have this incentive." As long as everyone is honest, it can be a pretty productive partnership.

Top image of Denis Hayes by David Hiller.

Stericycle, DOT and CDC help hospitals prepare for Ebola waste

Janet Howard

How do hospitals prepare for the potential Ebola virus waste stream with science-based decision-making and start off with a best management approach to this waste?

While this is an emerging topic with evolving practices, the most important resource is The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web page for interim guidance on the best approaches for protective equipment, segregation, storage, packaging and removal of this Category A infectious material. While this waste stream may not become an issue for most hospitals, preparedness is key.

Special process for waste disposal

Stericycle, a member of Practice Greenhealth, began working with the CDC and the Department of Transportation in August when the first Ebola case entered the United States. As a result of the collaboration, DOT released a special permit process along with requirements for proper segregation, containment, packaging and removal of this Category A infectious waste to address the needs of Dallas Presbyterian Hospital while maintaining overall public safety.

Stericycle, DOT and CDC continue to work together to evaluate the process and prepare to address additional Ebola-related waste needs. At present, each incident is addressed on a case-by-case basis.

To prepare for waste disposal, hospital staffers should work with their waste hauler for specific packaging procedures and ensure appropriate supplies are on-hand in the hospital and that their hauler is prepared to manage waste removal and disposal. Additional special permits likely will be required from the Department of Transportation to remove the Category A infections waste (PDF), a different category from traditional infectious material (Category B).

The CDC reports that Ebola requires standard, contact and droplet precautions. It is spread by contact with one or more of the following: infected animals; blood or body fluids (including urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk and semen) of a person sick with Ebola or objects (such as needles and syringes) contaminated with the virus.

Ebola is not spread through the air or by water, or in general, by food. However, in Africa, Ebola may be spread as a result of handling bush meat (wild animals hunted for food) and contact with infected bats. There is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals (humans, bats, monkeys and apes) have shown the ability to become infected with and spread Ebola virus.

According to the CDC site providing guidance for clinicians, the Ebola virus enters the patient through mucous membranes, breaks in the skin or other parenteral means. It infects many cell types, including monocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, endothelial cells, fibroblasts, hepatocytes, adrenal cortical cells and epithelial cells. The incubation period may be related to the infection route (six days for injection versus 10 days for contact). Ebola virus migrates from the initial infection site to regional lymph nodes and subsequently to the liver, spleen and adrenal gland.

 vm via Shutterstock

The CDC reports on the details regarding personal protective equipment. For waste collection, environmental services staff are recommended to wear, at a minimum, disposable gloves, gown (fluid resistant/ impermeable), eye protection (goggles or face shield) and face mask to protect against direct skin and mucous membrane exposure of cleaning chemicals, contamination and splashes or spatters during environmental cleaning and disinfection activities.

Additional barriers (leg covers, shoe covers) should be used as needed. If reusable heavy-duty gloves are used for cleaning and disinfecting, they should be disinfected and kept in the room or anteroom. Be sure staff is instructed in the proper use of personal protective equipment including safe removal to prevent contaminating themselves or others in the process, and that contaminated equipment is disposed of appropriately (included in the Category A waste collection). Any mattresses or pillows that are not covered with an impermeable plastic covering should be treated as Category A infectious waste, as well.

Check the CDC website frequently for any updates. The CDC also recommends that any room with a patient on isolation for the Ebola virus should be free of cloth materials such as carpeting, curtains or furniture. EPA-registered hospital disinfectants with a label claim for a non-enveloped virus shall be used on all surfaces and all waste should be collected as Category A regulated medical waste, including reusable linens.

Sustainability and infection control

Sustainability teams, led by infection control, work together to educate new and existing employees, develop posters, strategically place waste bins and monitor waste segregation practices.

According to the Practice Greenhealth Sustainability Benchmark Report, award-winning hospitals average a 9 percent regulated medical waste generation with top performers at a 2.3 percent compared to total waste. With waste fees at least five times more than for solid waste, it's worth the effort, saving anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in waste removal and treatment fees.

Top image of biohazard symbol by Maxal Tamor via Shutterstock. This article first appeared at CSRwire.

9 ways sustainability drives profit

Chris Hummel

Today most executives recognize that sustainability must be integrated into their organization's core strategy — not to say that they necessarily understand why. In fact, too many are still content wearing some kind of sustainability PR badge just because the "About Us" section of their website gives sustainability a one-paragraph mention.

For their sake and ours, here are nine reasons why all of us might want to redefine how we approach sustainability.

1. Lower costs

Sustainability drives profitability. For example, Intercontinental Hotels says it is saving $30,000 a month at two San Francisco hotels by micro-managing peak power. Watch for companies using the uninterrupted power supplies in their data centers to do the same thing. They might even rent spare capacity on their UPS to utilities — UPS as a profit center, anyone?

2. Increased revenue

CBRE, the world's largest commercial real estate services firm, surveyed San Diego and found that green buildings commanded 18 percent higher rents ($2.42 per square foot versus $2.02 per square foot) and higher occupancy rates (88.3 percent vs. 84.3 percent) than conventional buildings. Other surveys show similar results.

3. Higher capital value and ROI

In real estate, higher rents and lower turnover translate directly into higher capital values (PDF) that can average 10.9 percent for new buildings and 6.9 percent for older ones. It also helps you control your utility bill.

4. Leveraging broadband investments

As part of a smart-grid upgrade to make its electrical system more efficient, municipal utility EPB installed a 1-gigabit fiber optic network that reaches more than 172,000 homes and businesses in Chattanooga, Tenn. By building one network for both grid and Internet traffic, EPB was able to leverage its investments and construction costs, and provide local residents along with businesses such as Volkswagen and Amazon with some of the fastest Internet service in the country. This project will become a model for many communities.

5. Brand

Sustainable brands outperform their peers by 120 percent. Seventy-five percent of retailers say sustainability has strengthened or mitigated their brand. I have seen several private studies by the top branding agencies in the world that say similar things.

6. Customer engagement

Ask anyone who has retrofitted their restaurant or store with LED lighting: patrons linger longer. Anecdotal evidence is also being gathered about higher sell-through rates (let alone more savings, of course, as solid-state lighting and lighting networking can cut light power consumption by 70 to 90 percent.)

7. Recruiting

Workers younger than 25 rank an employer’s reputation as an important draw for a job. "It is one of the soft things that many companies don't understand but it is crucial in the retention and morale of employees," Larry Vertal of AMD has noted. "It is amazing how the highest talented people will grill you about your sustainability practices in job interviews.”

8. Health and wellness

Workplace and building design can have a direct impact on motivation, employee satisfaction and productivity. If you’re not freezing or complaining about the heat, you’ll get more done. This benefit may be tough to quantify, but the compelling anecdotes are growing. Hewlett-Packard found that lighting controls can reduce migraines. Data also shows that respiratory problems drop in retrofitted buildings.

9. Data center performance

With the trend towards cloud everything, data center managers are some of the biggest believers in sustainability as electricity can consume up to 30 percent of the operating budget. Google claims it has saved over $1 billion through its energy efficiency measures in its data centers.

What kinds of measures can be taken in a data center environment? Designing for energy efficiency can free up floor space, reducing real estate costs. Lowering wasted heat extends equipment lifetime and reduces failures. Even innovations such as flash memory storage systems — one of the more interesting new ways to reduce power consumption — let companies get more work done with fewer machines.

The list could go on. What are some results and unexpected benefits you’ve seen? And how do you think we can use hard data to move the ball forward?

Top image by Patryk Kosmider via Shutterstock.

How Green Product Claims Affect Purchase Intent and Brand Perception

Great sustainable product stories, told well, can generate enormous benefits. That’s why leading global brands have made sustainable products and processes — and the effective communication of their efforts — a high priority.

But telling a sustainability story is rife with risks. Making unsubstantiated claims can damage your brand’s reputation and strain customer loyalty. On the other hand, communicating your sustainability efforts in a credible and compelling way can influence consumer purchase intent and brand perception.

How do you tell your product story effectively? That’s what UL Environment set out to uncover with a study, conducted by Shelton Group, that polled more than 1,000 consumers and conducted more than 40,000 head-to-head green product claim comparisons.

In this hour-long webcast, you’ll hear the key findings from that study and hear a discussion about how to leverage this information to enhance your company’s sustainability story to drive greater brand value.

Among the things you’ll learn:

  • What consumers want to know related to green product claims
  • The impact of green product claims on purchase intent
  • How consumers view claims that are vague or misleading

Register to attend the webcast and receive the recording when it concludes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014 - 2:00pm

Inside Paul Hawken’s audacious plan to 'drawdown' climate change

Joel Makower

Catch Paul Hawken in person next week at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27 to 30.

Today, at the Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken will publicly unveil a project, more than a year in the works, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.

You read that right: to reduce, not just stabilize, atmospheric CO2 and other gases, in order to reverse rising global temperatures.

Project Drawdown, as it is named, will produce a book in 2016, detailing the costs and benefits of scores of climate solutions, from light bulb technology to livestock techniques to literacy for teenage girls. For each, Hawken and his team will “do the numbers,” providing detailed, science-based data and econometric models showing how each plays out, based on current technology and how it will likely evolve over the project’s 30-year horizon.

“The book is not a plan,” Hawken explained to me recently. “It is not a proposal. It is a reflection back to the world what we are doing and know how to do right this second.”

A meaningful dent

The project grew out of Hawken’s frustration with actionable, scalable solutions that would make a meaningful dent in the atmosphere’s growing accumulation of greenhouse gases. The solutions that had been proffered over the years were all seemingly out of reach — ungodly amounts of solar and wind energy that would be required, for example, or the mass adoption of futuristic, unproven technologies.

“It made me feel like this is intractable, that it requires such Promethean work by such mammoth institutions, with policy changes that are more than structural,” he recalled. “It made me feel like it wasn’t possible to address climate change, rather than giving me hope.”

When the activist Bill McKibben wrote the seminal article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in Rolling Stone in 2012, Hawken asked, “Why aren’t we doing the math on the solutions? Somebody should come up with a list and see what it requires so you get to drawdown.”

The idea of “drawdown” — actually reducing greenhouse gas concentrations so that global temperatures drop — hasn’t been part of the conversation, at least among the United Nations crowd, climate activists or cleantech companies. Most focus on the seemingly pragmatic goal of stabilizing greenhouse gases at some level, expressed in parts per million, or ppm, that would be tolerable — or at least not catastrophic, from economic, environmental and social perspectives.

Hawken thought differently. “There’s no such thing as stabilization at 450 or 550 ppm,” he said. “That’s not stabilized. That’s volatile. I felt that the goal should be drawdown, which is a year-to-year reduction of carbon from the upper atmosphere, period.”

Last year, Hawken began teaching at the Presidio Graduate School, alongside climate activist and entrepreneur Amanda Joy Ravenhill. “One day we were just riffing, and we started talking about drawdown and said, ‘Let’s do it. No one else is doing it,’” Hawken recounted. Today, Ravenhill is Project Drawdown’s executive director and, with Hawken, the book’s co-editor. The two have recruited more than 80 advisors, partners, scientists, government agencies and participating universities, along with more than 200 graduate students.

Doing the numbers

Hawken and Ravenhill will need that army to pull off their audacious vision. The challenge, as Hawken describes it, isn’t in describing the solutions but in doing the numbers — the carbon savings and financial accounting, of course, but also how each solution plays out by country or region, based on available energy resources, climate, economy and other factors — and how each is likely to morph over the next 30 years.

And not just the positives. “We had to be very, very careful that we had the subtraction sign,” factoring in ways greenhouse gas emissions can increase in the atmosphere along the way, offsetting any reductions. For example, he said, ”We can talk about reforestation as being one of the hundred solutions, which it certainly is, but we have to make sure we subtract out the rate of fires in the world to reflect what’s burning down.”

Moreover, he says, technologies can’t be measured in isolation; they need to be viewed as parts of the systems in which they operate. “We can talk about LED bulbs, but we also have to talk about solutions like dynamic skins or smart glass, which actually reduce light load by 40 or 50 percent. Each of these solutions has a history and measurements and metrics and numbers, so we are not pulling rabbits out of a hat.”

And then there’s the problem of double-counting, where individual benefits — energy reductions or financial savings, for example — are counted twice, or even three or four times in a single calculation, inflating a technology’s benefits or understating its costs. That’s been a frequent problem with some clean technology advocates’ rosy scenarios.

The goal, says Hawken, is to make the numbers indisputable. “The numbers wanted to be beyond impeccable in terms of methodology and inputs and even their bias. We wanted to have a very conservative bias on the numbers, so that nobody could say we’re egging the pudding or exaggerating.”

“Doing the numbers” has proved to be as daunting a challenge as Hawken expected, or perhaps more so. The concern over getting it right has led Project Drawdown to push back the book’s publication date, to spring 2016 from the original goal of fall 2015.

Beyond books

True to Hawken’s nature — he’s not likely to be satisfied with simply creating a book, however ambitious and meticulously detailed — Project Drawdown’s plans extend in several directions. The solutions and calculations will be contained in a publicly available database, along with the means for individuals and groups to create customized applications (using APIs, in computer parlance). “Anybody can repurpose it, download it, regionalize it, so they can use the Drawdown solutions to measure progress in any geographically bounded area,” he explained. Users could model solutions differently — for example, factoring in different scenarios of how the cost and efficiency of solar energy might play out over the years. Hawken says there are also plans for accompanying educational curricula developed by National Science Foundation. And possibly some media projects based on the work.

The research could even be used as a policy tool, Hawken says. “What we see again and again is negative cost. We don’t see the opprobrium that is always cast on climate mitigation, which is, ‘It costs too much, costs too much, costs too much.’ We don’t see that at all. We see ‘Return, return, return.’ So governments — whether cities or local or communities or counties or states — can understand that these are no-regrets projects that have a very strong positive return, in which case you would want to do them, regardless of what you think about the rate of change in climate or whether you believe in it at all.”

Despite the long road ahead, Hawken is already looking past the publication of what he dubs “Drawdown 1,” and on to its sequel. That, he promises, will look at the next generation of technologies, with all of their unrealized potential to solve climate change. “We don’t know the ending of this book, make that very clear, but with Drawdown 2, we’re saying, ‘Look what is coming. It is stunning.’” 

It’s easy, in today’s divisive and toxic political environment, to view Project Drawdown as too good to be true, a quixotic quest for an unattainable goal.

But there’s something simple and sane about Project Drawdown’s collective ingredients: unabashed optimism tempered by sharp-pencil calculations, a bold goal undergirded by scientific pragmatism, immediacy coupled with a 30-year horizon, all leveraging the wisdom of a very smart crowd.

Not all of it will pan out — there are simply too many variables and uncertainties — but much of it will. And it just could move the needle.

Working together, EHS systems and CSR rocket a company to success

Anna Clark

Making environmental, health and safety compliance sexy may seem impossible, but the Sustainable Performance Forum Americas 2014 conference came close. With former NASA astronaut Capt. John Creighton on stage, a Discovery Bar in the lobby and over 500 attendees with roles spanning the sustainability spectrum, enterprise software company Enablon turned an enterprise event into an industry influencer.

Now in its sixth year, SPF Americas attracts EHS compliance managers and sustainability innovators. Rule enforcers plus silo breakers makes a potentially combustible mixture, but these elements can transform organizations — if they can find a way to work together.

The EHS system is a catalyst for transformation. Sophisticated EHS software platforms can collect and parse Big Data, allowing compliance managers to work efficiently while contributing to their company's knowledge pool. Analytics captured for risk-management purposes can improve performance and even support CSR programs and sustainability reporting.

"Even a mom-and-pop shop has to complete safety reviews. The compliance requirements are there regardless," said Chris McClean, principal analyst and research director at Forrester Research. "These tools help companies manage their compliance responses more efficiently. Better performance translates into better results."

Earlier this year, McClean released a report analyzing 19 governance, risk and compliance software platforms. Enablon's platform emerged as one of the leaders, but as McClean points out, a wide range of variables factor into selecting the right platform.

Leveraging EHS systems for efficiency, resilience and compliance

Enablon doesn't define sustainability according the classic "triple bottom line" but by more essential attributes: efficiency, resilience and compliance. My charge as keynote panel moderator was to get into the minds of strategists, managers, analysts and developers to expose opportunities and challenges associated with EHS systems. In talking with McClean and other panelists, I learned how these systems help companies navigate the sea of data to improve performance, manage risk and ensure compliance.

"In today's information-intense world, we all can easily get swamped in data and information overload," said John Mogge, environment and nuclear market global director of technology, practice and design for CH2MHill. "The strongest environmental and sustainability programs are based on best available and sound data, which inform both your operations and your risk management programs."

Properly informed management systems enhance an organization's value-creation efforts for both the short term and the long term, and "we have a lot of proof to support this," explained Mogge, who has led complex projects for clients ranging from the 2012 Olympics in London to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Allen Stegman, general director of environmental and hazardous materials for BNSF Railway, said scalability is also important in an enterprise-wide EHS system. "Gathering information (vs. data) allows us to transition from lagging metrics to leading indicators and predictive analytics so that we can continue to drive improvement in our performance," said Stegman.

An EHS system can help a company become more resilient, but a good fit is crucial. If improperly selected or misunderstood, risk management systems ostensibly there to "risk-proof" your company can become "something else you have to worry about risk-proofing," warned Scott Nadler, senior partner at ERM.

"You know things are going to go poorly from time to time. But are incidents a one-time thing or is this a pattern of things going poorly?" said McClean. Performance systems can help establish and maintain patterns of performance that become part of a company's brand, leading to what McClean calls "brand resilience."

Translating EHS data to CSR deliverables

"Through performance improvements such as fuel efficiency," said Stegman, "BNSF Railway can now move 1 ton of freight, on average, approximately 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel." The company sees corporate social responsibility as a means to communicate improvements with stakeholders.


For example, BNSF Railway "shares with our customers how we are reducing their emissions by more than 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year," said Stegman. "That is equivalent to our customers eliminating the consumption and resultant emissions produced by burning more than 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel."

If relaying EHS performance is a driving purpose behind CSR, what prevents these different teams from working together more often?

"A lot of CSR data is only available after a bit of corporate crow-barring," said Joe Jones, principal sustainability consultant with SustainIt, in his presentation. Getting energy managers, transport managers and the OHS team to part with "their" data is challenging, said Jones, "but if you can get hold of that information, then you can subject that data to the math you need to go from no CSR data to what I would consider quite a strong CSR dataset."

One of the most interesting differences he sees between the U.S. and Europe is the firewall between CSR and EHS.

"I've found — and firmly believe — that companies need to view CSR as a core part of business strategy rather than a risk mitigation exercise," he said. "Sustainability should be about a global stakeholder rather than just cashflow protection.

"Clever software is often the best way to do this, especially if you get fancy with it and start working out stuff like CO2 impact per average employee."

Good EHS data can be the cornerstone of a broader CSR data strategy. Energy and accident data are one of the easiest components of CSR data to come by, and this data is already being collected at the EHS level. As Jones sees it, "finding a way to make this data usable allows corporates to really kick start their CSR momentum."

How humans help and hinder EHS implementations

As much as technology can do, the human piece often gets in the way. That's why one of the key features among the leaders in Forrester's report is usability.

"We've completely redesigned our platform to make sure it is easy to use, intuitive, and beautiful. It is made by humans, for humans," said Phil Tesler, co-founder and CEO of Enablon North America. By offering "the most intuitive user interface on the market," Enablon's software aims to simplify the user experience, thus enabling the rigorous data collection that can lead to superior performance.

As on-the-ground guardians of data, compliance managers need a platform that allows them to respond in a crisis situation. Much further upstream, CSR staff and consultants can use this data to build the sustainability case. Facilitating this connection are the software developers and IT consultants who create and implement compliance-oriented platforms. Together, EHS, CSR and IT form a triumvirate of competencies capable of forging truly sustainable solutions.

However, most users still only exploit a fraction of the available functionality of EHS systems. Jill Gilbert, president of Lexicon Systems, explained in her presentation that the breakdown often occurs at a failure to anticipate and meet basic business requirements.

"Companies can make emotional decisions. They see bells and whistles and forget what their needs are," said Gilbert, who sees the EHS system purchase as analogous to the car-buying experience.

"Say you're car-shopping and you're thinking, 'Gee, the Tesla only costs $900 per month. It's such a cool car and does so much. Maybe it's too expensive, but I'll make it work.' Then you get it and realize it can't carry much or hold the child carriers in the back." In other words, the slickest product doesn't always fit a company's needs, nor its budget.

 EnablonGilbert offered clients seeking an EHS system some advice: "Get buy-in up front. Pre-qualify. Settle infighting. Get the right people involved. You have to resolve those issues before you invest in a system." Gilbert said clients who follow her advice on business requirements can shorten the lifecycle by months and save "millions of dollars in the process."

I encountered a range of explanations for why companies don't maximize the opportunities presented by translating EHS performance into CSR results. Another barrier is the persistent confusion around what sustainability even means. As Nadler explained, "sustainability is a term of art."

And then there's good old-fashioned human error. As Capt. John Creighton said during his keynote, "Sometimes your wingman's an idiot."

No fighter pilot is really an idiot, but anyone can become myopic. People with a compliance orientation (and I'm generalizing here) tend to regard CSR with suspicion, which makes sense when you think about their day-to-day priorities. At the same time, CSR types have little connection to the daily rigors of managing risk. That's somebody else's job.

Creighton told us that in times of high stress, pilots revert to their native tongues. The same may hold true for people on the ground. As stressful as the average workday has become, it's difficult to reach beyond immediate concerns. But if we can learn to breathe outside of the insulated modules of our limited perspectives and let go of the jargon that encapsulates them, a universe awaits.

A launching pad for industry leadership

"A lot of companies over the last 10 years are taking the voluntary approach because they see business values other than checking a box, such as the desire to recruit and retain good talent," said McClean. "If you comply, good, you won't get fined, but if you go above and beyond, you attract good people and build a better reputation."

A narrow, half-hearted EHS system rollout is not going to produce stratospheric results. Nor is there is a one-size-fits all solution. The important thing is to do a thorough job at selecting the right system for a given situation, then forge a culture that is forward-looking and resilient enough to handle the task of maximizing its potential.

Management information systems have the power to bridge EHS and CSR so long as the people using them know how to work collaboratively. Only when the powerful forces of technology and human ingenuity are integrated will sustainability truly lift off.

Top image of Endeavor space shuttle by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

8 ways Big Data helps improve global water and food security

Christopher Neale

Big Data is transforming agriculture, and just in time. The demand for food is expected to double by 2050 as the world's population heads toward 9 billion people and increasing incomes allow many more to afford a better diet. Lack of water is a critical constraint to increasing food production, particularly as droughts and other consequences of climate change are making water scarcer.

To help solve this enormous challenge, the agriculture and water communities are harnessing Big Data to ramp up food production with less pressure on our water resources. Experts from around the world gathered in Seattle this week at the Water for Food Global Conference to discuss ways to harness this data revolution in agriculture. Hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska in association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the conference focused on mobilizing Big Data to improve global water and food security.

With that in mind, here are eight ways Big Data is helping to create a more water- and food-secure world.

1. Satellite imagery and data

Satellites gather vast amounts of data that are used at global and local scales. For example, satellites can track atmospheric patterns, precipitation and ocean currents. Combined with weather data, researchers are using satellite data to develop better forecasting and risk-management tools to help farmers, whether in Nebraska or Ethiopia, make better decisions, and to help governments better plan for droughts and floods. Satellite data also can be used to home in on local areas to precisely map landscapes, analyze soils or assess crop yields, among many other uses.

2. Groundwater monitoring

Globally, agriculture consumes 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, primarily for irrigation, and groundwater is a key source of irrigation water. Data regarding aquifer conditions, groundwater withdrawals and other metrics are critical for water managers to prevent catastrophic aquifer depletions. Although water metering to potentially regulate use is unpopular — most recently in California as the state undertakes new groundwater management rules — it's been successfully used in areas of Nebraska for more than 40 years to help maintain groundwater levels, despite having the most irrigated acres in the nation.

 Lee via Flickr

3. Viewing advantages

These days, most people are familiar with the potential of drones outside the military. In agriculture, drones will help farmers, water managers and researchers peer into places otherwise difficult to see. They capture images of entire fields and can zoom into individual leaves to determine the plant's condition. Researchers are developing drones to go beyond capturing images to actually interact with the environment, taking leaf samples, gathering water samples, measuring crop height or applying herbicides to individual plants.

Cameras — and the ability to process huge data files — are giving us new perspectives on our world. In one example, the Platte Basin Timelapse Project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln placed more than 40 cameras along the entire length of the Platte River watershed, from the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies through Nebraska to the Missouri River. The cameras take a picture every daylight hour. The visual timeline gives scientists, resource managers and the public a greater understanding of the influences agriculture, municipal water supplies, geological processes, restoration projects and other activities have on the watershed, leading to better watershed management.

4. Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture defies the stereotype of farmers as low-tech traditionalists. Today, a host of technology from GPS-equipped tractors to remote-controlled or even automated irrigation systems is turning farming into a high-tech business.

Water sensors placed throughout a field monitor soil moisture in real-time, which help a farmer decide when and how much to irrigate. Fed to computer-controlled irrigation systems, that information allows precise water applications rather than a single amount across an entire field.

In another example, computer-equipped combines gather data during harvest to create detailed yield maps, which are used to create a precise prescription of fertilizers and other inputs to improve productivity the following year. Such advances translate into higher yields using less water and energy. And, thankfully, the high-tech nature of agriculture is also attracting young people back to farming.

5. Global atlases

Where in the world do we have existing farmland with the capacity to produce much higher, stable yields? Which river basins are running dry, and why? Researchers are gathering and analyzing satellite, atmospheric, on-the-ground and historic data to create mapping tools and models that help governments and others improve agriculture and conserve water.

For example, the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, a global collaboration led by the Water for Food Institute, identifies existing farmland worldwide where significant gaps exist between actual and potential yields for different crops. The atlas estimates global yield trends and food security for global analyses and, perhaps more important, helps individual countries identify production potential to improve policy and to better strategize resource allocations and trade opportunities.

 Bioversity International

6. Regional mapping

Countries are taking on their own Big Data projects to better plan for the future. Sri Lanka, for example, recently began mapping many of its primary river basins and modeling climate risks to develop a comprehensive flood and drought mitigation plan. In the Dominican Republic, I participated in a project that created a spatial database of the country's entire irrigated properties. The data allows water managers to better maintain the country's extensive irrigation canal systems, conserve water and create equity among water users.

7. Smartphones

Big Data analysis and modeling can reach even subsistence farmers in remote areas. Many farmers in poor, rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, long isolated by insufficient phone service and roads, have cellphones. They now have access to weather forecasting and market information to make better decisions, manage money and develop a wider support network, thereby improving livelihoods as well as local water and food security.

8. Research advances

Science is driven by data. Greater data gathering and computing power is allowing researchers to develop drought-resistant crop breeds, better understand climate change and create models that help us understand risks and opportunities moving forward, among other research goals.

Much data is flowing in agriculture, creating numerous opportunities to increase food production without compromising limited water resources. But many challenges remain to ensure the data flows efficiently and to those who need it most.

Top image of water on data DVD by panda3800 via Shutterstock.

EY team learns data is essential to a Mexico farmer's survival

Brian Kaemingk

Every year EY, a global professional services organization, takes a group of employees out of their cubicles and drops them into nature. Organized by the Earthwatch Institute and supported by a group of local scientists, EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors help with field research and use their professional knowledge to tackle a business or social challenge. This is one participant’s story.

A Mexico City farmer stands straddling a small canal that he has just finished digging. He tells us that for as long as he can remember, his family has dug a canal in that same place, year after year. He shows us his crops, describing how he learned crop rotation from his father, a technique used to renew the soil. He points out the species of flowers and herbs his sons have planted in a field nearby to naturally repel bugs. He brings us to a pile of natural fertilizer, made of straw and cow dung, steaming and stinky in the hot afternoon sun.

On first glance, visiting Xochimilco, an area of wetlands area just south of Mexico City, gives you the impression that nothing has changed for decades. It is a place rich with tradition, where everyone knows the neighbors, where more food is cultivated than bought, where livestock outnumber Internet connections. Just under the surface, however, a quiet battle emerges in these wetlands, pitting these traditional farmers against modern farming techniques and a depleted environment, forcing local farmers to confront a simple question: will they adapt and embrace a new way of farming, or will they stay the course and risk irrelevancy? As EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors, our goal was to help answer this question.

In the last decade, farmers of Xochimilco have been confronted with new environmental issues. One is the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yields and keep bugs away. Our team took water and insect samples to measure the effect of these chemicals. The results demonstrated a significant increase in harmful chemicals and decrease in nutrients in areas near farms with chemical pesticides. The data we collected for Earthwatch will be used to promote organic farming in the area and as a call to action to politicians to shape environmental policy.

Water supply

Another issue facing these farmers is water supply. With the increase in the population of Mexico City, the water levels have drained, turning once popular canal routes into patches of mud. Farmers who used to relying solely on irrigation ditches now have had to buy gas-powered pumps and sprinkler systems which pipe water from canals, draining more water and compounding the problem even more.

Environmental changes aside, farmers in the area also encounter a changing Mexican consumer. The urban Mexican is increasingly asking questions about where her food comes from and how it is produced. Using the skillsets we bring from the business world, our EY team spent about half of our time supporting a group of about 10 organic farmers in the area, suggesting organizational, financial and marketing changes to increase efficiency and visibility. Some of our deliverables included a mission and vision statement, a profit and loss statement, and an analysis of new distribution channels as community-sponsored agriculture. Equipped with these new tools, the organization — we hope — will grow stronger and provide a home base for organic farmers in the area.

Personal transformation

Upon my return from Xochimilco, I find myself changed, both professionally and personally. Personally, I never will take for granted the water from my faucet again. Professionally, I hope to make sustainability an emphasis of my career going forward by bringing leading sustainability practices to future client projects.

My biggest takeaway from my time in Xochimilco is the importance of data to equip the green movement. In our polarized country, blogs such as GreenBiz, organizations such as Earthwatch and topics such as organic farming tend to turn some people off. Many too often will write off the green movement as politically biased.

As advocates for the earth, how do we overcome this? The answer is simple: data. Data is the alchemy furnace, the only tool with the magical power to transform a whining environmentalist into a hard-nosed pragmatist confronting a real-world problem. It is one thing to say, “Without action from local and national political leaders to regulate the amount of water taken from the area, Mexico City’s remaining wetlands will be drastically depleted.” It is yet another to say, “At the current rate, Mexico City’s water supply will be depleted by 2020.”

Suffice it to say, in all matters — especially in charged environmental matters — it is best to follow the advice of my former boss, who used to tell me, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

Top image of Xochimilco via Eric & Autumn's World Roll Up

Ellen Weinreb checks the pulse of the CSO profession

Joel Makower

The notion of chief sustainability officers inside major corporations is still opaque to most people, even some inside companies that have them. But to those in the sustainability field, the CSO function represents an important touchpoint about the overall field of sustainability: how, and how much, it is being woven into the corporate fabric.

Three years ago, Ellen Weinreb, whose executive search firm, Weinreb Group, focuses on sustainability and corporate social responsibility jobs and careers, took a peek inside the job of the CSO with a report called CSO Back Story. She dubbed it “the first-ever data driven report of its kind concentrating on analyzing and encapsulating the essence” of the CSO role. Among the commonalities she found was that CSOs were “business veterans who are good at leading new initiatives, cross-functional teams, and understand how to translate external factors into internal opportunities.”

Now, she's updated that research. The latest report (download) “explores the evolution of the CSO role across industries,” again taking the pulse of the profession.

Among her latest findings: the CSO role “is now increasingly tasked with delivering collective benefit,” both internally and externally. “To achieve this, CSOs are enlisting support across departments and functions, and building strong governance structures. Today’s CSOs are orchestrating company-wide CSR efforts.” In other words, woven into the corporate fabric.

That is leading CSOs to stretch themselves a bit, delving into parts of the organization that may not be their traditional sweet spot. Said Weinreb, who writes the Talent Show column for GreenBiz on sustainability professionals: “With businesses increasingly embedding CSR across their organizations, a successful leader must demonstrate not only a solid understanding of and background in sustainability systems, accounting and related areas, but also an acute sense of how she can help create value — for her organization as well as social and environmental stakeholders.”

Weinreb found 36 chief sustainability officers within large U.S. corporations, up from 29 in 2011. She counted only those with that actual title; many others consider themselves to be their company’s “chief sustainability officer,” even though their titles don’t reflect that. Only five were hired as CSOs by their companies. The rest were promoted internally, in many cases as a capstone to a long career within their company.

The report covers five shifts that “showcase the ways in which the CSO role has matured, evolved or shown renewed emphasis over the past three years.” They include:

  1. Collective benefit: The role of the CSO has transitioned from a focus on the tactical implementation of environmental and social initiatives toward an emphasis on delivering benefit for stakeholders and shareholders simultaneously.
  2. Innovation: Thinking beyond incremental improvements, CSOs are spearheading innovation in order to meet the need for sustainably designed products and processes that meet radically different criteria.
  3. Stakeholder signaling: CSOs actively are engaged in signaling the company’s commitment to sustainability across multiple channels. Communication of the sustainability agenda to external stakeholders, such as customers and the media, as well as internal stakeholders, such as employees, is a critical responsibility of the CSO.
  4. Access: Regardless of its hierarchical position, the CSO role touches the business at all levels and works across organizational pillars. The CSO moves seamlessly from collaborating with employees across the business to influencing the company’s core vision and strategy.
  5. A team sport: The success of the CSO hinges upon the careful orchestration and engagement of multiple teams throughout the organization. By embedding sustainability into all corners of the business, the CSO empowers business leaders to own.

A woman’s place?

One of the notable findings was a large increase — 50 percent — in women CSOs over the past three years, from 28 percent in 2011 to 42 percent today. “I’m often struck by these photos of the leadership team where you see all men accept for the one woman — and she comes from Human Resources,” Weinreb told me recently. “There are some C-level functions that are seen as more feminine; human resources, for example. I wouldn’t want the CSO to take on a gender stereotype.”

We’re a ways from that happening. Women still represent a minority of CSO positions. And, at the risk of falling into a gender stereotype, there are traits in the CSO role for which women may be more naturally suited — among them, communications, bridge-building, collaboration and deflecting credit to others. And many women come to the CSO role through engineering, finance and science positions, traditionally male-dominated fields, as we've been featuring for years. Doesn’t seem like a gender problem to me.

But it’s not that simple. My colleague John Davies, in GreenBiz’s State of the Profession report, found that “while women constitute 50 percent of sustainability managers and 49 percent of directors, they account for only 37 percent of the vice presidents surveyed." Davies also found “an extreme lack of racial diversity in the profession as well as a significant pay gap for professional women.”

Weinreb’s CSO “back story” contains its own sobering findings. For example, a few companies have eliminated the CSO role since the 2011 report; another, a European company with a strong U.S. presence, moved the position back to Germany. It’s unclear whether this reflects a step forward or backward — whether CSOs disappear because their companies have lost their focus on sustainability, or because their former jobs have become broadly dispersed within the companies. Depends on the company, of course.

From here to obsolescence

Still, it's hard to make a case that CSOs eventually will become outmoded. When sustainability becomes “everyone’s job,” it’s really no one’s job — that is, no single individual who is accountable, or who holds the larger vision of how the company can align its business goals with society's. There’s a good case to be made that someone needs to be in charge. That will be one interesting trend to watch in the next tranche of research on the sustainability profession: not just the macro view of how many companies have CSOs, but also the micro view of where they sit within companies, their reporting relationships, the kind of clout they wield and their budgets and headcount. That will help tell a deeper story about the kind of influence such professionals are likely to have, now and in the future.

Weinreb believes the future seems bright for sustainability execs and discounts those who believe that successful CSOs eventually will work themselves out of a job. “I am of the strong belief that the CSOs play an extremely important role at the helm, steering the ship and staying the course,” she said. “I disagree with those that say they are working themselves into obsolescence.”

All images courtesy Weinreb Group