How Microsoft scales sustainability both in-house and in-town

When an organization looks at global sustainability, it's impossible to ignore cities. Even companies taking a hard look at themselves need to realize that the company probably lives in a city. That's why Microsoft's chief environmental and cities strategist, Rob Bernard, wears two green hats: one focused on the company, the other on cities.

During VERGE 2014 in San Francisco, Bernard sat down with GreenBiz's CEO Eric Faurot to talk about what Microsoft has been doing in both spaces. Bernard was excited to talk about where Microsoft was in its sustainability efforts, but didn't give any illusions about its challenges.

"We felt really good about the progress we were starting to make, and I'd say we're still in our early stages," he said. "The reality is, we have to offset with [renewable energy credits], which means we don't have clean fuel sources in most places in the world. It just doesn't exist at scale."

However, he did tout the progress his team has made in changing the culture at Microsoft so that every employee has a stake in the sustainability game. First, Bernard said that creating partnerships with other departments was critical.

"I look at the role of the sustainability officer is not to do the work, it's to get others to do the work who are more qualified," he said. "I am not a data center expert. It's much better to have a team of six people thinking about energy in our data center."

Later, Bernard talked about how every department has a carbon budget, in addition to their financial budgets. Giving an example, Bernard said that he had to take the carbon cost of his flight to San Francisco from the itinerary and account for it in the department's budget. That type of carbon accounting, he said, is everywhere at Microsoft.

"It's really taken off because it's changed consciousness. One consciousness changes, behavior changes, and that's the key," he said. "You can't do all the work yourself as a sustainability officer. You have to get other people to change their consciousness, and then they'll do the work."

But his work doesn't end at the company front door. "When you look at the biggest environmental challenges as a group, the origin is cities," Bernard said. "If we're not really focused on cities, then we will never really [focus] on that first pillar of our sustainability strategy."

Starting with Microsoft's own huge campus, Bernard's team started looking at how cities can be made more efficient, with a mixture of solutions from Microsoft, its competitors and smaller local startups. In one example, he talked about how sensors placed on city buses can track which drivers are efficient, and which are wasteful.

Solutions, he said, could be found from a mixture of hardware and software vendors, from Apple to IBM and others.

"The fears and concerns that we as an industry created a decade or two decades ago, which is you are locked-in, that paradigm is nearly over," he said. "Cities should be really excited. Whether it's Microsoft or one of our competitors, the rate of innovation is astounding."