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Technology and Substance in Sustainability

Casey Talon
Mar 18, 2016

Springtime landscape over natural oilseed rape field

Sustainability has been a part of the corporate vernacular for decades. The concept has primarily been tied to corporate branding, but the priority, investments, and influence of the champions of sustainability has been limited—until now. Major moves by some of the world’s most influential businesses indicate that an important shift is underway. Sustainability is moving up the food chain as technology brings substance to targets, as future leaders demand real commitments, and as organizations acknowledge the real risks of inaction.

A recent GreenBiz article announced the “promotion” of sustainability at Microsoft. As the article highlights, the elevation in reporting only underscores the deepening commitment more corporations are making toward sustainability. As Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft, explained, “It’s an acceleration, amplification and prioritization of sustainability within the company. It’s now a cross-company initiative that has a center of gravity in the president’s office." Other tech giants and major corporations have similarly moved sustainability into the boardroom, indicating rising influence of the position.

Three Indicators of Change

Technology brings substance to sustainability. Let’s hone in on the metrics and actions that organizations are taking to meet their sustainability goals. LEED, ENERGY STAR, and the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) have helped businesses define their footprint and identify metrics for sustainability. However, there is momentum spurring something deeper. Technology is redefining energy use in buildings—a major contributor to most companies’ operational and environmental footprint. As we highlighted in a recent white paper, intelligent building technologies help customers meet the requirements of green labeling and provide ongoing insight into system improvements. Software can provide real-time data at the asset level that ensures efficiency improvements are maintained for meeting sustainability targets, but can also streamline operations and maintenance and deliver data for capital planning, thereby directly improving the bottom line.

Future leadership—the millennials—demand it. The makeup of the future workforce is a hot topic across industry as companies undergo long-term planning and implement strategies for recruitment and retention. We’ve hit the tipping point, and according to the Pew Research Center, millennials now make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce. This is important as these future leaders have different priorities and expectations. A recent survey by Sustainable Brands found that 60% of millennials are committed to increasing sustainability practices at their place of employment. This finding and others like it suggest that sustainability will only become more important from a corporate perspective as younger workers move up the ladder.

The threats are real. Take a look at sustainability reports for any major corporation and the topic often turns to climate change on page one. Despite the political wrangling in the United States, corporations are coming to terms with what climate change may mean for their business. They want clarity on regulation, they’re responding to shareholder demands, and they’re taking a stand in the public arena for climate change action. Recently, 17 top British executives signed a letter in the Independent acknowledging the value of standardization in expectations for climate risk disclosure in annual reporting. The message resonates in the United States as well, as the New York Times reported earlier this year. Major investors—including CalPERS (California Public Employees’ Retirement System), the Connecticut state investment fund, and Calvert Investments—made a public demand to the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) for the issuance of a rule to make climate change expectations concrete in public disclosure.

The evidence is clear: Sustainability is becoming a strategic imperative for major corporations. Technology can make sustainability goals attainable and economic, employees demand it, and shareholders are tying it to bottom line valuation.