Tag Archives: climate change

Creating Change At Scale: Rob Bernard, Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft

Rob Bernard is the Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft. He’s is a featured Keynote Speaker at GoGreen ’10 Seattle on Wednesday, April 21st. Join us to hear more from Rob and over 60 other green business leaders on the cutting edge of sustainability in their company.

There’s no question that change is coming. In fact it’s happening right now. But change at broad scale has been more elusive for many. For Microsoft, with 80,000 employees in 100 different countries, affecting the kind of broad-based change is seen as both an opportunity and an obligation to society. With Rob Bernard at the helm of their sustainability efforts, they’re pushing for mass impact at breakneck speed.

GG: As an 80,000 person company, Microsoft has the potential to make a huge impact on the Earth’s systems—both positively or negatively. How do you handle that responsibility?
RB:
There are a couple of ways. One is what we hope is a clearly defined strategy and then secondly, making sure we put the right sort of governance model in place to execute that strategy. Then we try to use the appropriate level of communications so that people understand the strategy.

We look at several things when we develop strategy. The first is looking for energy efficiency gains for both ourselves and for society. We’re looking at how to leverage IT gains for all sectors. The second is looking at how we use technology tools to accelerate breakthroughs and scientific understanding of what future climate situations look like, and also working on modeling adaptation or mitigation strategies in the face of climate and environmental changes on our planet.

The third area is to make sure that we’re being responsible environmental leaders in the way we run our business. Here we’re looking beyond just energy efficiency to places like paper use, food services, transportation policies and travel policies.

Underpinning all that is this governance model that asks the question: How do we make sure that environmental sustainability becomes a core tenant in the way we do business, so that regardless of whether you’re a engineer writing software or a sales person, we’re providing the tools and support to make good decisions?

GG: What is Microsoft’s role in the broader sustainability movement? Is it to take care of your own business or go outside of the Microsoft campus and into the rest of the world?
RB:
We have a billion customers around the world, so we have an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that our customers are able to leverage our tools, services and technologies to drive sufficient energy and efficiency gains. For example, think about the role of sensors and sensor-based networks in building-based management. We also made an announcement last week with Ford where people who are looking to buy electric vehicles, and need infrastructure for charging, can use some of our software to enhance that experience. And then there’s the home products we’re developing that help people manage their home energy use.

We’re looking to build partnerships with other organizations for things like resource accounting and utilities efficiency. The goal is to make the impact that we make at Microsoft, but also in the IT industry, very positive so that more and more companies can provide more services to both enterprises, consumers and scientists to scale the solution up quickly. Because there’s one thing we all agree on and that’s that we don’t have much time.

GG: What are some of the specific ways that Microsoft reduces its impact? How does that translate into your product line?
RB:
Some things translate into what our clients buy. Some things are just physical behavior or thinking about our supply chain and how we run our business. For example, we can look at our food service. We’ve redesigned our entire food service and also our waste stream on our corporate campus—which is where approximately 50 percent of our workforce is located. By doing that we’ve reduced our waste stream by half in the first year of attacking this issue. That’s an example of how our focus on becoming more efficient and less wasteful, both in terms of what we purchase and what we dispose of, is making a huge impact.

An example of where our efforts touch our product lines is in using our own software tools and data to ensure that we’re having an impact on energy consumption for the clients. Specifically we’re ensuring that Windows and our other software are energy efficient in how they run and also we’re promoting more unified communications so that we’re reducing our air travel. In that area, we’ve been able to reduce the travel of the average Microsoft employee by 20 percent over the course of a year. That is a direct result of leveraging our technologies more effectively and others can do the same.

GG: When did this conversation start and when did Microsoft get serious about enacting broad scale sustainable policies?
RB:
It’s one of those things, like a lot of things, that has multiple source points. I’ve been in my role at Microsoft for two and half years, but we’ve been thinking about these things for well over a decade.

If you look at our road map for something like Windows, we’re transitioning from a world where energy efficiency and enhancements were options in the product line to a world where they’re default on both the client and the server end. Those things take up to a decade to really embed themselves into the technology and we’ve been working on sustainability in a lot of different places that are just now showing up with big impact.

The next question is: How do you take well-intentioned individual behaviors and put them together in a way that is strategic and adheres to a larger vision and strategy? That process and transition started about three years ago—but we want to accelerate and amplify the speed at which we’re doing things and the impact they have.

GG: What have been the biggest roadblocks you’ve come up against and how did you bust through them?
RB:
Internally, our biggest challenge is often keeping up with the pace at which things are changing. We’re in over one hundred countries and have dozens of product lines and services. Keeping track of and harnessing the incredible amount of work that’s done everyday has been an early-on challenge. I think as we get more involved in this and it becomes systemic, the next wave is using the right models to change our practices broadly and change how we talk about this with customers. Those aren’t really challenges necessarily, but something we have to work through.

The biggest challenge we face externally is actually changing behavior rather than pushing technology. There are incredible technologies that exist right now that will enable customers to significantly reduce the impact of their IT activity or allow IT to reduce the impact of their operations. These things exist because there are cutting edge companies doing incredible work and making radical changes in their energy consumption. The technology is there, so the issue is why it isn’t happening on a broader scale? It’s often because these are behavioral changes.

Let me mention a statistic that is interesting, illuminating and concerning all at the same time—fewer than 20 percent of IT professionals know how much energy their infrastructure consumes. Because historically those facilities figures showed up on the power bill, which they don’t see. As a result, many IT professionals can’t optimize their energy use because they don’t know what it is. That’s not a technology problem, it’s a business model, infrastructure and corporate governance issue.

Let’s say you came to me and said, “Hey Microsoft, I want to find out how I can reduce the amount of energy I use in my data center.” I would first ask you how much energy you’re using in your data center. A lot of people aren’t really sure, but they still want to reduce it. So then I’d ask, “Why aren’t you sure?” Usually the answer is that facilities has the answers because they pay the bills—but you have to go get those bills.

It’s great to have web tools and services in place that monitor and control real time energy use, but you won’t get to that level of operational sophistication unless you begin with the fundamental behavioral issue which includes proactively tackling the issue by going out and finding the data you need to get started.

GG: Are there any sustainable initiatives or policies that you haven’t been able to implement yet, but would like to?
RB:
The challenge right now is building things up to scale. We have incredible amounts of support across the whole company, but we’re still pushing hard to make this happen faster and make things more beneficial for our customers.

GG: How can smarter software help other companies be more sustainable?
RB:
It depends on what industry they operate in, but taking an example, let’s say you’re in the IT department and you monitor your energy use. You can probably save 25-30 percent right off the bat by following some of our efficiency best practices. If you think about air travel or train travel—a behavior that almost every business person has to engage in—and invest in telecommuting technologies like we did, you can reduce travel substantially. That has a massive financial impact on a company and also drastically reduces their carbon footprint.

If you can actually change the way in which people work and travel by substituting technology for physical transport—that’s huge. You can also look at the difference between sending data and sending physical paper. We look at this in terms of how we distribute our own materials and software. We’re encouraging our customers to move further away from using disks, printed materials and packaging that has to be shipped and closer to getting things digitally. The dematerialization concept is quite powerful and we’re just starting to see it take hold.

GG: What do we need to do to push change at a rate that will let us avoid some of the most unpleasant environmental consequences that are looming?
RB:
It’s really a combination of pushing and pulling. What we need to do as an industry, not just as Microsoft, is to provide more examples and case studies of breakthrough technology and behavioral changes. We need to showcase those achievements so that more people are aware and can emulate them. That’s more on the push side.

On the pull side, what we need to see happen is a more universal focus on making things more efficient and making things happen faster. I go back to this example I’ve been using in our discussion of the IT department and ask why more CIOs aren’t accountable for their company’s energy bill?

If we had a scenario where more CFOs, CEOs and people who do my job are driving CIOs to think about and become accountable for energy consumption, those professionals will start to develop and employ technologies to help them reduce their impact.

You could argue the same thing for line managers. If line managers become accountable for a manufacturing plant’s energy costs or carbon output—or both—they would go seek out the technology to drive efficiency.

GG: Are there any case studies on these groundbreaking behavior changes that particularly inspire you?
RB:
I’ll tell you about one that isn’t happening in the energy arena, because there is a lot of talk around that sector already. There are some pretty interesting things happening in places where people are using sensor networks to drive down the amount of water consumption in agricultural use.

Just to put this in context, about 70 percent of the water we use is for agricultural and manufacturing purposes, and estimates are that up to 50 percent of that water is wasted because we use the blanket approach rather than a targeted one. Now, imagine a world where you put in censors into the fields and can get incredibly specific about when and where you water.

Now you can do things like predicting water need. Since you know each seed, what its growing cycle should be and the optimal amount of moisture it needs, you can be really targeted with your behavior based on what the censor readings are. You’ll know if one row needs to be watered, but the other doesn’t. Or if there’s a 60 percent chance of rain in the next five days, so therefore you don’t need to water at this time at your current soil moisture levels. Getting down to that level of singularity will help save mass amounts of water—which is an increasingly scarce resource.

GG: When did this passion for sustainability begin for you?
RB:
It’s been a lifelong thing for me. I grew up doing a lot of hiking and I always spent my summers outside. I also spent a great deal of time in the mountain ranges over on the East Coast and overseas in areas that were being rapidly deforested and that stuck with me.

I did an MBA and took all the environmental science classes I could take—which at the time was one—and I also took a lot of interest in natural resources in biology classes. It’s just always been a big part of my lifestyle and who I am.
When I got the opportunity to help our company focus our efforts in this area, I was really thrilled that Microsoft decided that I could be the person to take charge of this area and lead the company in this arena.

GG: Are there any areas of sustainability that are particularly interesting to you?
RB:
I think a discussion that’s really interesting and growing in relevance is the intersection between human health and healthcare issues, and environmental issues. There’s been an incredible focus on the debate around climate change, energy use and security—but what about the fact that some of the byproducts from the way we produce energy today are also very likely key contributors to things like asthma or tumor and cancer rates? For many people I speak with, green chemistry is becoming more of a top-of-mind issue, with human health as a primary motivator for people who aren’t necessarily motivated by climate change arguments.

GG: Is there anything else going on with your work that you’d like to share with our readers?
RB:
Even though I spend most of my time trying to improve the advantages technology can bring to the discussion, sustainability relies first on attitudes and behavioral change. That’s what spurs the market to achieve at scale. Once behavior starts to change at scale, good advancements will start to happen much more rapidly.

I think one issue is that a great deal of society is hyper-focused on the energy aspect of the overall problem. But they haven’t quite yet internalized that this is much bigger than just energy. It’s also about human and environmental health and the ways in which we live. We need to look at our individual longevity as well as the planetary impact of what we’re doing.

Rob Bernard is the Chief Environmental Strategist at Microsoft and a keynote speaker at the GoGreen ‘10 Conference on April 21, 2010 in Seattle, WA. To register for the GoGreen Conference ‘10, please visit: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration. GoGreen ‘09 sold out, so make sure to sign up soon!

To learn more about Rob Bernard and the Microsoft’s sustainable strategy, visit: http://www.microsoft.com/environment/

Downright Visionary: Nike’s Sarah Severn

Sarah Severn is a speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Seattle, WA. Join us April 21 for the conference to hear from Sarah and a roster full of more amazing speakers.

What does it take to be an eco-visionary? You don’t need to reinvent the wheel and you don’t have to work at a Fortune 500 company—though Sarah Severn just happens to. As Nike’s Director of Mobilization for Sustainable Business and Innovation, Severn is constantly weighing the details of sustainability with the bigger picture of climate change and global consequence. In our interview she tells us what keeps her going in the face of adversity, what Nike’s plans are for creating a better closed loop system and why sharing technology is good for business.

GG: What keeps you going when you experience either internal or external setbacks in achieving your vision?
SS:
Doing this kind of work, you have expect there will be setbacks. You don’t expect it to be a smooth pathway. Partly, that’s because we’re trying to create a different culture. Particularly if you’re working in a company, it’s about working within your existing culture, but still encouraging people to adopt a certain perspective, behaviors and mindsets.

Once that’s done—and I would say we’re largely done with that part of it at Nike from a leadership and senior level standpoint—there will always be the individual cases where new people come in who may need to be brought along. And it’s not about coercion or anything of that nature. It’s about making sure the people in your company have a shared vision.

Externally, I think what happens is that you’ve got the same issue, except there are many more cultures you’re working with, many different points of view—some of which are extremely valid. The task is to find common ground and a pathway forward even if it’s not necessarily what your initial vision was. We’ve learnt that there is always give and take, and there has to be some compromise to get to a certain level.

That being said, you can find that if you compromise at one point that later down the line you have to re-address the issue. It’s all about dealing with human relationships. When you get down to it, it’s messy. Sometimes rational, objective arguments aren’t effective. A lot of times it comes down to how people emotionally react to things.Understanding that and coming to terms with it, as well as remembering that you’re going to need a lot of patience, is how I keep going. The ultimate object is sustainable development, so you have to stay focused on that.

GG: We know that you went to Copenhagen in December for the UN Summit. Seeing that governments and organizations like the UN Summit have been working for decades to come up with a global agreement on solutions to the effects of industrialization, what role does the private sector need to play to help create this change?
SS:
The private sector has an increasingly important role. It’s actually leading in a lot of places and doing the most in terms of moving the economy. Now, that’s not everyone in the private sector, but there certainly is a great deal of leadership in this area. There are clearly many companies that have business opportunities there and that’s part of why they’re present—new technology and new energy entrepreneurs especially.

The private sector is a large part of what will bring investment that required. Until you have a level playing field where you have caps in place or a price on carbon, it’s still very difficult for those investments to be made. There’s just still too much uncertainty. People want to know whether they should be putting their money into a nuclear power station or in new fuel cell technology.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on the issue and you understand it well, you can do a decent job explaining issues and what business thinks they are to the politicians who may not have had the opportunity to think things through. They’re having to think through issues that they haven’t had to address in the past plus regulations and policy in the U.S.,which has just introduced legislation on a lot of this for the first time ever.
Prior to that, very few of these politicians were thinking about climate change legislation. And all of a sudden they have to create a level of expertise about a subject that’s very very complex. I think the business sector has a role in helping them understand this issues, as do the scientists, but many of the businesses have been doing work in these industries for a long time and are in the best place to explain it. It runs the gamut from education right through to investment.

GG: Can the private sector alone push governments to action?
SS:
It’s not just about the private sector, it’s also scientists and civil society pushing. If we can get a combination of civil society and business working on this, we are going to see a shift. Interesting is whether or not most of that work is going to start happening at the national and sub-national levels—which has been the pathway so far. Or whether we’re actually going to be able to get some sort of global agreement.
It’s very difficult. The U.S. political process is probably not built well for the way we are right now. I believe it’s going to be very challenging to get that accomplished, but it’s something we have to strive for.

GG: Nike’s recently pushed for sharing more intellectual property and new technologies in the name of sustainability through the GreenXChange Program. What’s the purpose and hope behind this initiative?
SS:
With GreenXChange, we’ve been out there saying that trying to innovate on our own and finding solutions to some of the most pressing problems in sustainable development was not working. There’s a huge gap in knowledge and expertise. And there are also a lot of companies trying to solve the same problems—we’re all reinventing the wheel. All of these things can be viewed in isolation without any sort of real effect on the system.

To us there are two main benefits. One, we need solutions to some of our problems and we think there are companies out there that might have those solutions buried away. Secondly, the pace and scale of change that we need is currently not happening right now. Those two things were the initiating points. We partnered with Creative Commons because they had already tested this out in the area of culture and art and figured out the terms of licensing copyrights.

The interesting thing is that there are two approaches. You can take your knowledge and say that anyone can access it, but the trouble with that is if you don’t track it, you can’t see where it’s being used. Knowing that can help you measure the bigger impact and the GreenXChange will enable people to share IT—and in some cases they may want to give that away to everyone. In other cases they may say that they’re happy to let companies outside of their sector use it, but that they aren’t comfortable with our direct competitors using them.

With the GreenXChange system, you can write an agreement to license the patent on that basis. You can also provide free access for academics. One of the things that we do at Nike is to free up any of the patents to automatically go through for academic purposes. That unleashes a hastened scale of innovation, but you’re also able to track them. Your technology isn’t just out there being used in ways you won’t ever know about.

GG: How does that fit in with Nike’s business model? It seems, at least on the surface, a bit anti-competitive.
SS:
If you look at what some companies are doing now in sourcing innovation—they’re going outside the company because they can’t get the technology they need to help them get ahead by just doing R+D within their own four walls. There are some companies doing amazing things with how they pull in entrepreneurs from different places and work with them.

Our viewpoint has been that having a competitive advantage boils down mostly to the area of timing and how long you hold your patents. So you don’t have to put everything out there on the GreenXChange. There are no requirements to put your patents into this system. You can choose what patents you put in, or don’t put in. Many of these patents may have been in existence for quite some time. If you believe they could be used more broadly by non-competitors, but you still don’t want your direct competition using it, you can write the rules that way. Giving the choice to define how IT is used is how you get over the competitive issue.

For instance, if we put out a patent we have on a more environmentally sound rubber, it could be used in many different places other than the footwear industry. At some point we might also say that we’re quite happy for our competitors to use this technology as well, because consumers aren’t making their buying decisions based on how green the rubber is—they’re making their decision based on the design and function of the shoe. This is something that makes that possible and we think it’s beneficial for everybody to be able to do.

GG: This seems like it’s a pretty huge shift in thinking—for companies to be collaborating on various technologies and for corporate focus to be on a triple bottom line. How has your thinking evolved at Nike?
SS:
The thing about Nike is that it’s always been headquartered here in Oregon, where people have a really strong environmental ethic. So when I arrived in 1995, the Nike Environmental Action Team—which has since gone through many versions—had already been set up two years earlier. That team was a result of some grassroots efforts of Nike employees back in the late 1980s. It emerged of its own accord. It wasn’t mandated and that’s based on where we are. There has always been that culture and we got into it early. But this is a long road. It’s a long journey. Even when you do start early, sometimes you find that you just don’t have the resources out there.

Over time people have realized that this isn’t just a nice thing to do, but that it’s also a source of growth for a company and of innovation. There’s been a shift from sustainability being something that’s nice to do, and something that is focused on avoiding risk, to being a source of innovation and profitability for companies.

That happened because within the context in which we’re operating, it has become much more apparent to people that we’re in a closed system here on this planet. And we can’t continue to do business as usual when we’re faced with significant resource issues.

GG: Are there times when sustainability comes before profit margins?
SS:
There’s always trade-offs. We will always try and make the business case for it. Sometimes you do have to make decisions. Let’s say there’s a bio-based material that you want to use, but there aren’t large enough amounts of it available at a good cost margin. So we would try to balance that cost increase with more efficiency to lower the overall cost. There’s still a very tight control on things like pricing, but at times that decision will be made, when it’s the only solution we’re happy with even though it’s going to be a bit more expensive. We’ll absorb those costs for a short time in order to make that happen.

Other times, the decisions are more about asking whether investing some seemingly large amount of money now is worth it because it will lower our operating costs substantially in three to four years. If you’re doing any facilities renovation, your always looking for a payback period within about three years and in some cases you might push that out if you think it’s a particularly good project.

Companies that aren’t publically held, like Nike is, have a little bit more discretion in how far they go for sustainability’s sake. But we still make a lot of decisions that make more sense on the sustainability side than the financial side. What you have to do is look at it more from a long-term perspective. You have to weigh whether a decision looks like the right one to make considering the here and now, or whether circumstances are going to change in the future that warrant a different path. That’s why you always need to have a forward-looking agenda.

For instance take the issue of oil prices. We’ve seen them go up once, we know they’re going to go up again. We need to be doing things to reduce our dependence on oil in our entire value chains. Investing in something like wind energy, considering we’re going to see higher prices in oil over the next 20 years, makes that most likely a smart investment.

GG: What’s next on your to-do list at Nike?
SS:
I’m very focused on climate work, the world of policy and intersections with civil society on that. My goal is to do a lot of work in coalitions and try to see what some of the game changing policies would look like—climate and energy obviously being the key issues at the moment—but there could be others too looking at resources like water and toxins.

For Nike, in general, our ambition is to move into a more closed loop business—where we really reuse materials back into shoes and apparel. We want to keep everything in cycles and prevent waste. We’re also looking to shift from a negative environmental impact to a positive one, where we can do things like return the water we use back to its source in better condition than when we took it out.

Sarah Severn is the Director of Mobilization: Sustainable Business and Innovation at Nike, Inc in Portland, Oregon. Sarah is also a speaker on the Eco-Visionaries Panel at GoGreen ’10 in Seattle, April 21. To learn more about her work and Nike’s sustainable roadmap visit: http://www.nikebiz.com/responsibility/.

GoGreen 2010 Seattle is a full-day sustainability conference geared towards businesses seeking actionable steps to greening their operations. The conference takes place April 21, 2010 at the Olive8 at the Hyatt (LEED certified Silver). Early Bird tickets are on-sale now through April 1, 2010. Tickets are $175 each for single Early Bird Full Day Admission and $150 Early Bird Full Day Admission for Groups of 2 or more. More information can be found at: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration/

Join the GoGreen Conference on Twitter:@gogreenconf. We’re also on Facebook! Become a fan + get the latest in GoGreen and sustainable news: www.facebook.com/gogreenconference

The Green Line: NY Times Writer Andrew Revkin

We were stoked to hear New York Times writer + Dot Earth blogger, Andrew Revkin, speak last night at Portland State University. Andrew gave a compelling talk on what’s happening with climate change, the controversies in the science behind it, ways governments are handling the situation and how news outlets have covered what he calls a “slow drip” phenomenon over the last century.

He was also kind enough to answer a question we’ve been working to answer through the GoGreen Conference: How do we, as citizens and business owners, make a difference at ground zero while our governments and scientists are figuring everything out? Here’s his response.

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