“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you work in sustainability these days, it is the best of times and the worst of times. We’ve made real progress in moving business toward a sustainable footing. But look past the walls of our corporate gardens and it’s a different story: It’s a hot mess out there, with rising temperatures, social and political instability, fraying ecosystems and paralyzed governments. When it comes to sustainability, companies may be doing better, but the world is falling further behind.
Maybe we’ve made this whole sustainability thing a bit too much about us. We have measured our Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, our percentage of LEED-certified square footage is rising, our RECs and offsets are in the right place. We’re well on our way to carbon neutrality sometime in the ’20s, thank you very much. Nothing to see here—we’re doing our share. It’s all in our sustainability report.
Creating a sustainable society on a crowded planet is the hardest problem humans have ever faced. The world needs more from us than keeping our own doorstep clean. It needs our creativity, our problem-solving skills, our ability to scale. It needs us to lead. Instead of seeking to minimize our participation in the problem, what if we focus on maximizing our contribution to solutions? Here are a few companies showing us the way.
Google is a leader when it comes to environmental footprint, but it also looks for opportunities to use its talents and technology to advance sustainable solutions for others. Google helped create Global Fishing Watch, which uses machine learning to transform fishery management by mapping global fishing activity. The company recently launched Environmental Insights Explorer, an online tool that makes it easier for cities to access climate-relevant data to set local policies and measure progress. And those ubiquitous Street View cars? They now collect neighborhood-level data on local air quality around the world.
Google’s approach is based on the recognition that no company can go it alone.
“Global change requires a global response,” notes Kate Brandt, Google’s sustainability officer. “As we make progress at Google on our own sustainability goals, we share what we’ve learned. But we need to do more to empower more businesses, governments and policymakers to take action toward building a cleaner future.”
Nike was one of the first brands to recognize that there’s no corporate wall when it comes to sustainability. The company spent seven years developing a Materials Sustainability Index to guide its designers—and then decided to share the whole thing with the rest of the industry. It even developed a free app to help designers choose more sustainable materials. In the end, Nike decided that creating leverage on sustainability was more important than leverage on competitors.
“It’s all part of a single strategy to change the palette of the world’s materials,” says Hannah Jones, Nike’s VP of sustainable business and innovation. “If we could put information out there and empower our design community to make better choices, it would be an important lever we could pull.”
Sometimes the biggest impact you can have is helping your customers be more sustainable. VMware is a virtualization and cloud computing software provider that dramatically increases the efficiency of servers. The company has an extensive sustainability program, but its primary impact on the world comes from what its products enable: Over the past 13 years, customers using VMware have avoided 340 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of that produced by 43% of U.S. households.
OK, so your company’s not a Google, a Nike or a VMware. That doesn’t prevent you from asking Dr. King’s most urgent question when it comes to your sustainability strategy: What are you doing for others? By all means, keep working toward carbon neutrality and zero waste and LEED-certified buildings. But also look around and see if you can find ways to bring others along with you. Then maybe we’ll all get there a bit sooner.