Ecocentricity Blog: Reflecting on Corporate Sustainability, Climate Change, and the (Electric) Road Ahead

Ecocentricity Blog: Reflecting on Corporate Sustainability, Climate Change, and the (Electric) Road Ahead

A Q&A with John A. Lanier and Jeff Gowdy
Headshots of John A. Lanier and Jeff Gowdy

Summary

This week's blog is a conversation on the state of corporate sustainability and how it intersects with climate change between John Lanier, executive director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, and his friend Jeff Gowdy, a director at the sustainability consultancy Sustainserv, and an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022 - 10:30am

CAMPAIGN: Ecocentricity Blog

CONTENT: Blog

Hi folks! This week’s blog is a bit different. What follows below is a friendly back-and-forth exchange on the state of corporate sustainability and how it intersects with climate change between me and my friend Jeff Gowdy, a director at the sustainability consultancy Sustainserv. He is also an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University. Cheers! - John

What Happened With Climate Change in 2021?

John: When you think back to last year, what noteworthy things - events, breakthroughs, challenges or trends - really stand out?

Jeff: John, what a year it was! The first full calendar year of the pandemic - its tentacles reaching across all aspects of life. So, for challenges, I will go with the obvious: business responding to the myriad challenges of COVID, particularly on the "S" part of ESG. How would we continue to pivot and change on the fly to ensure employees could safely and effectively work virtually or hybrid while balancing home and personal lives?

The main event that sticks out in my mind was COP26 and its inevitable compromises and inability to "get to where we need to get to." Makes me think of President Teddy Roosevelt and what one individual was able to accomplish to protect our home planet. Where and who is the next TR?

For breakthroughs, the flurry of Net Positive commitments that were announced across the year heartened my spirit. We have culled and are about to post all of the Net Positive commitments that we found publicly posted on our sustainability goals site: PivotGoals.com, a Sustainserv partnership with Winston Eco-Strategies.

As for trends, the focus and level of granularity taken on Scope 3 emissions is the major trend I saw in my consulting work at Sustainserv - nearly half the projects I managed were Scope 3 and/or Science-Based Targets projects.

How about you? Did you see what I saw in 2021? What other main event, breakthrough, challenge, and trend did you see rise to the top this past year, particularly in your work at the Ray C. Anderson Foundation?

The Climate Crises and Business in 2021

John: A lot of this really resonates, Jeff. The fact that the climate crisis remained relevant to corporate America, as well as to the media broadly, is noteworthy itself. COVID was the dominant issue last year, but I'm glad that COP26, Net Positive commitments, the IPCC's Sixth Assessment Report, and reporting on the present-day impacts of climate change all broke through.

I'm also really encouraged to hear that Scope 3 emissions are being taken seriously in your world. I often say that we can't solve our environmental challenges with what we learn at the "101 level" - those lessons merely prepare us for what we need to learn at higher levels to address the problems. With climate, Scope 3 emissions are 301-level or maybe even 401-level issues, and it sounds like more and more businesses are finally ready to tackle them.

From my perspective, given our work at the RCA Foundation, the trend I see is how important local action is. I watch things like COP26 and the ways in which Congress wrestles with climate change legislation, and I see how critical it is, but also how slow it is! We just can't wait for top-down solutions. We need to do what we can at regional and local levels, which has been one of the operating principles of our work with Drawdown Georgia to scale climate solutions in our home state.

Moving Beyond The Status Quo in Climate Change Action

John: Let's stay with 2021 for a bit, because I'm even more curious about what you see in the business world. Ray Anderson used to say, "status quo is a powerful opiate," but I wonder if that's beginning to change. Are businesses in general finally realizing the scope of change we need, and how fast we need it to be?

Jeff: Your grandfather, Ray, was a wise man - status quo is powerful. I often respond to the question of "what is the greatest barrier to sustainability?" with "inertia."  "That's the way we've always done it" is another version and a phrase that is unfortunately quite common in the business world.

To answer your question directly, are businesses at large finally realizing the scope and how fast we need to go? Yes and no. The number of businesses acting on climate/energy/emissions is growing, but we still have a long way to go. Every business needs to get on board. Every government, every home, every individual. That is unlikely to happen, so we need the leaders and the bleeding edge innovators to go beyond the minimum threshold stated by science in order to make up for the non-participants.

I am encouraged by specific and leading voices like Paul Hawken. In Project Drawdown, whose original research and book was curated by Paul, the main takeaway I have is that we already have the 100+ solutions in existence that we need to address climate. We just need the behavior change to bring them to reality.  Could you speak to how the Ray C. Anderson Foundation is addressing this project in Drawdown Georgia?

Climate Change and Local Action: Lessons from Drawdown Georgia

John: Absolutely, and Project Drawdown was the inspiration for Drawdown Georgia. With their research, we knew what the planet's best climate solutions were, but we didn't know what Georgia's best climate solutions were. This is where we are based, and it's where we feel we can make the biggest impact on climate. And so, with grant support from our Foundation, a team of best-in-class researchers from some of Georgia's leading universities answered that question, identifying the 20 high-impact climate solutions best suited for our state. Much of our work last year was to try and operationalize this research, because it's no good to know what the solutions are if we don't do the work of scaling them. We hope it's a model that many other states and regions follow.

The Year Ahead: What Will Emerge for Climate Change in 2022?

John: Okay, let's go ahead and look forward now. What are you keeping your eyes on as 2022 gets underway?

Jeff: A comet? Just kidding. Kind of. Our collective will to be resilient as a society is really being tested with the ongoing pandemic, the frayed state of politics, the increased arrival of climate-related events etc. From our consulting standpoint, we are seeing an increased interest in "scenario-based" materiality where companies use "what if" scenarios to help drive innovative and new thinking around their sustainability and business strategy. I do not know of one company that modeled a global pandemic before it happened to see what the economic, environmental, social, and governance impacts on their business might be. That would have been useful...

On a more positive note, I am keeping my eyes on the surge of interest and demand in "all things sustainability" from the students coming up into the workforce. I teach in the Ingram Scholars Program (undergrad) and the Owen Graduate School of Management (grad) at Vanderbilt. The amount of interest in taking sustainability courses and applying that knowledge in a profession is growing exponentially. That gives me heart and encourages me that things can improve exponentially environmentally and socially, too. Keeping that hope is a vital component to the work you and I both do.

Increased Interest and Urgency from Today’s Students

Jeff: What are your eyes on for 2022?  What do you focus on for hope and positivity?

John: You already said what encourages me most! It really is university students today, and particularly what they represent for labor markets. We may not be far away from the point when businesses who do it the right way, like those authentically committed to Net Positive models, are consistently rewarded with the best talent. And potentially more important, we may soon see businesses who do it the wrong way facing labor shortages that meaningfully drive up their costs of doing business. As values are shifting toward a broad socio-environmental ethos in the next generation, we will see positive impacts play out in markets for both labor and goods and services.

My big question for 2022 is, "what fills the void?" I think this is the year when our society learns to live with COVID-19, and I expect it to be less dominant in the media, politics, and business. Where will our collective focus shift? My hope is that it is toward climate, and not in a doom-and-gloom sort of way.

The Future: Electrification, Regenerative Agriculture and Equity

John: When it comes to electricity, I sense that the tide has already turned in favor of renewables in our country. That trend can accelerate dramatically with a little political will and with some technological breakthroughs in energy storage that could be around the corner.

In my circles, I am also hearing more and more about regenerative agriculture. More than anything, I see that space as the "wild west" of environmentalism, where there is still so much we don't know and so much opportunity for pioneering models.

And most importantly, I'm hoping that people will see more and more the intersectionality between climate and issues of equity in this year ahead. Not only do disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of negative climate impacts, but I believe that climate solutions offer some of the most promising ways to lift up those who are struggling in America today.

Predictions for 2022 Climate Action

John: Now one last question from me as we wrap this up. I think we should do another look back and forward in a year's time, so what are one or two predictions you want to make for 2022, as it relates to sustainability? You go first, and I can follow. And we will absolutely check back in and see how we did!

Jeff: As you mentioned earlier -- battery storage. To me, that is the holy grail for scaling renewables up to potentially replace the majority of fossil fuels embedded in our grid systems. She or he who makes that technological breakthrough may pass Gates, Buffett, Musk, and Bezos on the Forbes annual list. I feel like we are on the cusp of that breakthrough happening.

Socially, the labor shortage, opt-outs, switches, etc., are really front and center now, and to your point above, seeing how companies utilize their ESG reputation/brand to attract top talent will be interesting to watch. Transparency is expected now and it is really hard to hide bad or lagging performance as the number of value chain customers and investors asking for this data is growing exponentially. I know because we see it driving business in our consulting world.

From the governance standpoint, I hope and expect to see that our Boards, C-Suites, and management teams more and more reflect census percentages representative of local communities. Without that, this sustainability movement is failing a major portion of today's generation.

What about you -- what are your predictions?

John: I'll make one fun one in this space. I think the soon-to-be-manufactured Ford F-150 Lightning, Ford's first all-electric truck, will be a massive inflection point in how receptive Americans are to electric vehicles. What Tesla started, I think Ford is about to supercharge (pun intended). The last I read, production begins in the spring, so as vehicles start rolling out to customers, I think the media will pick up on a lot of positive stories about excited drivers. My prediction is that in one year's time, future projections on electric vehicle market share from the United States EIA will shift sharply up, buoyed by EV announcements from other manufacturers who feel the need to play catch-up with Ford.

This was good fun Jeff! Thanks for playing along with me, and I'll look forward to more conversations like this in the future.

Jeff: This was great, John, thanks so much for doing this with me. Let's do it again in a year's time!

 

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