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Reflection on Corporate Sustainability, climate Change and the (Electric Road Ahead)
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Reflection on Corporate Sustainability, climate Change and the (Electric Road Ahead)

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


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

Northampton MA –News Direct-Ray C. Anderson Foundation

Good morning, everyone! This week’s blog is a bit different. Below is a friendly exchange on corporate sustainability and how it intersects. Climate changeBetween me and my friend Jeff GowdySustainserv’s director of sustainability. He is also an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University. Cheers! – John

What happened to climate change 2021?

John:What notable events, breakthroughs, or trends are you most proud of in the past year?

Jeff:John, what a year! The pandemic’s first full calendar year – its tentacles touching all aspects of our lives. For challenges, I will choose the obvious: business must respond to the myriad COVID challenges, especially the “S” portion of ESG. How could we continue to pivot and change quickly to ensure that employees can safely and effectively work virtually or hybrid while maintaining a balance between home and personal lives.

The main event that sticks in my mind is COP26and its inevitable compromises and inability, to “get there we need to get”. It makes me think of President Teddy Roosevelt, and all that one person was able do to help protect our home planet. Where and who will be the next TR?

I was inspired by the number of Net Positive commitments made throughout the year, which were a series of breakthroughs. We have culled, and are about to publish all of the Net positive commitments that were publicly posted on our sustainability goal site:, a Sustainserv Partnership with Winston Eco-Strategies.

In terms of trends, the main trend I observed in my Sustainserv consulting work was the increased focus on Scope 3 emissions and the level of granularity applied to them – almost half the projects I managed were Scope 3 or Science-Based Targets projects.

What do you think? Did you see 2021 as I saw it? What other major event, breakthrough, challenge, or trend did you see rise up to the top in the past year, especially in your work with the Ray C. Anderson Foundation

Climate Crises and Business in 2020

John:Jeff, a lot of this resonates. Notable is the fact that the crisis of climate change remained relevant to corporate America as well as the media generally. While COVID was the most prominent issue last year, I’m glad that COP26 Net Positive Commitments, the, is now the dominant issue. Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, and reporting about the present-day effects of climate changes all broke through.

I am also encouraged to hear that Scope 3 emissions have been taken seriously in your country. I often say that we don’t have the ability to solve environmental problems by learning lessons at the 101 level. These lessons are only a preparation for what we will need to learn at higher levels in order to solve the problem. Scope 3 emissions, which are at the 301-level, or possibly even 401-level, are climate-related issues. It seems that more and more businesses are now ready to tackle them.

Based on our work at RCA Foundation I see a trend that shows how important it is to take local action. I watch Congress grapple with climate change legislation at COP26. I see how important it can be, but also how slow it can go. We cannot wait for top-down solutions. We must do our best at the local and regional levels. This has been one of our operating principles. Drawdown GeorgiaTo scale climate solutions in our state.

Climate Change Action: Moving Beyond the Status Quo

John: Let’s keep our eyes on 2021 for a moment, as I’m more interested in what you see in the business world. Ray Anderson“Status quo” was once a powerful opiate. But, I wonder if that’s changing. Are businesses finally realizing the extent of the change they need and how fast?

Jeff:Ray, your grandfather, was a wise man. The status quo is strong. I often answer the question, “What is the greatest obstacle to sustainability?” “Inertia” is the answer. “Inertia” is another variation. Unfortunately, this phrase is quite common in business.

Let me answer your question directly: Are businesses finally realizing the extent of what we need and how fast? 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 must get on board. Every government, each home, and every individual must be part of the program. This is unlikely to be possible, so we need leaders and cutting-edge innovators to push the science to compensate for those who are not participating.

Paul Hawken is a leader in my life and I find it encouraging. In Project DrawdownPaul did the original research and wrote the book. My main takeaway is that we already have 100+ solutions to climate change. Only we need to change our behavior to make them a reality. Could you tell me how the Ray C. Anderson Foundation tackles this issue in Drawdown GA?

Climate Change and Local Action: Lessons From Drawdown Georgia

John:Yes, Project Drawdown was the inspiration behind Drawdown Georgia. Their research revealed the best climate solutions for the planet. However, we didn’t know Georgia’s best solutions. This is where we’re based and where we believe we can have the greatest impact on climate change. So, our Foundation grant support enabled a team of top-of the-line researchers from Georgia’s leading universities to answer that question, and identify the culprits. 20 climate solutions that have high impact best suited for our state. We spent a lot of time last year trying to operationalize our research. Because it doesn’t make sense to know the solutions if you don’t do any of the work of scaling them. We hope it will be a model that other states and regions can follow.

The Year Ahead: What will climate change look like in 2022?

John:Okay, let’s get on with it and look ahead. What should you be keeping an eye on as 2022 approaches?

Jeff:A comet? Just kidding. It’s kind of. Our collective resilience as a society is being tested by the ongoing pandemic, frayed political state, and the increased occurrence of climate-related events. Consulting firms are increasingly interested in “scenario based” materiality, where companies use “what-if” scenarios to generate new and innovative thinking around sustainability and business strategy. I don’t know if any company has ever attempted to model a global epidemic before it happens in order to assess the impact on their business. It would have been very useful.

Positively, I am watching the rise in interest and demand for “all things sustainable” among the students who are entering the workforce. I teach in the Ingram Scholars Program and Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt. There is a growing interest in sustainability courses and how to apply that knowledge in a professional setting. This encourages me and gives me heart. It is essential that we both keep our hope alive in the work we do.

Increased Interest and Urgency from Today’s Students

Jeff: What are you focusing on in 2022? What are your priorities for positivity and hope?

John: You know what inspires me most? It’s today’s university students and what they mean for the labor market. We could be close to the point where businesses that do it right, such as those who are committed to Net Positive models, will be rewarded with the best talent. Perhaps even more important, we might soon see businesses who do things wrong facing labor shortages that will significantly increase their costs of doing business. Positive impacts will be seen in the markets for labor, goods and services as values shift to a wider socio-environmental ethos.

My big question in 2022 is “What fills this void?” I believe this year will be the year our society learns how to live with COVID-19. It will also be less dominant in politics, the media, and business. Where will our collective attention shift? I hope it’s toward climate and not in a doom and gloom way.

The Future: Electricity, Regenerative Agriculture, and Equity

John: I feel that the tide is already turning in favor of renewable energy in this country when it comes to electricity. This trend can be accelerated dramatically with some political will and technological breakthroughs in storage technology that could be just around the corner.

Regenerative agriculture is becoming a more prominent topic in my circle. I see this space as the “wild West” of environmentalism. There is so much we don’t know and so many opportunities to pioneer new models.

And, most importantly, I hope that people will be able to see the interdependence between them. Climate and equity issuesIn the year ahead. Not only are the poorest communities most affected by climate change, but climate solutions also offer the most promising avenues to help those in need.

Climate Action in 2022: Predictions

John:As we close this chapter, I have one final question. I believe we should look back and forward for a year. What are your predictions for 2022 in terms of sustainability? You are the first to go, and I will follow. We will check back in to see how it went!

Jeff: Battery storage, as you mentioned earlier, is a key element in scaling renewables up to potentially replace the majority of fossil fuels embedded in our grid systems. That is what I consider the holy grail of scaling renewables up to potentially replace the majority fossil fuels in our grid systems. The person who achieves that technological breakthrough might surpass Buffett, Musk, Gates, and Bezos on Forbes’ annual list. We are at the edge of that breakthrough, I feel.

Socially, the labor shortage and opt-outs, switch, etc. are very prominent now. To your point above, it will be interesting to see how companies use their ESG reputation/brand in order to attract top talent. Transparency is expected and it is hard to hide poor or lagging performance, as investors and value chain customers are increasing exponentially. We see it in our consulting business.

From a governance perspective, I hope and expect that our Boards, C-Suites and management teams reflect more local census percentages. This sustainability movement is failing a large portion of today’s generation.

What about you? What are your predictions?

John: I’ll make a fun one in this area. 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. Ford is set to surpass Tesla’s success. According to my last reading, production starts in the spring. I expect that the media will start to report positive stories about eager drivers as they roll out their vehicles. I predict that within a year, projections of the future market share for electric vehicles from the United States EIA will shift sharply upwards, buoyed in part by announcements about EVs from other manufacturers who feel the urge to catch up with Ford.

It was great fun Jeff! Thank you for being there with me. I look forward to future conversations like this.

Jeff: John, this was fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. Let’s do this again in one year!

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