Environmental innovation is thriving in corporate America, despite the leadership vacuum in DC

Last week hundreds of representatives from global companies and leading NGOs met in Bentonville, AR for Walmart’s annual Sustainability Milestone Summit. The theme of the meeting was Project Gigaton, the most ambitious and collaborative effort ever to reduce a billion tons of emissions from the global supply chain over the next 15 years. At the meeting Walmart announced 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from suppliers, and noted that 400 suppliers with operations in more than 30 countries have now joined Project Gigaton by setting ambitious climate targets.  

One powerful theme that emerged from the meeting was the importance of technology. Project Gigaton is inspiring targets that raise our ambition, but increasingly technology is how we will deliver on these commitments and measure progress.

A new EDF survey of more than 500 executives confirms that game changing technology innovations are empowering private sector leaders to improve business and environmental performance – and to accelerate sustainability efforts across global supply chains.

Nearly three-quarters of the business leaders surveyed in the first annual Business and the Fourth Wave of Environmental Innovation report said their business and environmental goals are more closely aligned than they were just five years ago, in large part because of technological advancements that are driving their rapid convergence. In particular, blockchain, sensors, data analytics, mobile ubiquity, dematerialization, automation, and sharing technologies are all rapidly bringing sustainability into the C-suite.

An even higher percentage of respondents believe these technologies will compel businesses to improve their environmental impact on their own, regardless of any external pressures. Many even felt that data analytics and measurement technologies have as much potential to affect business’ environmental impact as certain environmental policies and regulations.

In any era, under any administration, the hard work of environmental and social change uses the best available tools, and today those tools include technological innovations that are turbo charging transparency, corporate responsibility and effective action.

The same tools that are changing our lives and revolutionizing virtually every sector of the economy can be used to scale solutions to our most urgent environmental challenges. Here are some of the exciting efforts already underway.

Tom Murray, VP EDF+Business

Automation & Dematerialization

Levi Strauss & Co. just announced a new digital manufacturing capability that automates part of the jeans production process, allowing the company to tailor supply to meet demand. This creates a host of business and environmental benefits: reducing textile waste, eliminating thousands of chemical formulations previously needed for finishing, and potentially saving water.

Amazon is collaborating with vendors across its supply chain on dematerialization in the pet food category. The company worked with the largest global manufacturers in pet food to convert retail packaging to ready-to-ship e-commerce packaging.  The new designs have reduced the number of packaging components by 50 percent and packaging volume by 34 percent. They also reduced damage in their distribution network by 84 percent and downstream damage for customers by more than 30 percent.

Given that only 31 percent of survey respondents have successfully implemented dematerialization technologies in their companies, this is an innovation that is ripe for scaling.

Sharing Technologies & Data Analysis

Over three quarters of the executives surveyed think that sharing data with outside parties will lead to better outcomes for businesses. That may be why Starbucks is working with the Closed Loop Partners to launch the NextGen Cup Challenge, an open source effort to develop and commercialize fully recyclable and compostable cups.

Or why Google partnered with World Resources Institute and leading research institutions to create a free global database of power plants that lets users access data on 80 percent of globally installed electrical capacity across 168 countries. These data will help researchers better understand and uncover air pollution problems, and can accelerate investments in low-carbon technologies and initiatives.

And earlier this month, EDF announced plans to develop and launch a new satellite that is purpose-built to locate and measure methane emissions from human-made sources worldwide, starting with the oil and gas industry. Free and open data from this satellite is intended to give both countries and companies robust data to spot problem areas, identify savings opportunities, and measure their progress in reducing methane emissions over time.

Blockchain

Eighty percent of the business leaders surveyed believe consumers will increasingly hold companies more accountable for environmental impact and technology is making it possible..

That means business leaders like designer Marine Jaarlgard, who is piloting a blockchain platform to increase transparency and traceability across her knitwear collection, may have a competitive advantage.

Walmart, Unilever, and Nestle are also working with IBM to explore blockchain applications for food supply chains. The technology could help to secure supply chain records for important commodity products such as chicken, chocolate and bananas.  The upside for the environment is less food waste. For business? Increased supply chain efficiencies and ensuring food safety.

And the potential for blockchain to revolutionize electricity markets holds promise. In LO3 Energy’s microgrid project in Brooklyn, New York, residents use a simple app to trade electricity they generate from solar panels to neighbors in need of extra power.

Sustainability in a Hyper Transparent World

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between business and environmental goals – and results.

Corporate executives are already embracing the emerging technologies of this era to raise the bar on sustainability, but we must encourage tech innovators, business leaders, investors, activists, and academics to explore the power that collaboration can unleash – driving a new level of environmentalism at an unprecedented scale.


Follow Tom on Twitter, @tpmurray


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