Tech companies are cleaning up their data centers and moving into shiny new buildings with small carbon footprints. But is Silicon Valley really as green it claims? After all, those same tech companies are masters of marketing hype and manipulating human behavior.
“We have an incredible opportunity but also responsibility to put the right tools on the market for people to be able to understand the energy or the materials impact of everything,” says Lynelle Cameron, Vice President of Sustainability at Autodesk, which makes software for design and building. “When we started this journey 10 years ago we didn’t actually have any LEED certified buildings,” she adds, “so that was the first step was learning by example and really thinking about our own building footprints.”
At Salesforce, a cloud computing company, Silicon Valley is moving downtown as they build the tallest office building west of the Mississippi – with the largest commercial blackwater system in a high-rise building in the US – right in the heart of San Francisco.
“You get the benefit of mass transit. You get the benefit of the efficiencies of city life, you happen to be where the employees want to live and work and you've got the opportunity to support local businesses with your lunch decision,” explains Patrick Flynn, Senior Director of Sustainability. “We try to find locations in sustainable buildings that are also in the city centers that allow us to have all these environmental benefits.”
Aron Cramer, President and CEO of the consulting firm Business for Social Responsibility, believes that Silicon Valley companies are indeed making progress on sustainability – but not fast enough.
“There are things that are happening now that were on the fringes of the debate 10 years ago,” notes Cramer. “We’ve got companies . . . committed to 100% renewable energy there are companies that are committed to 100% electric vehicles over the next several years.” But, he adds, “our biggest enemy here is time. Are we moving fast enough? So far, the answer is no we’re not.”
Cramer is hopeful that fundamental changes in business models and incentive structures will accelerate the rate of progress. “I would bet in 20 years some of the rules in the marketplace will be different because there is recognition that companies, publicly traded companies in particular, end up making short-sighted decisions because that's what investment analysts are looking for,” he says, “and there's increasing recognition that that doesn't really serve anyone's interest.”
Patrick Flynn of Salesforce agrees. “We know that sustainable business is better business, that sustainable businesses outcompete,” he says, “and there's the classic cost reduction/margin expansion do more with less, less energy, less water, less waste, less materials.” As a cloud-computing pioneer, much of Salesforce’s efforts focuses on energy consumption in its data centers. “We really think about that as primary in terms of our strategy – decarbonizing the electric grid.”
Lynelle Cameron describes efforts at Autodesk to reduce its carbon footprint in some surprising ways. “We think about travel, we think about these big events that we have in Vegas and the air travel to get there,” she explains. “We sat down with the sustainability officers at the vendors that we've worked with and we’re considering working with, so MGM, Mandalay Bay, Sands and had a conversation with them about how do you reduce the footprints of these events in Vegas – everything from electricity to recycling to meat and food waste which people don't think of as a climate issue but food waste is really significant. And you would be surprised how quickly they were able to turn knowing that their customers care about, will care about these in the future.”