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What it really takes to be a sustainability leader

Aug 30, 2021
(Above) Businesses are increasingly eager to find ways to meaningfully reduce their environmental footprints. But real solutions don’t happen overnight. They require long-term strategies and a firm commitment spanning years, even decades. SHUTTERSTOCK
From firestorms and fatal heat waves to flooding and droughts, climate events are accelerating. Each climate event is forcing more focussed attention on finding strategic solutions to a global concern -- and quickly. 
Businesses are stepping up to meet this daunting challenge. By closely examining their environmental footprints, setting ambitious carbon-emission reduction targets, and better empowering stakeholders through transparent communication, many for-profit organizations are embracing sustainability as a core philosophy. The result is more widespread ambition than ever before to make real and meaningful shifts to how -- and why -- they do business. 
Experts say there is no time to lose. 
“We have about nine years in which to bend our global emissions downward without seeing some pretty catastrophic effects,” says Janice Larson, sustainability expert and head of the Interior University Research Coalition at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
solar panels and wind turbines against a blue and orange sky

Google and TELUS are both investing heavily in renewable energy energy providers like wind farms and solar companies in order to meet sustainability goals. SHUTTERSTOCK

In step with that timeline, TELUS and Google have both publicly committed to be part of the solution, each putting in place sweeping strategies across their organizations to dramatically reduce their footprints. 
Having become carbon neutral in 2007 and achieving 100 per cent renewable energy matching every year since 2017, Google plans to operate on carbon-free energy at all its campuses and data centres worldwide by 2030. This includes going beyond high-quality carbon offsets to removing carbon from its electricity supply entirely. 

TELUS, meanwhile, surpassed its climate change objectives in 2019. The tech company is now planning to procure all of its electricity from renewable or low-emitting sources by 2025, and aims to achieve net carbon neutrality for its operations by 2030. 
As long-time environmental leaders in the corporate world, both organizations have agreed to share sustainability knowledge and tips to act as a roadmap to help others take similar steps in their eco-journey. The goals set and achievements made by both organizations don't happen overnight. They require long-term strategies and a firm commitment spanning years, even decades. 
“Sustainability is deeply embedded into TELUS, and is at the heart of every decision we make. We are proud of our global leadership and remain dedicated to exploring new and innovative ways to reduce our impact on the planet,” says Geoff Pegg, Head of Sustainability and Environment, TELUS.
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Geoff Pegg, Head of Sustainability and Environment, TELUS. PHOTO SUBMITTED

Empowering others

In order to meet their sustainability goals, Google and TELUS are both investing heavily in renewable energy sources through what are known as power purchase agreements, or PPAs.
Jen Bennett, Technical Director with Google’s Office of the CTO, explains that these agreements help renewable energy providers like wind farms and solar companies develop their infrastructure.
“We realized we needed to create incentives for operators to bring more wind farms and solar energy online, so through PPAs we worked with companies to sign 10-year deals that would allow the investment necessary,” she says.
Jill Bennett - woman in blue sweater looking up into camera

Jen Bennett, Technical Director with Google’s Office of the CTO. PHOTO SUBMITTED

This has a net benefit for corporate sustainability at large, since it assists in transitioning the overall electricity grid toward renewable sources -- helping not just Google, but everyone. 
At TELUS, the tech company has recently executed PPAs with three Alberta-based solar and wind facilities that will be online by the first quarter of next year, providing 100 per cent of its electricity load demand in a province where one-third of the grid is made up of coal power. 
This, along with the hydroelectricity it uses in other provinces, fulfils much of the company’s electricity needs. TELUS’ Pegg notes the company is also shifting its fleet of 4,000 vehicles to electric power over the next few years. 
One of the main challenges in Google’s sustainability work is the sheer amount of information a multi-national company of that scale needs to collect in order to have a comprehensive sense of its electricity sources and overall environmental footprint.
“You have to be able to find the right information that helps guide decision making throughout the process,” says Bennett. “And we need creativity because there are gaps in the information we have in some cases. We really just need to be transparent in what we do know and what we’re estimating, and strive to understand better.”
Being honest and clear about sustainability information is helpful to stakeholders -- both for investors, many of whom now employ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards to screen potential investments, and for concerned customers.
TELUS’s commitment to transparency is embedded in its work with the
Science Based Targets initiative
, which approved its science-based GHG emissions reduction targets and elevates the organization’s competitive advantage in the transition to a low-carbon economy.
TELUS is also among the first companies globally, and the first in Canada, to issue a
sustainability-linked bond
, which is tied to achieving its science-based GHG reduction targets. 
Google, meanwhile, hopes to empower their customers to make informed decisions about their own environmental impact. 
For instance, Google recently announced the ability for its cloud-computing customers to choose where they run their workloads based on the percentage of carbon-free energy in that region. Bennett says Toronto-based Shopify was able to reduce a significant amount of their greenhouse gas emissions by moving to Google Cloud. 
These sorts of collaborative ventures between corporations are key to making change on a large scale, and both Pegg and Bennett say it is not uncommon for companies to share sustainability knowledge and tips.
This holds true between corporations and academia, as well.
Notes Larson: “Corporations are interfacing directly with society and encountering environmental and regulatory issues in an immediate way and campuses are ready, willing, and able to provide the research and innovation to develop solutions.”
UBC’s partnership with TELUS on carbon footprinting is a prime example. The tech company is sponsoring an initiative by the university in which it pairs environmental sciences students with small-to-medium sized businesses in order to determine the companies’ carbon emission baselines.
Strong digital policy is missing from Canada’s climate strategy, and presents an opportunity to lead on global climate action.

Take the first step  

While Google and TELUS’ many initiatives are inspiring, the path toward sustainability for the average Canadian business may still feel daunting, especially for those with fewer resources and further to go. 
Pegg’s advice is to first define your company’s purpose as an organization, which will require listening to team members and company stakeholders.
“It depends on your business. It depends on your industry, and if you’re looking to rally around something, there’s lots of choices you can make,” says Pegg.
He notes, for instance, the UN’s
Sustainable Development Goals
, which are commonly referenced in the corporate sustainability sphere. 
“There are 17 goals that were agreed to by over 190 countries to focus on things like poverty, food, health, and climate change. Likely your business is impacting one of those sustainable development goals, so you can build a strategy around that.”
Bennett’s advice is similar, stating simply: “Set a goal. If you don’t set targets and you don’t inspire your organization, then you’re going to struggle.”
Both agree that the most important thing is just to get going.
“To be a leader in this space, you don’t have to be a leader in everything,” says Pegg, “You can choose a sustainability issue to focus on initially. But getting going is important, and creating a strategy is a great first step.”
A man sitting on a rock in nature working on a laptop.

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