Author E. Freya Williams has a Message for Tech Leaders

In May of 2021 VMware unveiled VMware Zero Carbon Committed, an initiative to encourage partners to power their data centers with renewable energy sources by 2030. To date, more than 70 of the world’s leading cloud services and solutions providers made the commitment and are working to combat climate change by radically reducing their carbon emissions.

“After VMware was certified as a carbon neutral company in 2018, we knew we wanted to do more,” says Nicola Peill-Moelter, Ph.D., director of sustainability innovation at VMware. “The VMware Zero-Carbon Committed initiative came out of that desire and became a reality when Atea, Equinix, IBM, Microsoft, OVHcloud and OVHcloud US joined us for its inaugural launch. Its growth since reflects the tech sector’s commitment to combat climate change.”

Recently we had the opportunity to connect with E. Freya Williams, influential sustainability expert and the author of “Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability into Billion-Dollar Businesses,” to get her thoughts on the VMware Zero Carbon Committed initiative and the attributes that enable the most successful sustainable companies to excel.

That interview, shortened for this post, offers a view into sustainability from one of the most insightful voices on the topic today.

What does sustainability mean to you and why is it important?

I pivoted my career to sustainability when I became a parent. For me it’s about the obligation to ensure our kids enjoy the safe, stable climate we’ve benefited from and that we are not denying them a healthy and thriving future. If we do nothing, our kids won’t be able to enjoy the lives we dream of for them. I reject the narrative that our kids will fix this – the next generation is incredible but it’s not their responsibility to solve the problems we created.

What motivated you to create a career around corporate sustainability initiatives?

I was working in advertising when I had my first child and realized that I couldn’t continue selling people stuff they didn’t need for a living. I also knew that I had skills relevant to the transition to a sustainable economy – my experience as a communicator and my relationships with major global brands.

Business is the dominant institution of this century. The majority of global emissions originate from businesses, so business must be a driving force in the transformation to more sustainable practices. It’s not a question of altruism; addressing climate risk is essential if we are to thrive. There are also literally trillions of dollars of economic opportunity at stake. That’s why I am so motivated to help business find the sweet spot where solving the world’s problems drives business growth. We are in a battle for the soul of business, where it has the opportunity to be about much more than delivering returns for shareholders.

In “Green Giants” you looked at nine of the world’s most exceptional companies – businesses that achieved incredible commercial success being sustainable – and identified six factors that empowered them. Why are they important?

I wanted to understand not only which companies succeeded in transforming sustainability into billion-dollar businesses but also how they achieved success and use that to develop a playbook to inspire and enable other businesses to follow their example. They all shared six characteristics that account for their uncommon success:

Iconoclastic leader: In all cases, one individual emerged as the spiritual leader of the strategy. In seven of the nine Green Giants it was the chairman or CEO. That’s because this is not about creating a slightly greener version; it’s about a business transformation. To drive change of that magnitude you kind of have to be the boss.

Disruptive Innovation: Each of the Green Giants built their billion-dollar business on the back of a new product, service or line of business that overturned the dominant paradigm. They all set out to build something that is not just greener, but better.

A purpose beyond profit: A purpose provides a clear articulation of your corporate strategy; it carves out a role for your business in the 21st century; it attracts and motivates teams and offers consumers value. It proves what I call the purpose paradox – the surprising fact that businesses that pursue a purpose beyond profit are more profitable than those that pursue profit alone.

Built-in not bolted on: Too often companies silo sustainability to an individual or team. The Green Giants understand that to truly drive billion-dollar sustainability opportunities requires sustainability to be factored into the structures that run the business – the corporate strategy and organizational, cost, governance, reporting, and incentive structures.

Mainstream Appeal: You can’t build a billion-dollar business unless you make your ideas relevant to a mainstream audience. All too often “green” marketing uses tropes that only appeal to a super-green niche. Green Giants cracked the code on making sustainability mainstream.

New Behavioral Contract: Transparency, Responsibility and Collaboration are more than business buzzwords. They are the foundations of a new behavioral contract between business and society. Green Giants embraced them and behaved their way to billions.

What do you see as the barriers that must be overcome?

The recent shift in messaging from Blackrock CEO Larry Fink who has dropped the term ESG after his previous vocal leadership on these issues is an example of how tough this landscape can be. We need to ensure that leaders who do step out on these issues are celebrated, protected and rewarded. Getting beyond compliance to leadership is where the business benefits are unlocked. And we need more Iconoclastic Leaders willing to embrace the transformation that’s needed and prove that money is made in the process.

Employees must also use their voice and skills to push for positive change. And consumers can drive demand for more sustainable offerings by voting with their wallets and in the ballot box.

What would you say to leaders at technology companies?

Sustainability is transforming technology, and technology is transforming sustainability. Tech companies have been the global vanguard on climate change action and clean, carbon-free energy commitments and sourcing practices. In the U.S., the tech sector is responsible for sourcing 48% of all solar and wind power.

Some of the most ambitious strategies have come from the tech sector. I think about Google with their 24/7 renewable energy commitment, Microsoft with its commitment to becoming carbon negative by 2030, and VMware’s Zero Carbon Committed initiative that seeks to help data centers use 100% renewable energy sources. Tech companies are also using their innovation, risk tolerance and intelligence – both human and artificial – to invent tools that will contribute to solving climate change.

Why is VMware’s Zero Carbon Committed Initiative important?

One of the six shared traits of Green Giant companies is their adherence to a new behavioral contract, which includes radical collaboration. The VMware Zero Carbon Committed Initiative is an example of such radical collaboration in action, not just with partners, but customers and their end users as well.

If you could impart one message to readers of this post, what would it be?

We need you to lead. It’s that simple. Sustainability is everyone’s job. As technology leaders who are some of the smartest and most talented people on the planet, we need the audience of this post to use their abilities for the good of humanity. But it’s not just obligation; consider the opportunity: In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act alone made $390B in Federal funding available for decarbonization over the next decade and the International Energy Agency estimates $1.7T in investment will flow into clean energy this year.

This is the business opportunity of the 21st century. Business voice matters. Business action matters. Using both ensures you are on the right side of history. And to those in the VMware Zero Carbon Committed initiative, thank you for your leadership!

To learn more about the Green Giants, read “Green Giants: How Smart Companies Turn Sustainability Into Billion-Dollar Businesses.”

About E. Freya Williams

Freya Williams has a mission to help move sustainable business, behaviors and brands into the mainstream. A communications and business strategist, she has advised organizations including Coca Cola, Unilever, the United Nations, SAP, Tetra Pak, The Economist, Waste Management, Kraft and many others on how to incorporate sustainability, responsibility and social good into their brands, and brand sustainability and CSR initiatives. A veteran of the communications industry, Freya is the strategic mind behind brand initiatives and campaigns including Coca Cola’s PlantBottle, Hellmann’s switch to free range eggs and the award‐winning Hopenhagen campaign in support of the United Nations at the crucial COP15 climate change conference in Copenhagen (the campaign recruited 6 million supporters in 60 days, 70% of whom had never joined a climate movement before).

An early pioneer of the modern sustainable business movement, Freya’s experience has given her an insider’s perspective on the trials and tribulations of incorporating sustainability into a business and the opportunity to experience the movement’s successes and failures first‐hand. In the course of persuading clients to try fresh, sometimes counter‐intuitive approaches, Freya has built up a wealth of data on the business case for sustainability as well as an instinctive sense of what works and what doesn’t. She is also intimately familiar with the challenges of forcing change through large, complex, often siloed organizations where skeptics outnumber believers—and has developed strategies and tools to overcome those challenges.

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