Bringing Sustainability to the
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- by Patricia Dines
- February 2010
NorthBay biz magazine
Bringing sustainability to the executive
NorthBay biz talks with three "sustainability
officers" to find out what such a job entails and how,
little by little, they're helping North Bay companies
reduce costs and save the environment.
(c) Copyright Patricia Dines, 2010.
All rights reserved.
There's a new brand of executive in town, and their
favorite color is green. Bearing titles like chief sustainability
officer (CSO) and director of sustainability, their vision stems
from a passion for environmental and social responsibility. They
work to help companies not only save money with increased energy
and water efficiency, but also to identify new products and income
streams, enhance brands, deepen customer loyalty, expand employee
satisfaction, position their businesses competitively, manage
resources responsibly, reduce liabilities -- and save the
- Experts emphasize that, while green execs alone can't change
an organization, their authority can be vital in bringing
environmental principles onboard. So, what are they doing exactly,
and how can their experiences help companies of all sizes develop
their own eco-possibilities?
- To learn more, we talked with three local pioneers: Lynelle
Cameron, director of sustainability for San Rafael's Autodesk;
Geof Syphers, CSO for Rohnert Park's Codding Enterprises; and
Colby Eierman, director of sustainability for Glen Ellen's
Benziger Family Winery.
- Greening global design
- Autodesk's director of sustainability, Lynelle Cameron,
started her career not in the corporate world but in environmental
nonprofits, where she used her degrees in environmental policy and
sociology "to drive change on important environmental
- But then she read Paul Hawken's 1993 book, Ecology of
Commerce. "It woke me up," she says. "I realized the greatest way
to make dramatic transformational change was to work with the
corporate sector, to change how we're thinking about business,"
given the interconnectedness (or interdependence) between business
and the natural world.
- Within months, she'd applied to business school, and with the
MBA she received from UC Berkeley, joined Palo Alto's
Hewlett-Packard (HP). There she sought "to drive transformational
change in the IT hardware sector," in areas such as product
design, energy efficiency, and e-waste. "If we could get HP to
make a shift," she figured, "we could influence the whole
- The job she created at HP focused on "product stewardship,"
which evolved into a corporate social and environmental
responsibility program. "That was in the early days of
sustainability work," she remembers, as the field expanded beyond
regulatory compliance and cleanup to consider products' embedded
lifecycle costs. "So that was quite exciting and pioneering back
- However, an even more compelling strategy soon occurred to
her: embedding environmental impact analysis into Autodesk's
design software. She saw that making it "easier for architects,
engineers and designers to make better decisions" could "radically
change how we design our built environment -- from buildings to
airplanes to highways to electricity grids to consumer
- Autodesk, which Cameron says creates design software "for
quite literally everything that's built on the planet," was
founded in 1982 with its groundbreaking AutoCAD software. It's now
a public company with almost 7,000 employees, more than 9 million
users worldwide and nearly $2 billion in annual revenues.
- When she approached the company, she found it already
sponsoring the PBS documentary series "e2: the economies of being
environmentally conscious," and starting to ponder what
sustainable design might mean for its business.
- So they co-created her current position and, three years
later, she's managing a team of five employees, coordinating with
every department in the company and reporting to the chief
marketing officer because marketing already connects across the
- Cameron sees her three areas of responsibility as making
Autodesk's products the best for sustainable design; implementing
best practices for sustainability in the company's operations to
demonstrate what's possible; and providing software grants to
promising clean tech startups to help them get to market
- Autodesk's tools have already helped design a wide range of
eco-projects, including wave energy devices, zero-energy homes, a
more fuel-efficient aircraft engine, a hybrid gas-electric sports
car, the first wind turbine approved for home use, smart transit
information, ecosystem restorations and San Francisco's LEED
platinum-certified California Academy of Sciences. The company
showcases customer projects at its (LEED platinum) Autodesk
Gallery in San Francisco. (For more about LEED, visit
www.usgbc.org or www.nrdc.org/buildinggreen/leed.asp.)
- Autodesk, on a path to reduce its own greenhouse gas (GHG)
emissions 85 percent by 2050 (relative to its value add to society
as measured by Autofdesk's contribution to GDP), is already making
internal changes, such as encouraging customer software downloads
to avoid the greater eco-impacts of packaged products. The company
also recently announced a new open-source methodology to "help
global companies set ambitious GHG reduction targets."
- To Cameron, Autodesk tangibly benefits from its sustainability
efforts in three ways: positive brand reputation, as "a leader in
sustainable design, which gives us new access to customers;" top
line revenue, from product sales; and cost savings through
increased operational efficiency.
- Cameron feels that people wanting to do this type of job need
three key assets: a business degree or business experience ("to
understand how a business operates"); comfort working in
"horizontal, cross-functional" teams; and "excellent persuasive
communication skills." Specialized ecological knowledge is needed
for some roles, she adds, referring to a team member with climate
science expertise who was "extremely valuable" in developing
Autodesk's GHG target methodology.
- Michael Cabot, Autodesk's director of corporate and industry
public relations, comments that sustainability "really is a
passion here. Everybody, from the CEO on down, is really
committed. It's not just lip service or corporate trends."
- Designing sustainable
- Geof Syphers also proposed his current position as CSO to his
employer, Codding Enterprises. Four years ago, while doing green
consulting there, Syphers was intrigued by the work and saw that
instead of flying all over the world and working on hundreds of
projects, he could focus on one company and bicycle to work, thus
reducing his own eco-footprint. It turned out the company would
also save money while gaining a much-needed central person to
organize its various sustainability efforts.
- As CSO, Syphers works with employees across the organization
and reports both to Codding's board and its President/CEO Brad
Baker. For more than 50 years, Codding's specialty has been
building and managing local residential and commercial real
estate, including creating Montgomery Village and Coddingtown. It
now owns and manages 25 commercial sites, and, according to the
NorthBay biz 2009 listing of the top 500 companies in the North
Bay, earns in excess of $26 million in annual revenues and employs
about 73 people.
- When Baker took Codding's reins in 2004, he decided to put the
company on a sustainable path. Syphers thinks this was both
because Baker's generation was raised with environmental values
that Baker wanted reflected in his work, and because the company
sees the future of development not as enclosed shopping malls but
as mixed-use projects that combine shopping, housing, schools and
- As part of its sustainable direction, Codding is investing in
eco-technologies such as biodiesel, steel framing and
energy-efficient air filtration.
- However, its primary focus is creating "a deeply sustainable
mixed-use community" called Sonoma Mountain Village (SMV). This $1
billion redevelopment of Agilent's 200-acre Rohnert Park campus is
expected to feature approximately 1,900 homes, more than 4,000
jobs and residents, 27 acres of parks and open space and 825,000
square feet of commercial space (including an existing 700,000
square feet that's being repurposed). This will make it Sonoma
County's largest development.
- Yet, SMV's project plan also has some breathtaking
eco-aspirations. It aims to use 80 percent less water than a
typical development, thus needing no additional water above the
site's historical uses. Transportation emissions are expected to
be cut by 82 percent via neighborhood electric vehicles, ride
sharing, bike paths and connections to public transit. It plans to
reduce waste by 98 percent through largely avoiding construction
waste plus offering easy drop-off points and incentives for
recycling, reuse and composting. The site's total annual direct
CO2 emissions is projected to be just 2.6 2.2 tons per
household, which is 86 percent less than California's 15.2
- Because of these ambitious targets, this project is the first
in North America to be endorsed by One Planet Community, an
international program seeking to demonstrate "that it's possible
to solve our planet's biggest environmental problems while
operating in a competitive business market and living a quality
lifestyle." Codding has also signed Sonoma County's first
community benefits agreement with local community groups,
officially committing to standards for labor, housing, transit,
water use, open space and more.
- The company hopes SMV will be a place where it's easy for
people to walk or bike to work, school, shopping, daily farmers
markets, parks and community gardens, and otherwise choose
healthier, happier lifestyles. Already the site has 30 businesses
with 600 jobs and a 1.14 megawatt solar array capable of powering
1,000 homes. Resident move-in is expected to start this year.
- Syphers brings to his work a variety of skills, including
extensive business experience plus training in physics, solar
energy engineering and conflict resolution. He finds the latter
especially helpful in translating between different styles and
generating consensus. He has no business degree and doesn't feel
one is particularly necessary.
- He explains, "I don't know that anything is actually
specifically required for this position. I think the people who
are first in are helping define it. Sustainability really
encompasses basically everything, so it would be impossible for
someone to be an expert in every aspect." His advice is that
people interested in this work learn a little bit about most
eco-topics and develop an area of deep expertise.
- When asked why he cares about sustainability, Syphers replies,
"I believe in trying to do the right thing. Working on the
environment isn't separate from any other aspect of my life." He
compares sustainability to finding a delicious ripe peach and
sharing it with a young child, who replies, "I've never tasted
anything like this before." He continues, "Ultimately, it's not
about the carbon and water savings. It's about our experiences in
community with each other. And protecting the environment is one
aspect of that."
- Collaborating with the
- Colby Eierman took a different path to his position as
director of sustainability and gardens for Benziger Family Winery.
After managing the onsite gardens and animals for a year, he added
his sustainability responsibilities a year ago, when the previous
director of sustainability left. His primary task is managing a
cross-departmental, 10-member "green team" that includes co-owner
- The company's commitment to sustainability began in the early
1990s, when Mike Benziger realized the vineyard's chemical growing
practices were diminishing the land's vitality and thus the wine's
unique characteristics. He shifted toward less-toxic practices
and, in 2000, his estate property became the first certified
biodynamic winery in Sonoma County. By 2007, all of Benziger's
purchased grapes were also either certified organic, biodynamic or
- "When we began working in tune with nature's rhythms, instead
of against them," Benziger reports, "a whole new world opened up
- The company's eco-results are already notable. It's changed to
lighter wine bottles (reducing net weight by 287,000 pounds so
far); printed its wine labels on 30 percent post-consumer recycled
paper; installed hand dryers (which saved "several dumpsters of
paper"); brought in water filters (to eliminate weekly
deliveries); changed to washable plates for employee meals (saving
$4,000 and 20,000 disposable plates annually); and placed solar
lighting in the parking lot (with more solar to come).
- Guests touring the winery travel in biodiesel and electric
vehicles, and employees in the carpool incentive program have
already racked up 1,350 passenger trips, thus avoiding 38,000 tons
of carbon and earning points towards gift certificates (expected
to total $10,000 in 2009). Employee classes on home greening are
planned for this year.
- Additionally, Benziger's water conservation practices and new
equipment are expected to trim water use by 20 percent. For
instance, instead of washing barrels by filling them with water, a
steam rinse system lowers water usage from 22 gallons to half a
gallon per barrel, saving more than 100,000 gallons per year. The
company has also recycled millions of gallons in wastewater over
the past 10 years through its wetlands system.
- A key priority for Eierman now is monitoring and setting
targets for water, fuel and recycling. The team is also developing
a "snapshot" of Benziger's carbon footprint.
- Eierman's passion for sustainable gardening began as a
teenager, when his best friend's mother, a Sunset magazine writer,
set them up growing vegetables. From there, he studied landscape
architecture at the University of Oregon, did a six-month farming
apprenticeship at UC Santa Cruz, started a nonprofit to create
school gardens, was director of gardens for Napa's COPIA and grew
vegetables for Berkeley's Chez Panisse and Marin's raw food
restaurant Roxanne's. He's always used organic practices, never
seeing a need for synthetic pesticides.
- From the start, he recalls, "I enjoyed being able to harvest
what I eat, connect with people and be outside. It just always
resonated with me." His sustainability position at Benziger has
brought him inside now, to work with "spreadsheets and
subcommittees," but "it's all rewarding, and I actually like the
balance of using all sides of my brain. It keeps me engaged and
- He also works with people across the company, tracking needs
and projects in different departments, and exploring how to
integrate green into their activities. He says, "The fact Mike is
really committed to this makes it all flow pretty well."
- Why does sustainability matter to Eierman? "It's just my
sensibility that we should consider our impact on the environment
and the legacy we're going to leave. I grew up on the other side
of this hill and hiked all over this mountain as a kid. I just
love this landscape. So it's great to be part of a company that's
committed to not diminishing the quality of the environment
- The future
- So what's the future of green executives? Syphers sees two
trends expanding their ranks. First is an increasing number of
green MBA graduates and others trained in prioritizing the triple
bottom line of financial, social and environmental results. Second
is the pressure on businesses from "physical limits that are
harder and harder to ignore," including both direct limits in
supply and shared limits such as climate and water. "So there's an
increasing interest in taking care of the planet's assets."
- Eierman also observes an enhanced environmental consciousness
in upcoming generations, and hopes that companies will
increasingly commit resources to these issues, "because they're
important and hopefully we can make a difference."
- Even more long-term is Cameron's vision for green execs.
"Ideally," she anticipates, "all sustainability officers will be
out of a job. I mean, as a society, we've gotten ourselves into
quite a mess, so this position is highly needed now to get us back
on track. But the vision for me has always been that we influence
companies to such an extent that sustainability becomes part of
how a company does business, and it doesn't need a specific
sustainability director leading the effort. It's like 'quality'
was 10 or 20 years ago, where they used to have quality experts,
and now it's just a basic expectation that quality is important. I
expect the same will become true with sustainability."
"We're blessed to be stewards of this place for this brief moment
in time, and we take that responsibility very seriously."
-- Mike Benziger, winemaker and co-founder, Benziger Family
Patricia Dines is a writer and public speaker. Her specialty is
inspiring and empowering constructive action on environmental
issues. For more information, see <www.patriciadines.info>.
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