This is the exclusive, short story of how Diageo North America, with creativity and guts, both in operations and in the senior ranks, achieved the holy grail of carbon emissions reductions. They did it without using carbon offsets -- and about 38 years earlier than they had to.
Here's what scientists are telling us: the world must cut carbon emissions by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 to (we hope) avoid the worst of climate change. This level of change seemed like a pipe dream to many, including me... until I spoke last fall to Roberta Barbieri, the global manager for environmental sustainability for Diageo, the $17 billion spirits company. Imagine my shock, as we talked about setting aggressive goals on carbon emissions, when she casually mentioned that Diageo's North American division -- a group with $5.58 billion in sales and 14 production and manufacturing facilities -- had already cut emissions 80 percent.
The first thing I said was, "Excuse me?!," followed quickly by, "when can I come and talk to you?"
It all started in 2008, she told me later, when top Diageo execs had their minds set on doing something big. First, for perspective, they ran the numbers on what it might cost to go entirely carbon free. The back-of-the-envelope calculation was daunting (hundreds of millions of dollars) and included ideas like building bioenergy plants to power some of their largest distilleries -- an option that would achieve large reductions, but was in no way cheap. They settled on a still-aggressive goal of 50 percent, made it public, and, remarkably, crossed their fingers.
At about this time, Richard Dunne, an environmental exec, entered the picture and took responsibility for meeting the target in North America. He had a strong suspicion that building an expensive bioenergy plant was not the only way to get there. His team implemented a rigorous process of collecting ideas for emissions cuts and estimating the costs. Then they sorted the results on a massive spreadsheet, ranking ideas by net gain on environmental improvement and then by financial investment. By looking at the largest carbon reduction options first, they could group ideas into three big buckets: 1) low/no cost (the no-brainers); 2) some operating expense increase; and 3) more significant capital expenditures (like the bioenergy plant).
Executives initially thought that only major capital projects would reduce emissions significantly. But Dunne's process revealed a surprising number of no-brainers. As a result, Diageo North America achieved a 50 percent carbon reduction by 2012, mainly with a mix of no- and low-cost initiatives. These project range from easy efficiency efforts like lighting retrofits, boiler upgrades, and installing variable speed drives; to larger, but still economical, changes, such as switching fuels (from oil to natural gas) and cutting back from two boilers to one in a small distillery.
Reaching the 50 percent reduction in North America years ahead of schedule was a pleasant surprise. But Diageo still needed to go further: the economics on reductions in other regions were not nearly as good, so North America needed to close the gap to help the global organization reach its 50 percent goal by 2015. But even with the expensive bioenergy plant beckoning as a solution, something even more unusual happened at a Canadian distillery, one of the company's largest.
Gene Ruminski, Diageo's North American sustainability manager, proposed that the Canadian distillery contract with its utility to supply natural gas harvested from a landfill -- a net zero carbon solution that would reduce the carbon footprint for North America by another whopping 30 percent. But there was a big catch: energy costs would go up more than $1 million per year. This expense was more than the single plant could justify.
But then a senior exec, the president of Global Supply and Procurement, got wind of the idea (important point here: this exec sits on the company's internal sustainability council). With his global perspective, he realized that even though the landfill gas solution would increase operating costs for this one plant, it was actually a relatively cheap way to deliver a large reduction in emissions. So he gave the go-ahead and some financial leeway to the plant manager who had to take the annual million-plus hit to his bottom line. As it turns out, the plant's ongoing cost-cutting initiatives had already identified many millions of savings, so Diageo reduced the plant's target for total cost savings to allow for this massive carbon-reducing project.
This is an amazing story, with a few important lessons:
1) Companies still have much more room to cut energy, water, and waste than they realize. Even a well-run company can find enormous savings from easy, low-cost stuff.
2) Big goals force you to look for big ideas, meaning you can, as Diageo's Roberta Barbieri says, "do more than just turning off the lights."
3) Leadership matters. With a more strategic attitude, you can invest in longer-term value, both tangible and intangible. Flexibility is crucial, as the top exec had to give the plant manager leeway on his savings targets to meet the environmental goal.
This last point is really critical. Shifting subtly away from an attitude of "maximize profits this quarter at all costs" does not mean you leap right from capitalism to communism; it just means you take into account a broader definition of value to the organization and community. Flexible thinking about value frees you up to find unique solutions. As a clean tech and impact investor Charles Ewald said to me recently, "the gap between 'capitalism' and so-called 'philanthropy' leaves a lot of room for creativity."
I congratulate Diageo for getting creative, finding that chasm, and driving a spirits truck right through it.
(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)