My generation is unlike any that has come before. It is the most informed, most socially conscious generation in human history. Millennials set the bar high for ourselves, and expect the same from our family, friends, politicians and brands. It is a generation that is connected to communities around the world, and therefore, connected to the injustices, issues and innovations that generations before did not have exposure to. Consumer data accumulated in recent years indicates that the economic paradigm is shifting. Consumers are more aware of the brands they purchase and how socially impactful they are.
Concurrently, corporations, many of whom have been established for decades, are having to shift focus, and explore new markets, and new ways to do business, as climate change becomes more ostensible. The concepts of social consciousness, business and innovation do not have to be mutually exclusive, and are in fact deeply interconnected and dependent upon each other.
Acclaimed HBS Professor Michael Porter tells us in his 2013 TEDGlobal talk (Porter, n.d.)that whilst social change has historically come from government, NGOs and philanthropy, we will never reach the scale needed to achieve the under 2°C increase by 2100 as targeted in the Paris Agreement relying on these entities alone. (Wikipedia, n.d.) What we need is for change to be driven by profit-seeking business.
So, which for-profit corporation, above all others, has given us the ability to be so informed and is on the frontier of innovation and social consciousness?
Alphabet, or Google, as it was at the time, has been involved in the climate change agenda for quite a while now. Google first came to the fore in sustainability and climate change initiatives in 2008 when it launched Google.org, which is effectively the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) arm. Alphabet has also been carbon neutral since 2007, their data centers use 50% less energy than comparable data centers and they are the largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy on the planet. (Google, n.d.)
But this was not enough for the tech giant; they saw an opportunity to not only lead change with their charitable work and operational improvements, but with leading the innovation of new solutions for climate change. When Google completely upheaved its business structure and separated its operations into distinct entities under the new umbrella of Alphabet, it was perceived as a means to separate its cash-cow search engine business, from its future technological bets. Indeed, even the name AlphaBet(a) is a signal that leaders believe in their ability the outperform the market in the future. However, this reorganization and rebranding goes much deeper. Most of Alphabet’s new R&D and investment business units are working on sustainability and climate change-impacting ventures.
Alphabet’s GoogleX business unit is working on things such as electric/driverless cars, airborne wind turbines and energy storage solutions. (Krosinsky, n.d.) In fact, Alphabet has invested so much in renewable energy that it may well be one of the world’s largest energy utility companies in the future. (Woody, n.d.) Even within the core Google business unit, the company continues to integrate socially-conscious features. For example, Google Earth allows users to check on countries who claim to be stopping deforestation through integrated heat-map overlays.
CEO Larry Page and President Sergey Brin are both huge advocates of tackling climate change. In 2015, American business columnist Ashlee Vance wrote the book ‘Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future’, where Vance claimed that Tesla/SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Alpabet CEO Larry Page and President Sergey Brin regularly spend time in a secret apartment in Silicon Valley, discussing moon-shot inventions that will better the world. (Eadicicco, n.d.) Venture Capitalist George Zachary attended one of the meetings and told Vance…
“Elon was talking about building an electric jet plane that can take off and land vertically. Larry said the plane should be able to land on ski slopes, and Sergey said it needed to be able to dock at a port in Manhattan.”
So consumed are these men by socially-conscious innovation, that much of the profits of their companies are dedicated to such endeavours. This is what the world needs to reach the lofty goals set forth in the Paris Agreement; for-profit, innovative companies that are pushing the boundaries and leading us into the next generation of socially-conscious technology.
Critics argue that Alphabet has been funnelling money through Ireland and the Netherlands for years to avoid paying taxes. (Sterling, n.d.) But is this money better of is a true for-profit, innovative company of idealists, or in a bureaucracy-laden government?
Is it all for long-term profits, for brand equity, or monopolization? Maybe. But regardless of your opinion on the virtues of its leaders, Alphabet is vertically integrating, transcending industries and has turned into one of the world’s forefront leaders in climate change innovation. And it all started with a search engine. (798 words)
Eadicicco, L. (n.d.). Business Insider Tech. Retrieved from Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/googles-secret-apartment-elon-musk-2015-5
Google. (n.d.). Google Green. Retrieved from Google.com: https://www.google.com/green/
Krosinsky, C. (n.d.). The Balance. Retrieved from thebalance.com: https://www.thebalance.com/google-and-sustainability-3025467
Porter, M. (n.d.). TEDGlobal. Retrieved from Ted.com: https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_porter_why_business_can_be_good_at_solving_social_problems?language=en
Sterling, T. (n.d.). Reuters. Retrieved from reuters.com: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-google-tax-idUSKCN0VS1GP
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Paris Agreement Wikipedia Page. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Agreement
Woody, T. (n.d.). QZ. Retrieved from qz.com: http://qz.com/125407/google-is-on-the-way-to-quietly-becoming-an-electric-utility/