The TH Interview: Dave Douglas, Vice-President of Eco-Responsibility, Sun Microsystems

In little more than a year, Sun Microsystems has distinguished itself in the information technology industry by enthusiastically adopting a TreeHugger-friendly platform of Eco-Responsibility. However, Sun's innovation does not stop at its products, which include energy efficient desktop systems and servers, but extends to company-wide internal operations and its relationship with the larger technology community.

To find out how change is managed in a company of over 30,000 employees, and what the real motivations are behind Sun's pursuit of sustainability, TreeHugger interviewed Dave Douglas, VP of Eco-Responsibility at Sun Microsystems.

TreeHugger: The title of Vice-President of Eco-Responsibility is not typically found in most companies, even those which are sustainably-minded. What does the job entail, and how did you end up in the position?

Dave Douglas: This position is responsible for Sun's overall approach to eco-responsibility, including our products and services, internal operations, and how we communicate and share outside the company. We sum it up as Innovate, Act and Share.I was hired into the position by Jonathan Scwhartz, Sun's CEO and Greg Papadapolous, Sun's CTO. This was a personally important area for both of them, and there was a lot of activity going on in the company. They decided that the company could build on the good things that were happening faster if it was driven by someone with a full-time senior position. I'd worked for Greg in a broad role before and they both knew I was interested in the environment, so they recruited me back to Sun to drive this.

TH: What is "eco-responsibility", and why did Sun choose to pursue this initiative?

DD: Eco-responsibility is about trying to do business in a way that's good for the environment and for the company's business at the same time. I often joke that 'eco' stands for both ecology and economy, since we're not trying to do either of them at the expense of the other.

Sun is pursuing this because a) we care, and b) we think its good for business. As a result of our focus we are becoming a more efficient operation, and we are creating innovative products which are meeting our customers' interest in energy reduction and the environment.

TH: What has it been like to instigate change within a large organization like Sun, and do you have any suggestions for like-minded individuals in other industries?

DD: I have two big things going for me: strong support from the top and a lot of passionate individuals. As a result, a majority of my job is to harness the energy and passion that's already there, and focus it in the areas that will be the most beneficial.

My advice for folks in other companies is to spend serious time finding projects that are both good for the environment and for the business. Everyone I talk to finds that, if they are creative, there are WIN-WIN projects throughout their business. These projects create allies throughout the company and create positive momentum which makes it easier to take on bigger and bigger challenges.

TH: Can you tell us a little about the various stakeholders involved in this initiative and how they've responded to Sun's push for eco-responsibility?

DD: Any real project ends up pulling in key stakeholders from across the company, many of whom are representing Sun's external stakeholders. Finance and legal are often involved and represent our shareholder's interest, product teams are often involved, facilities, HR, supplier management, etc. Again, these engagements tend to not be an issue if you can create a dialogue around looking for WIN-WIN situations instead of "we want to do something good for the environment at the expense of group X".

TH: Can you describe the last environmental success you had (large or small) that triggered the thought: "You know, if we could do more of that, we might just pull this off"?

DD: It wasn't so much of a single success, as a series of emails that I got recently from employees describing creative ideas that they were pursuing within their parts of their business. In every case the result was going to save money for the company and have a positive environmental impact. My team didn't come up with the ideas, and other than some basic support, we aren't going to be involved in implementing the ideas. Once we started to get that kind of grass roots activity I really felt like we were moving into a new phase.

There are things you can do from a central group, but Sun's products and operations are complex enough that the really great ideas are going to come from the people who understand the ins and outs of their part of the business or product line.

TH: In your view, how can we balance the very real demands of the business world with goals such as sustainability, which are ultimately less about competition than getting the job done?

DD: I disagree with the premise of the question. Done right, sustainability can be a serious competitive advantage. If you look at business separate of sustainability, and sustainability separate of business, then try to put them back together it won't work in the long run.

TH: It seems that only a hand-full of companies have whole-heartedly embraced sustainability and eco-responsibility within various industries. For example, Interface has made amazing strides, but the rest of the carpet industry has yet to follow. What is your perception of how industry in general is responding, and do you seethe technology industry as different from others?

DD: I think that 2006 was a big wake-up call for many companies. You could see it in the number of sustainability conferences and who was attending.

Technology isn't that different from any industry - it will build what customers will pay for. What's unique about the networking and computing space is that a big part of the environmental impact is front and center on our customers' electric bills. So with rising energy usage and energy prices, going forward you're going to see a tremendous amount of activity, some of it with real substance and some of it will be marketing hype.

TH: Is the technology industry emerging as a force for change within other industries?

DD: It can be in many ways. One example is Sun's OpenWork program, which uses networking and computer technology to allow employees to work wherever is convenient on any given day. Last year over 14,000 Sun employees, almost half of the workforce, worked regularly from home or elsewhere. We estimate that these technologies helped reduce over 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions in 2005 through this program. We've recently turned this into an offering so we can help other companies realize the same financial and environmental savings, and we're getting a lot of interest in this program.

TH: For all of their benefits, computers are built using some extremely nasty chemicals, they use electricity throughout their life-span, and they're challenging to dispose of. Given these obstacles, what is your vision for sustainable computing, and how do we get there? What role do you see Sun playing both within the technology industry and in the world at large, and do you see such involvement changing Sun in any way? For example, could Sun becoming less a computer chip manufacturer and more a green technology consultancy?

DD: Sun is a manufacturer of computers and software, and will continue to do so. Having Sun and its competitors leave the business will eliminate the tools for global climate modeling, for designing more efficient cars, and for allowing people to live high quality lives at lower impact through e-shopping, e-medicine, e-learning, etc.

So our job is to use our creativity to make the products which enable these things to have as little impact as possible. We're attacking that on every front, including reducing hazardous chemicals, reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing the systems, and recovering, remanufacturing and recycling our products at the end of their useful life. We've got a lot of work to do in these areas, but we're making headway on each of these fronts.

TH: What do you see as the ideal outcome(s) of Sun's push for eco-responsibility?

DD: My hope is that every year Sun's business and products have a lower environmental impact, and at the same time increasing efficiencies and environmentally friendly products and services are increasing Sun's competitive position in the market. In the ideal world, we'll be the first to produce computers that have zero net environmental impact through their life, and if we can get there I believe we'll be in an incredibly strong position in the market.

TH: What are some of the steps you've personally taken to lead a more sustainable, TreeHugger-friendly lifestyle?

DD: I'm doing a lot of little things, but I feel like the most important thing is spending more time talking to my kids about sustainability in various forms. I grew up with a whole different mindset - I remember them running ads trying to get people to litter less along the highways. This is a lot more serious, and the next generations are going to have to carry on all of the things we're just starting to do, and will have to take them to a whole new level that we can't even imagine.

[Interview conducted by Treehugger intern Dave Chiu]

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