Tech + Business + Environment

Executives Are Seeing the Light

Tom Murray
Apr 25, 2018 · 6 min read

In any era, under any administration, the hard work of environmental and social change uses the best available tools, and today those tools include technological innovations that are turbo charging transparency, corporate responsibility and action.

The same disruptive innovations and technologies that are changing our lives and revolutionizing virtually every sector of the economy can be used to scale solutions to our most urgent environmental challenges.

We are seeing a Fourth Wave of environmental innovation driven by cutting edge technology that is empowering all people to take action to safeguard our planet. For me, the people I’m focused on engaging and empowering are business leaders. Yes you read that right. Someone from an environmental NGO wants to empower business executives to help solve climate change. Especially those who are most willing to embrace the power of what’s possible.

Exploring What If?

What if emerging Fourth Wave innovations were empowering businesses to boost bottom-line growth while decreasing their environmental impact?

What if companies were able to track and manage the environmental performance of their global supply chains through new tech like blockchain?

And what if top executives considered the environmental impact of new technologies on the same level of importance as strategic impact?

‘What if’ is now becoming the way business is done. We’ve seen it in Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) partnerships with leading businesses, and now we’re hearing it directly from over 500 high-level executives surveyed for a new report looking at the intersection of business, technology and sustainability.

86% of executives agree that emerging technologies can help businesses’ bottom line as well as improve their impact on the environment — a figure that increases to 91% among those in the C-suite.

Executives working to raise the bar on corporate sustainability have a new wind at their back. Emerging technology is empowering business leaders and accelerating sustainability. And the motivation for this extends far beyond obvious regulatory demands. First, technology is enabling businesses to strategically balance profitable growth with environmental stewardship — this is no longer an either/or scenario — we need both. Second, the C-suite must respond to compounding pressure from customers, investors, and staff who are extending loyalty to brands who walk the walk on corporate sustainability. In fact, eighty-four percent of business leaders surveyed said that having sustainable business practices helps them attract and retain top talent.

Here’s how some leaders are putting new tech to work, for business and the planet.

Automation & Dematerialization

Levi Strauss & Co. just announced a new digital manufacturing capability that automates part of the jeans production process, allowing the company to tailor supply to meet demand. This creates a host of business and environmental benefits: reducing textile waste, eliminating thousands of chemical formulations previously needed for finishing, and potentially saving water.

Amazon is collaborating with vendors across its supply chain on dematerialization in the pet food category. The company worked with the largest global manufacturers in pet food to convert retail packaging to ready-to-ship e-commerce packaging. New designs have reduced the number of packaging components by 50 percent and packaging volume by 34 percent. They also reduced damage in their distribution network by 84 percent and downstream damage for customers by more than 30 percent.

Given that only 31 percent of survey respondents have successfully implemented dematerialization technologies in their companies, this is an innovation that is ripe for scaling.

Sharing Technologies & Data Analysis

Over three quarters of the executives surveyed think that sharing data with outside parties will lead to better outcomes for businesses. That may be why Starbucks is working with the Closed Loop Partners to launch the NextGen Cup Challenge, an open source effort to develop and commercialize fully recyclable and compostable cups.

Or why Google partnered with World Resources Institute and leading research institutions to create a free global database of power plants that lets users access data on 80 percent of globally installed electrical capacity across 168 countries. These data will help researchers better understand and uncover air pollution problems, and can accelerate investments in low-carbon technologies and initiatives.


Credit: Flickr User ibmphoto24

Eighty percent of the business leaders surveyed believe consumers will increasingly hold companies more accountable for environmental impact and technology is making it possible.

That means business leaders like designer Marine Jaarlgard, who is piloting a blockchain platform to increase transparency and traceability across her knitwear collection, may have a competitive advantage.

Walmart, Unilever, and Nestle are also working with IBM to explore blockchain applications for food supply chains. The technology could help to secure supply chain records for important commodity products such as pork, chocolate and bananas. The upside for the environment is less food waste. For business? Increased supply chain efficiencies and ensuring food safety.

And the potential for blockchain to revolutionize electricity markets holds promise. In LO3 Energy’s microgrid project in Brooklyn, New York, residents use a simple app to trade electricity they generate from solar panels to neighbors in need of extra power.


The Fourth Wave not only makes invisible problems visible, it makes them solvable. EDF put sensors on Google Street View cars to measure and map leaks of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, in Boston, Chicago, Dallas and other cities. We challenged entrepreneurs to create methane-detection units that are now being piloted in oil and gas facilities owned by Statoil, Shell and Pacific Gas & Electric. And we teamed with Google Earth Outreach to map air-pollution threats on each block in West Oakland, Calif., giving residents detailed data to help make the case for emissions reductions under California’s new air-quality law.

And earlier this month, EDF announced plans to develop and launch a new satellite that is purpose-built to locate and measure methane emissions from sources worldwide, starting with the oil and gas industry. Free and open data from this satellite is intended to give both countries and companies robust data to spot problem areas, identify savings opportunities, and measure their progress in reducing methane emissions over time.

This is just the beginning

With so much momentum, it’s hard to believe that we are just starting to ride the Fourth Wave of environmental innovation. There is so much more potential for business and technology to make an impact:

  • How might we bring the data revolution to global fishing?
  • How might we enable cities around the world to use air quality mapping and innovative policies to improve people’s health?
  • How might we leverage data and precision agriculture to make fertilizer pollution obsolete?
  • How might business, NGOs, and tech innovators accelerate transformational solutions for clean energy?

For our report, we singled out seven emerging technologies — Blockchain, sensors, dematerialization, automation and sharing technologies, data analytics, and mobile ubiquity — and found that top executives overwhelmingly see the potential for these technologies and others to raise the bar for both business and sustainability performance. With so many emerging technologies changing the way we live and work, I invite you to share developments and opportunities at the intersection of business, technology and the environment.

Think about how you can join in and help lead this next wave of environmental innovation. Working together, we can use the tools and innovations of our time to scale solutions to our most urgent environmental challenges.

Download the full report here. Or read the executive summary below:

Environmental Defense Fund works with businesses, government & communities to create lasting solutions to the most serious enviro problems. #FourthWave

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen.

Tom Murray

Written by

VP, EDF+Business at @EnvDefenseFund @EDFBiz. Sharing thoughts on the #environment & #sustainablebusiness. Husband, dad, skier, diver.

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of environmental innovation.

Tom Murray

Written by

VP, EDF+Business at @EnvDefenseFund @EDFBiz. Sharing thoughts on the #environment & #sustainablebusiness. Husband, dad, skier, diver.

The Fourth Wave

Environmental progress doesn't just happen. It's been propelled by successive waves of innovation, each unleashing powerful new tools: Land conservation. Force of Law. Power of Market-Based Solutions. Today we are seeing the emergence of a Fourth Wave of environmental innovation.

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