How Sustainability Software Turns ESG Ambition into Action

IBM’s Christina Shim and Microsoft’s Mark Kroese joined Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick at the Health + Wealth of Our Planet conference for a conversation about the intersection of technology and sustainability

IBM's Christina Shim and Microsoft's Mark Kroese at the “Health + Wealth of Our Planet” event in NYC. September 20, 2022 Photo credit: Lorenzo Bevilaqua

It’s a fact, if a strange one. Most companies—including Fortune 50 ones—still use old-fashioned spreadsheets to track their sustainability data, reporting, goals, and achievements. How so, in such a tech-driven moment and with such sophisticated tools at their disposal?

To find out the answer, and about other surprising elements of the sustainability tech landscape, Techonomy and Worth welcomed Christina Shim, head of strategy and sustainability for IBM’s sustainability software business, and Mark Kroese, general manager of Microsoft’s sustainability group, to the stage at its recent Health + Wealth of our Planet conference in Manhattan.

David Kirkpatrick, founder and editor in chief of Techonomy, noted that the nature of the panel itself was important, featuring two industry leaders collaborating in the interest of sharing information to increase sustainability.

Both executives pointed out their companies’ respective histories of activism in the ESG space. Shim noted that IBM published its first environmental report in 1971, and that the company has been “increasingly realizing that a lot of the products that we were already working across industries on were supporting sustainability goals.” Supply chain optimization and energy efficiency were among the earliest concerns addressed.

Kroese traced Microsoft’s commitment back to the Seventies too—albeit in a different way. In 2020 the company committed to go “carbon negative,” he said, meaning that by reducing and removing emissions it will retroactively erase the eco-impact the company’s had since the mid-Seventies. By 2050, “From a greenhouse gas perspective it will be as though we never existed.”

Both executives said that IBM and Microsoft have learned much from internal commitments and even early reports but that their main focus is on helping customers in their sustainability journeys. As Kroese noted, even a tech giant like Microsoft only accounts for three one-hundredths of one percent of global emissions, so an emphasis on clients and partners meeting their own goals makes not only business but climate sense.

Kroese highlighted Microsoft’s Cloud for Sustainability suite of software and services, which it introduced in June, as its best offering for customers in the space. He cited the carbon accounting tool Microsoft Sustainability Manager, which measures Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions data, as a powerful component of it.

Shim noted IBM’s acquisition of Envizi, a software platform, which happened in January. The dashboard-like software product is so game changing, particularly in the context of IBM’s other software, Shim said, because it allows customers to aggregate heretofore siloed information, analyze it automatically and, as a result, take swift and decisive action on insights. Earlier, Shim noted that the most common concern among clients is uncertainty about how to utilize data so they can deliver on sustainability commitments. (Studies bear out that this is a problem: A Forrester report showed that 60-73% of all data is never used in analyses.) Envizi and its ilk solve the problem.

“Are we getting to a point where companies will essentially have a live, real-time dashboard of their emissions?” Kirkpatrick inquired.

“Totally,” Kroese replied. “Yes,” Shim said simultaneously.

Shim explained, “A lot of the platforms now, including our products, have real data connectors…tied in with, let’s say, the utility bills of buildings or what’s exactly happening within the network of your supply chain.” With Envizi, clients are not only able to pool that data but to gain insights from it at a level of accuracy that’s unprecedented. “This is not, ‘We’re going to estimate the size of this building and the approximate number of people.’ This is, ‘We’re showing that you’re not using this room. You’re turning this air conditioner on and off at the wrong times.’”

Wrapping up, Kirkpatrick asked, “How can companies like yours work together more? And does the industry have collective momentum” to do so?

“I’ll jump right in,” responded Shim, who said that IBM not only works with Microsoft but other large tech players. “We’re doing this for something that’s bigger than just the next quarterly return or the next quarterly earnings.”

Kroese nodded. “There’s a lot of places to compete in the world,” he summed up. “Sustainability standards and formats is not one of them.”

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