Offsetting a Company’s Carbon Footprint with National Geographic Society’s Hans Wegner

August 30, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us on the line right now Hans Wegner. He’s the Chief Sustainability Officer of the National Geographic Society. Welcome to Green is Good, Hans. HANS WEGNER: Thank you so much, John. I appreciate your inviting me to be on your show. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, Hans, you know, the National Geographic Society has become so enmeshed in our lexicon, in our society as a whole. It’s such an important organization doing so much great work and platforming so many great issues. We’re so thrilled to have you on today because being the Chief Sustainability Officer of such a wonderful iconic organization, we’re so happy to hear your vision of how you’re doing work there but before we get to that, your background is important because there’s so many young people, next generation that want to know how did Hans Wegner even get there? So can you share with our listeners how did you — HANS WEGNER: Get to be CSO? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Yeah, like what’s your journey? HANS WEGNER: It is totally unpredictable, but my background is in printing. I apprenticed as a printer and as a consequence of that, I became very interested in use of paper. For a portion of my time at the Geographic, I was in charge of all the paper purchasing and, as you can imagine, we use a significant amount of that and I became very interested. This goes back to the 1980s, 1990s time frame. I became very interested in best practices in both the management of forests and the manufacturing of wood products so wood derived products and paper in particular because, as I think most people know, paper is a fairly energy intensive industry and it uses some chemicals. Particularly, they need to bleach the fibers so I was very interested to try and make sure that as a steward, that they were operating their forests sustainably and managing them well, but I also wanted to make sure they were compliant with all of their practices having to do with clean water and clean air and so I routinely went to visit, to do the site visits with these various paper suppliers of ours to make sure they were being good stewards of not only the forests, but also the rivers on which they operated. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. HANS WEGNER: And, that doesn’t explain how I became CSO. I became Chief Sustainability Officer as a consequence of the initiative we started here in 2006 and it really was a question of the Geographic does such wonderful writing about things going on around us so that either can excite us or concern us and in particular, we started doing coverage having to do with climate change in 2004 and all of the things that result from that, whether it’s extreme weather patterns or whether it’s intended deforestation or whether it’s depletion of resources and so quite a few of us at the Geographic in 2006 felt that it was really important for us to do more, to be a participant in the solution that we all felt we needed to act towards and in this case, I think we really focused and we organized as a group and this is all volunteer activity. There were about 15 of us on the staff here who just said we can do more and we got together and said what is the overriding problem that we face and we all emphatically agreed that climate change was the number one problem we had to deal with and the climate change effectively trumps all of the other environmental issues that we see and the potential for disaster that is consequential for climate change in massive extensions for both flora and fauna we felt was unacceptable so we decided what we should be doing is to identify exactly how much carbon the National Geographic was responsible for having emitted and that’s not only in operations of our building and the way we do our story compilations and the travel we do but also in the supply chain that supplies our products to us, whether it’s the paper industry, the printing industry, and eventually, of course, the distribution industry, which is mostly the postal service, and so we went about doing that. We said we’re going to measure the carbon impact that we’re having. We’re going to find out specifically what the total greenhouse gas emissions are that The National Geographic is responsible for and the theory was simply that you can’t act until you know and so we figure we’d measure, we’d find out where we were and then identify the opportunities that we were open to, both in the way we operate internally and then within the supply chain, which helps to provide our products for us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you started this in 2006? HANS WEGNER: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, for our listeners out there, we’re on with the Chief Sustainability Officer of The National Geographic Society, Hans Wegner, and for our listeners that want to follow along here, you gotta go to National Geographic’s website first, www.nationalgeographic.com. I’m on it right now, Hans, and I’m on the environment section. Like you said, you touch in your sector so many issues with regards to the environment so since 2006, all those initiatives you’ve undertaken with climate change being the lead, tell our listeners some of the things you guys have accomplished in these short seven years. HANS WEGNER: Well, as far as the climate change piece is concerned, what we have done is we’ve measured the carbon that we emit here and most of that is — when I say here, I mean on the campus from which we operate in Washington, DC. Most of that is electrical and we basically bought renewable wind power racks. Against all the energy that we were consuming not only in this building or our complex of buildings here, but in all of the satellites buildings where we rent space so if we have a sales office for advertising in Los Angeles or Chicago or business offices in New York, we counted that space. We offset it with wind racks. Further, we offset the natural gas use in the operation of our building here by buying offsets in reforestation projects in Kenya and now in Panama or alternatively, doing methane capture in the landfill so those are sort of where I’m now working with our suppliers to identify the things that they can do to take greenhouse gas emissions out of their system. Then on the other things we’ve done, we’ve done a lot of other things and they range all over. Let’s focus on the cafeteria, for instance. In the cafeteria, we compost everything we can as a way of reducing landfill waste and that extends to all the paper products that I used, whether it’s napkins and things like that, and we extended that about five years ago to include all the paper towels being used in the building so everything that’s generated in the bathrooms is collected as far as paper towels are concerned. That’s all composted so anything that can be is composted, that can’t be recycled is composted. A lot of things we’ve done in the cafeteria. We’ve eliminated all plastics so instead of using plastic clamp shells, we now use ones made from bagasse, which is leftover pulp from sugar cane pressing. We did the calculation. It says by the presence of water bottles on campus, we were responsible for about 150 metric tons of carbon emissions. We eliminated those and gave everybody a bottle and said use the water that we have in the buildings and that’s just fine. We test it on a routine basis. We established a farmers market and it was in our court and we had it every Tuesday but the goal was to make the cafeteria operations more local, more organic, and therefore, not only healthier and better food but also, more responsibly grown and hopefully, with a low carbon emissions footprint. We put a map in the cafeteria which identifies where the location of these farms are within concentric area of Washington, DC, so that’s within 150 miles and so we really do focus on having it local and we are now in the cafeteria up to about 22 or 23% organic and local and we’ve also, as far as the cafeteria is concerned, eliminated all paper cups effectively and given every employee a ceramic mug and said please use that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hans, let me pause you for a second. You’re doing all these amazing things and again, it’s so inspirational because this goes to show you, you were in the printing side of National Geographic and you’ve become the CSO. HANS WEGNER: Basically, it’s the last five years. It’s a consequence of the initiatives I led with this activity and basically, one of the important messages is people say what can I do? And anybody can get started and I think the tendency that all of us have, including me, is to wait for somebody else to take the initiative and I just said with the threat of climate change, I can’t wait for that other person to come around. I’m going to do it and basically, what I did is we solicited volunteers and everything we’ve done here is done by people who are volunteering time over and above their regular work. There’s nobody who’s doing this full time, who are volunteering their activity. The very first thing we did after we organized is we said we really need to get the blessings of senior management and so we put up a vision statement on the mission and proposed that to senior management and they endorsed it and let me just quickly paraphrase the vision statement, which basically says The National Geographic Society should be a leader in environmentally sustainable practices doing all it can reasonably do to walk the talk and then the missions portion of that is simply to transform the society into a leader in global conservation recognized internationally for leadership in environmental sustainability to lead by example and coupled with editorial efforts to influence the behavior of individuals and organizations within and beyond the society and with that endorsement, we then were able to say to the volunteers look, we have the president’s endorsement and we really try to keep their time away from their jobs to a minimum. We have a steering committee. We meet one hour a month and that’s it. I am very careful not to exceed people’s time requirements because I know they have other jobs. We have six sub-committees and the reason for establishing sub-committees which are subject specific, such as the building or the cafeteria and the like, is because number one, I wanted to get more done more quickly and maybe as an importantly or maybe more importantly is I wanted to get as many people engaged and involved as wanted to be involved in this process because I really think this is an organic thing that has to grow from the inside and it’s been very, very productive to me to watch not only the energy on the part of the volunteers we have, but also the imagination and the creativity in identifying possible things we can do and on that same thread, what I do as far as setting goals is concerned, I ask each of the sub committees at the end of the year, “Tell me what your goals are for the next year and prioritize them by quarter,” and so then I take the six documents I get from each of these, I sort the goals by quarter, and that becomes my guide so when we run the steering committee, we’ll say okay, here in the first quarter, we have these goals which we’ll try to achieve and we plan accordingly and we normally, on an annual basis, set somewhere between 55 and 60 goals. We usually accomplish 45 of those or a number around there but it’s in the mid-40s so a substantial number and they could be really small. They could be as simple as some of the cool things we’re doing, for instance, are somebody came to us and said we should plant a butterfly garden in our courtyard as a way to enable migrating monarchs to have a resting place to restore and energize so we planted plants that are attracted to and nurture monarch butterflies. We put a beehive on the roof and last year, for the first harvest, we harvested four gallons of honey. Those aren’t critically important but they’re symbolic of an attitude and a change in the way we wanted to operate as a company. One of the things we did that was really seemingly inconsequential but it’s one of those things that if enough of us do it, it makes a difference and it’s as simple as we used to have an office supply service that we could call up and say, ‘I need a box of pencils and three writing pads,’ and they would be here the next day. We’ve arranged for them to make one delivery a week. My goal for next year is to make that one delivery every two weeks. It’s just a question of planning. Take the truck off the road. Don’t be a part of the contribution to emission or pollution or the use of fuel. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hans, we’re down to the last minute. This story is amazing. I’m going to want you to come back on and continue it but it’s been a massive success. Share with our listeners, you’ve got the platform, what you want them to take away from this so that you can get them also part of the process and part of the solution and not part of the problem. HANS WEGNER: The number one thing is get started. Everybody, all of us, each of us, at home, in the way we conduct our businesses and the way we conduct ourselves at work can do it but every one of us can identify wastes of energy, lights left on, computers left on, turned on that are not needed right now. Those are savings that go to the bottom line. It’s easy to document. We’ve documented that by reducing our energy use, reducing our water use, and reducing our natural gas use. We save this company $500,000 a year in those three categories, bottom line. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hans Wegner, thank you so much. National Geographic.com. You’re a leader in environmental sustainability practices and truly living proof that green is good.