Stories – People & Planet

People & Planet – Expert view

Driving change for a more sustainable future.

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About Matthew Gardner

Sustainserv cofounder and Managing Partner Matthew Gardner holds a PhD in chemistry and has worked in the corporate sustainability field for 30 years. Prior to founding Sustainserv 20 years ago to help corporations improve their sustainability efforts, he spent ten years on the staff of MIT. In addition to his consulting work, Dr. Gardner teaches sustainability strategy and entrepreneurship at the Harvard University Extension School.

Matthew Gardner, PhD, Managing Partner at Sustainserv, got hooked on the corporate sustainability field after working in environmental research at MIT, where he had the opportunity to assist large corporations that wanted to improve their environmental profile.

While leading an environmental workshop in the Swiss Alps in 2001, he met his two future Sustainserv partners. After talking, they all realized they wanted to do this full time, for corporations, where they knew they could make a big impact. Gardner says, “We like to say that Sustainserv was born on the side of a mountain.”

Sustainability (also known in some circles as corporate social responsibility, or taking care of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues) “is not just about doing the right thing”, Dr. Gardner says. “It’s also about issues that drive value creation for stakeholders.” He helps corporations zero in on those issues and address them.

“If I were to grade corporate performance on sustainability over the past couple of years, I’d give them a C (a middling grade), maybe a C+,” he says. “A lot of progress has been made, and there’s a lot of awareness around environmental, social and governance-related issues,” he says. “But too many companies are still box-ticking – preparing sustainability reports because people are asking them to. They aren’t internalizing the values.”

“Sustainability is not just about doing the right thing, it’s also about issues that drive value creation for stakeholders.”

Corporate sustainability drivers: risk management and more

Part of Dr. Gardner’s work is helping corporations understand that good sustainability management is an exercise in risk management. And risk management is important to investors, so that’s one driver for corporate sustainability efforts. Another driver is new revenue opportunities or cost reduction. “Some companies recognize an opportunity to bring a new product or a new service to market that is more environmentally friendly or more socially responsible and that can generate new revenue for them,” says Dr. Gardner. “There are also companies that are motivated by the opportunity to realize efficiencies in how they operate. If I can produce a product using less raw materials, using less energy, then my costs are lower.”

“Companies should pay more attention to sustainability because of the risks and opportunities that sustainability represents.”

While most sustainability efforts are centered on climate-change-related issues, there are other areas of sustainability to consider. Examples are diversity and inclusion (D&I), human rights and cybersecurity.

Regardless of the reasons, Dr. Gardner is happy to see more corporations interested in the topic. “Companies should pay more attention to sustainability because of the risks and opportunities that sustainability represents,” he says.

Steps to improve corporate sustainability

To help them make measurable sustainability improvements, Dr. Gardner takes companies through a four-step process: determining in what ways they want to improve their sustainability profile, determining KPIs for the journey, developing new processes and policies for effecting change, and communicating progress.

The first step is crucial, because that’s where companies decide where they can have the biggest impact on the world – answering the question, “In what ways are we uniquely positioned to drive change?” Is it energy consumption, water usage, human rights, diversity, or something else?

Technology and people both play a role

Technology plays a key role in helping companies improve their sustainability profile. “It helps in all kinds of ways – reducing energy usage, water usage, more efficient equipment,” says Dr. Gardner. “But there is also a human component to this. It’s ultimately people who initiate sustainability programs, who innovate and commit to change and are willing to explore unfamiliar areas.”

At the end of the day, Dr. Gardner aspires to be a catalyst for change. “Helping people become aware of these issues, helping people and corporations understand how they can make a difference – it’s my life’s work. We want to have the greatest impact in a way that works for the world and for the business.”