In an era where sustainability and corporate social responsibility are crucial, corporations often fall short on promises. The public increasingly wants to see genuine, accountable action on sustainability, and the corporate standards to go with them.
In my experience leading the sustainability initiatives of Western Digital, a semiconductor manufacturer recently named one of America’s Most Ethical Companies, I see three key factors that support a successful, actionable sustainability strategy: impactful targets, credible transparency and data-centered strategy.
These guiding principles are the foundation of our company’s recent progress in sustainability. They have helped us set ambitious science-based targets to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 42% over 10 years, run a detailed human-rights impact assessment on our operations and value chain and implement an incentive-based product takeback program. As revealed in our 2022 Sustainability Report, we’ve made significant progress around energy and emissions reduction, waste management and reduction, supply chain resiliency and DEI. Key highlights include:
- Net Scope 1 and 2 emissions in FY2022 were more than 14% lower than FY2020 and are ahead of the FY2022 target milestone of 8.4% reduction
- From FY2021 to FY2022, Western Digital reduced the energy intensity to manufacture products by more than 13%
- Western Digital facilitated the recycling of 21,400+ devices since April 2020 through its Easy Recycle Program and 9.2 metric tons of waste diverted from landfills
Here are some lessons learned that may help other corporate leaders achieve their own sustainability goals.
It’s not always necessary to “start small,” as conventional wisdom suggests. For example, as part of our Science-Based Targets initiative, Western Digital set bold emissions reduction targets. In just our first year, we reduced emissions by almost 7% and are well on our way to surpassing our goal.
Goals can be too ambitious, however, and some organizations have failed to commit to real, substantive progress. Striking the right balance between bold commitments and fantastical targets is the trick, and it requires thorough research and analysis.
Western Digital runs models to identify and test various paths to achieve potential targets, adopting targets only when we have a reasonable line of sight to the end goal. In 2021, we completed life-cycle assessments for six of our high-volume products, seeking to minimize our products’ environmental footprint and use resources efficiently, transparently disclosing information about our performance. This data helped quantify the environmental impact of our existing products and will enable us to create better, more sustainable products in the future.
In the past year, we also rolled out an e-learning program from the Responsible Business Alliance to educate our suppliers around compliance, sustainable initiatives and reducing risk in our supply chain. And we deployed unique artificial-intelligence and machine-learning capabilities to predict and minimize risks and disruptions to our supply base, while ensuring sustainable supply chain practices. As a result, The World Economic Forum has recognized Western Digital factories in Penang, Malaysia and Shanghai, China as Sustainable Lighthouses in connection with their smart manufacturing technologies.
It takes work, but this due diligence allows us to be both ambitious in our vision and confident in our execution.
Transparency is a pillar of Western Digital’s sustainability strategy. Each year, we publish a detailed sustainability report that assesses progress toward our goals. That includes an assessment of our suppliers throughout the value chain.
Starting in 2020, we encouraged our supply partners to disclose environmental impact information through questionnaires from CPD (a nonprofit global organization formerly called the Carbon Disclosure Project). These disclosures enable our supply partners to measure and understand their environmental impact and take actions to improve performance and build a more sustainable economy. We initially invited 150 suppliers to respond to both questionnaires, of which 95% and 86% participated for climate and water, respectively. We further expanded the number of suppliers in 2022.
The results of this inventory have been published in Western Digital’s response to the 2021 CDP Climate Change Questionnaire. We also completed the analysis of our FY2021 Scope 3 emissions, and disclosed those results publicly, in the 2022 CDP Climate Change Questionnaire.
In his opening for Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy observed that “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Something similar could be said of corporate sustainability programs: The good ones have some core elements in common, but there are countless ways to poorly manage sustainability. One of the clearest common features of a successful, value-additive sustainability program is a disciplined, data-centered approach to setting sustainability priorities.
Materiality assessments, for example, can be more than processes to determine what to include in a Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)-aligned sustainability report. They can be powerful tools for collecting actionable data and building consensus around sustainability. At Western Digital, we conduct and report regular materiality assessments and encourage our suppliers to do the same. The resulting data forms the foundation of our sustainability strategy.
In June 2021, we held trainings specific to our Science-Based Targets to help our supply partners set their own emission-reduction targets. Without this direct data, our strategy could not so closely tie to the unique footprint of our company. And the last thing any organization needs is a sustainability program that consumes resources without impact or value.
Ultimately, operating sustainably requires constant evaluation and adaptation, as the world evolves and we make focused progress. As we marry our passion for sustainability with a methodical approach to program management, we unlock our full potential to do exactly what we’re all working towards: sustaining people and the planet, day after day.
Joshua Parker is senior director of corporate sustainability and assistant general counsel at Western Digital.