Yahoo! Spins a Web of Climate Influence

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by: Joel Makower

Yahoo! Inc. has just announced that it will become carbon neutral by the end of 2007, yet another big climate commitment from another big company.

But this one arguably carries more weight. In making its announcement — first, at an "all-hands" meeting of its more than 10,000 employees, then to its roughly half-billion online users and the world at large — Yahoo! hopes to harness the power of its reach to leverage the impact of its actions.

Yahoo! management says that it has measured its carbon footprint, based on data from October 2005 through September 2006, the most recent data available when it started this process in last fall. From there, the company said,

We'll have a third party validate our carbon footprint with data from all of 2006 to make sure we haven't missed anything. This way we'll be carbon neutral in 2007 based on our full 2006 data. We'll continue to make investments on this timeline — using the prior year's data to be carbon neutral in a given year.

Why do this? Yahoo!, like many big consumer brands, has been thinking about such matters lately, as climate change increasingly captures the national psyche (or at least that of its media proxies). And Yahoo! has long had an enviable record of environmental concern. In recent years, the company has engaged in a variety of energy-efficiency measures, from installing window film at its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters (saving 5% of energy costs along the way), to buying green power, to utilizing innovative, energy-saving measures to cool its data centers.

Beyond that is a healthy rivalry between Yahoo! and Google, its search-engine neighbor just a few miles down the road (5.3 miles, according to Google Maps, but 5.4 miles, according to Yahoo! Maps).

Google, too, has been waving the green flag of late. The company is nearing completion of its massive rooftop solar installation, one of the largest ever built, and is having its new corporate complex designed by rock-star green architect William McDonough. It boasts a lengthy list of eco-innovations, from its sizeable fleet of biodiesel-powered employee buses to its well-publicized interest in helping bring plug-in hybrid cars to market.

Call it "The Search Engine Wars: Green Edition."

But this is a war whose armies compare notes. In recent months, Yahoo! and Google staff have engaged in conversations about how they might collaborate on climate change, potentially harnessing their respective strengths to have maximum impact. It began last November, at the annual conference of Business for Social Responsibility, where Googlers and Yahooligans found themselves sitting next to each other at various climate change sessions. That fomented a conversation that has continued since, and has involved at least one other big-name consumer Web company.

"We're really, really happy that each of our companies are leveraging our biggest assets," Erin Carlson, Senior Manager, Yahoo! for Good, told me this week.

Yahoo!'s biggest asset is its massive audience, which it has aggressively engaged on environmental issues, promoting green tips and stories each Earth Day and, more recently, partnering with Wal-mart, AC Nielsen, and two federal agencies to develop, a site promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs. The ability to mobilize its user base is where Yahoo! stands out, and where it stands to make a significant contribution.

Indeed, in determining the best ways to offset its carbon emissions, the company hopes to conscript its customers as a source of ideas.

We're already reviewing proposals for the first 2/3 of the [offset] projects we'll be investing in. We'll look for the remaining 1/3 during the rest of the year so we can seek out some especially creative projects. We'd also like to invite your input. In fact, if you have inventive ideas for offset projects we should consider, please weigh in on Yahoo! co-founder David Filo's related question on Yahoo! Answers.

It's unclear whether the great unwashed Web audience can identify creative and effective ways to offset carbon that hadn't already been considered by Yahoo! and its consultants. But it's worth a shot — and engaging customers to identify environmental solutions is, at minimum, a brilliant way to engender loyalty and goodwill.

I'm also impressed by the company's efforts to be transparent in its quest for carbon neutrality. According to the company:

This is what's important to us when we explore investing in projects that offset greenhouse gases:

  • Measurable results: We want to see real, measurable, direct emissions reductions.
  • Verification: We'll put potential projects through a third-party verification process to ensure they're actually delivering their expected environmental benefits.
  • Additionality: We want our investment to fund a project beyond business as usual. In other words, we wouldn't invest in a program that would occur anyway without our support. Some offset projects have been recently criticized because they merely provided additional revenue without environmental improvements.
  • High quality: We want to invest in projects that are wise investments with strong environmental returns but which also help other businesses and consumers build faith in this new and emerging market.
  • The Purple Gene: We want to do this in a way that's innovative and authentic.

By putting forth its goals and aspirations, Yahoo! is helping set a standard for going carbon neutral that other companies would be wise to follow. One takeaway: Involve your employees and customers to develop a program that's unique to your company's business, brand, and culture.

So, what about Google? Will it soon be going carbon neutral? I wouldn't be surprised if it were, but if that's the case, no one's saying. I plied my numerous contacts at the Googleplex, as the company's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters is known, but turned up empty-handed. The best I could get was the standard corporate line from spokesperson Diana Adair: "We haven't made any public announcements about carbon neutrality and can't talk about our plans publicly until we have something to announce. That's just the nature of the beast."

This was one Google search that yielded no results.

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