Corporate Responsibility | January 13, 2009 |
EDF Launches Online Learning Community
The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has launched the Innovation Exchange, an online learning community that allows companies, as per the lead sentence in an EDF press release, "to quickly identify and share ways to improve their environmental performance and reduce costs."
It's a classically EDF-style formulation. For one thing, the word "sustainability" appears nowhere in the press release, which makes sense, in a way: it's the Environmental Defense Fund, after all, not the "Sustainable-Planet Defense Fund" (or whatever). The language also emphasizes corporate success in traditional business terms, another EDF hallmark.
The Innovation Exchange provides guidance on seven major industry sectors (financial services, food and agriculture, health care, manufacturing, retail and consumer goods, telecom and information technology, and transportation) and six areas of opportunity (climate change, clean water, safer materials, paper and packaging, productive oceans, and healthy food).
The website also includes a wealth of case studies, along with tools such as online utilities, templates, and fact sheets. There is also a community section asking questions such as "What will be your company's favorite environmental improvement in 2009?"
More than a website, the Innovation Exchange is an umbrella initiative intended to advance EDF's long-term commitment to helping the corporate community identify and implement best environmental practices. In May 2008, EDF published its first edition of a publication called the Innovation Review. This, says Gwen Ruta, EDF's vice president of corporate partnerships, "was the Innovation Exchange's first initiative." Still to come: in-person gatherings, along with other (and still confidential) undertakings.
One problem the Innovation Exchange addresses is the familiar challenge of too much information. "If you search for green packaging, you'll get overwhelmed," Ruta says. With the Innovation Exchange, EDF is separating the wheat from the chaff and delivering best practices that have been shown to be effective yet aren't common knowledge.
The savings can be considerable. Last summer, EDF launched Climate Corps, an internship program that sends business school students into host corporations to develop what Ruta calls "energy-efficiency investment plans." The program was launched with only seven students, who collectively identified 110 million kilowatts of energy savings and net aggregate cost savings of $35 million. This year, the program is being expanded to 25-50 students—and their investment plans will be shared through the Innovation Exchange.
The Innovation Exchange is, among other things, a symptom of EDF's success. "As interest in the environment has grown, more and more companies are calling us for advice on how to be more green," says Ruta. "They have the will but not the know-how to change. One reason we launched the Innovation Exchange was to meet this growing demand."
It's a logical--and perhaps inevitable--next step for EDF. For well over a decade, the non-profit has been partnering with companies like McDonald's, FedEx and Wal-Mart to develop innovative ways to save money by reducing their eco-footprint. "We've learned a lot over the years," Ruta says. "Our next step is to share this knowledge with a bigger and more engaged audience."
The Innovation Exchange takes EDF's clearinghouse role to the next level by providing the platform for a Web 2.0 social network and learning community. It is enabling corporations to learn from each other rather than from EDF alone. "Over time, we hope to be a small voice in a big community," Ruta says.
In this sense, too, there is something inevitable about the EDF initiative. We are rapidly transitioning from a time when people went to a single authoritative source for information (think Encyclopedia Brittanica) to a time when people learn from each other (Wikipedia). Horizontal is replacing hierarchical. The Innovation Exchange is riding this transformation.