vince digneo

[Photo: Courtesy of Vince Digneo]

The software maker Adobe leads a movement to foster unprecedented cooperation in Silicon Valley—for the planet’s sake.

Tech companies are known for fierce competition—market dominance depends largely on who can produce the most disruptive gadgets or software first. Trade secrets are closely guarded. Poaching talent from each other by dangling lavish employee benefits and other perks is par for the course. Sometimes “winning” involves a hostile takeover or two of a competitor.

But there should always be one office in the C-suite, says Vince Digneo, global sustainability strategist at Adobe, where friendly chats with your counterparts at other companies is the norm. In his view, sustainability goals are much more easily attained through cooperation, rather than competition. “Winning” in this case, of course, is about having a habitable planet for future generations, not the stakeholders’ bottom lines.

Digneo offers renewable energy production as a case in point. The more companies that band together to purchase alternative power in a given energy market, the more likely that alternative power suppliers will reach the scale needed to offer their product at a cost-competitive rate. Which is why in March this year, Adobe partnered with Facebook on the tech industry’s first aggregated purchase of wind energy, from Enel Green Power, for a new data center site in Nebraska.

In March last year, Adobe signed a 2.5-megawatt grid-scale solar power purchase agreement for the company’s Bangalore, India location. It was a major step toward the company’s 2035 goal of 100% renewable energy. In an interview with gb&d, Digneo explains why Adobe no longer touts being carbon neutral—which the company achieved years ago through the purchase of carbon offsets—in favor of a strategy that will eventually result in cleaner energy grids in the regions where the company is physically located. If the entire tech industry gets onboard with this approach, he says, renewable energy stands a much better chance of reaching scale in time to avert full-on global warming catastrophe.

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gb&d: How did your journey to sustainability strategist evolve?

Digneo: I’m originally from Santa Fe, a very outdoor community. When I came to graduate school in California, I got into running, swimming, and cycling—all that stuff. In the ’90s I helped start the Leukemia Lymphoma Society team and training program; I coached athletes to run marathons to raise money for cancer research. Around the same time I was working in a lab at Stanford that focused on cancer research. Then I worked for HP Labs building the scientific instruments that enable people to find cures. But it turns out a lot of that technology revolves around a supply chain full of carcinogenic chemicals.

gb&d: Sounds like a case of one step forward, one step back.

Digneo: If something is good for human health, chances are it’s good for the environment. If you can do things that are good for human health and the environment, you’re subject to lower risk, and you’re subject to a better reputation. If you can eliminate harmful substances from your supply chain, you have a cleaner waste stream, which means you save money. I started to put all these things together 20 years ago, and it’s followed me throughout my entire career.

gb&d: How have you brought that perspective to bear at Adobe?

Digneo: It’s a little different here at Adobe because we don’t have a physical supply chain; it’s digital. Since I got here in 2013, Adobe has transitioned from boxed software products to become a completely “clouded” business. All of our products are low carbon; they’re all data center-driven. The transition from a physical supply chain to a digital supply chain has reduced our customer’s environmental impact by 90%.

gb&d: Technology companies play a big role in sustainability. What might other industries find surprising?

Digneo: If you look at our peers like Google and Apple, we don’t compete with them on products—we compete with them for talent. In order to recruit and retain talent you have to be good at the sustainability stuff. There have to be things for employees to participate in.

gb&d: You’re a big advocate of cooperating with other tech companies on sustainability. How does that work?

Digneo: We have a really excellent peer group. For example, Kate Brandt [Google’s sustainability officer] is a good friend of mine; we talk all the time. We leverage best practices, we learn from each other. I love it. Also, look at where we live: all these businesses are just a few miles from each other. We are in the same ecosystem.

gb&d: I take it you don’t mean the tech ecosystem, you mean the actual ecosystem.

Digneo: That’s right. We share the same air, the same water, the same electrical grid. That’s why we need to collaborate.

gb&d: Digital products have a low carbon footprint. But every business still has a physical presence—how is Adobe greening its real estate portfolio?

Digneo: Adobe is a highly evolved company in that arena. More than 70% of our employees work in LEED-certified workspaces. Our entire 1-million-square-foot campus in San Jose is LEED Platinum. Our building at 601 Townsend in San Francisco is the oldest LEED Platinum building on earth—built in 1905 and renovated in 2007. 

gb&d: How is progress on reducing the carbon footprint of your data centers?

Digneo: We have a data center in Oregon that was sited in a certain area precisely because they have a clean hydropower grid. It’s rare for a company our size to have its own data center—most of ours are co-located with other companies, like the Facebook project in Nebraska. That came about because I talk to my colleagues there all the time, I know where they’re putting their data centers, and I know they have the same renewable energy objectives we do. It’s in a location with a traditional heavy coal grid, so it’s going to help reduce emissions.

gb&d: That’s the nice thing about data centers—you can put them anywhere.

Digneo: Exactly. Facebook is evaluating new spots all the time for data centers and part of that is finding a place where they can agree on a fixed price for 100% renewable. It’s motivating states like Nebraska to install more wind turbines, which not only adds renewable energy to the grid, it creates jobs and brings the price of clean energy down for everyone.

gb&d: Tell us about your choice to focus on renewable energy.

Digneo: When I came to Adobe in 2013, the company was already carbon neutral. But that didn’t mean they were buying renewable energy—they were buying carbon offsets. The thing is—offsets don’t put renewable energy on the local grid. We could say our buildings were carbon neutral, but that elementary school down the road? It’s not. Yet we’re only separated by a few blocks. This makes no sense. So I killed the offset program.

gb&d: How do you define “100% renewable?”

Digneo: To me 100% renewable energy means no purchase of “unbundled” RECs (renewable energy credits)—we don’t want to greenwash our way through this. We want to put renewable energy on the grids where we work and live. And by not buying offsets, we have more resources to put into de-carbonizing the grid. I’m committed to doing everything I can to achieve that. 

gb&d: What progress have you made?

Digneo: Our first step was in Bangalore, India. The load we are purchasing comes direct from a solar farm about 140 kilometers from our site there. It covers 100% of our load on one of the dirtiest coal-based grids on earth. The problem is, we will never see an electron of that in California. A lot of policy and advocacy work is needed to make similar things happen here, which is why our renewable energy goal is for 2035. It’s not going to be overnight like buying offsets. We need time to do it right.

gb&d: What gives you hope?

Digneo: I just finished doing the math of our carbon footprint last year. What I found is that in a year in which we increased our revenue by 25%, increased our workforce by 14%, and our stock price rose 83%, our carbon footprint remained the same. I’m talking about absolute emissions—before factoring in any renewable energy. That’s something special.