Curtis Ravenel

To really understand how a company is positioned for the future, you have to know how it’s managing its own environmental impact.

Please tell us what you do.

I run Bloomberg’s Global Sus­tain­abil­ity Strat­egy Group. That involves mak­ing sure that we are oper­at­ing at max­i­mum effi­ciency, and min­i­mum envi­ron­men­tal impact. It also includes tak­ing what we do well, which is news data and analy­sis, and apply­ing that skill to bet­ter under­stand­ing the impact of sus­tain­abil­ity issues on finan­cial mar­kets and areas like sus­tain­able invest­ing, car­bon trad­ing, and clean energy research.

What are you working on right now?

Our primary focus right now is making this tower [the Bloomberg building on 59th and Lexington] much more efficient by introducing some combination of combined heat and power, and fuel cell on the operations side. We already have solar power in New Jersey for some of our operations, and we’re trying to introduce more.

On the product side, we are focusing on ‘ESG,’ or ‘environmental, social and governance’ company data. To really understand how a company is positioned for the future, you have to know how it’s managing its environmental impact, how it’s investing in its employees and the communities in which it works, and how the management team is structured so that it’s governed well.

ESG is a very exciting new field, and we think it will help more efficiently allocate capital rather than just thinking about financial performance. Thus driving capital towards the companies that do well, and shifting capital away from those that don’t do as well.

This really forces changes in the industry. It’s the golden rule—’He with the gold rules.’ And if you can move the financial community in this direction I think it has the potential to be a major accelerant of change.

What’s the time frame on this sea change in thinking?

I’m 44 years old, and I don’t expect this to change the world overnight. But it’s one of many, many arrows in a quiver, and it’s the asset that I have at my disposal. It’s a powerful one, and because of that, there has been a lot of change already.

This is decadal stuff—this isn’t yearly stuff. It is part of what I would consider a much broader movement in this age of hyper-transparency.

You really have four pillars of change: social change, technology change, policy change, and economic change, and you need all four to be directionally consistent. We’ll try to do our part on the one that we think we can influence, which is the financial side. We’re policy-challenged as a country, so I don’t expect a lot out of that. But there are a lot of great things happening on the social and technology front.

What elements make New York City a livable place for you?

There are 6500 people in this building alone, many of which, probably over a thousand plus, are programmers, R&D people; our data people are generally not what companies keep in expensive urban zones. But what makes Bloomberg work is the same thing that makes New York City work: proximity to different perspectives and to everything that you need.

I live in New York and I work in New York, and I can’t imagine any other way. It’s the vitality and diversity…practically every day on the subway I hear a language I’ve never heard before. And I’m also feeling quite squeezed while I’m on the subway. So it’s that proximity and that diversity that requires you to figure it out and create solutions. That is the absolute heart of why New York functions, despite what you might think, very well.

How has the conversation changed about the city after Sandy? What kind of challenges have emerged? 

I’m obsessed with sustainability, and Sandy is a clear indicator that while there has been a lot of great progress made around making NYC a more sustainable city, we’re vulnerable.

As far as the conversation goes, for me, it will allow us immediate and real consideration of how we reinvest in the city. We have to reinvest in ways that make us less connected from a grid point of view: power sources need to be diversified, and we need to understand our relationship to the ocean and what that means. We have to look at how we reconstitute all the shorelines, and around the marshes and around the parks we need to consider investing in manmade or natural structures There’s a lot of infrastructure investment that needs to happen and that conversation is going to be expensive but real.

What would your advice be to cities that are expanding, or suburban sprawl, or emerging markets/developing nations?

Don’t.

Suburban sprawl is a nemesis. This is the problem when we plan—we don’t take into account the total cost of ownership (TCO). When you build a mall or suburb out in the distance, you need to build a road to get out there, there need to be power lines, and people have to drive in and create congestion, time, distance from work to home, time added expenses that need to be taken into consideration. Smart growth is the alternative. I’m no expert in it, but there are a lot of forward-thinking research and design teams that try to figure some of this out.

The developing world has a great opportunity to not make the mistakes that we did. They can leapfrog.

The developing world has a great opportunity to not make the mistakes that we did. They can leapfrog. Part of the reason we don’t have a better energy system is because we’ve invested bajillions of dollars in the current one, and just to get rid of it and start over is not economically an option for many places. In the developing world, they don’t have legacy infrastructure. They can start the right way, which is decentralized, independent, clean sources, and combinations of different technologies. So it’s a real opportunity to do it right the first time. And that’s the challenge—how do you do that? India’s doing it—some solar, some hydro, some wind, but they have their own challenges as well.

What do you think City Atlas can do for you?

Getting the word out about sustainability. Getting people interested, involved, and active. Cynicism aside, it does take a bunch of people doing the small things to make some sort of dent in the greater consciousness.

You’ve got to go work for a company that you think is not only making money but contributing to solutions.

What would you say to someone who is just getting their MBA now? What should they look for in a company?

I get a lot of students approaching me for a path forward, and asking “how do I position myself to work in sustainability?” What’s heartening is how many students care about that issue rather than just the mighty dollar, and that they’re interested in working for a company that’s doing good while doing well, or trying to.

So as far as advice—you’ve got to go work for a company that you think is not only making money but contributing to solutions for societal programs and problems. 

It’s broader than you think. Find the company that’s doing good while doing well, find one where you think the management is forward thinking, and you can create in environments like that roles that allow you to influence that firm to do even more of it.

I think that a lot less people are going into careers just thinking about themselves and not the greater good.
 A lot of firms don’t have sustainability jobs, but they have jobs where you can contribute to sustainability efforts overall. Here we have five staff architects, and they’re all LEED-accredited, so now everything we build here is LEED-certified. Are they sustainability professionals? Well, they’re architects, but they’re building sustainably.

We have supply chain people who manage all of our computer equipment right, and we have a full cradle-to-grave process where we ensure that at the manufacturer, whether it is in Asia, or Mexico, or elsewhere, labor rights are practiced, that rights are being audited, and that waste is recycled to the greatest extent possible. We have complete transparency in all of that, and that’s technically a supply chain job, but it’s a sustainability supply chain job. 

So, there are many ways. You’ve got to think more broadly. I do think that a lot less people are going into careers just thinking about themselves and not the greater good.

Do you have kids? What’s the most unsustainable thing that you do?

Diapers. We tried everything, we tried cloth, we tried the hybrid compostable outer thing; so diapers are far and away the most unsustainable thing that we do. But everything else we do— we’re kind of lunatics about it actually, I compost everything, I keep it in my freezer and take it to the Lower East Side Ecology Center on Saturdays. I have LED and CFL lights and make everyone turn them off all the time and even with that, with electricity I buy the extra wind farm credits so they can pump clean energy into the grid. I have a Chevy Volt for a car. That’s pretty much everything. My wife thinks I’m insane. I’ve gone to all the sites where you can block junk mail, too.

There is a lot you can do on your own, and that’s important simply to show that you can live on less, but in the end if every single person lived like I did it still wouldn’t move the needle. You have to change the energy infrastructure and you have to change the agriculture infrastructure, and those two are the biggest.

I can’t get direct clean energy in my apartment in NYC—it’s impossible. I can get indirect, which is why I get RECs [renewable energy credits] as part of ConEd’s program. There’s only so much that you can do on your own, really, which is why it’s kind of fun if you can influence an organization this large. We introduced composting here. For example, this is a compostable cup. I lost my mug otherwise I’d have that, and this [dish] is compostable too. We compost 35 tons a year here.

And that was you?

Yeah, that was me. I worked for an NGO a long time ago doing life cycle analysis and then I owned a brew pub. Then I went to business school because I had just run a business into the ground and thought I should learn how to do it.

I ended up getting an internship here and doing normal internal financial stuff. I became the financial controller for Asia, but wrote a proposal to create this group and the chairman called me up in Asia, and said, “I love this proposal, I want you to do it, I want you to work for me and make it happen, and you have 6 weeks to move back to the States.”

And I’ve been doing this for five years.  We’ve done a lot. This room is all LEED gold or platinum [design]. When we leave, the lights will go out, that kind of thing. This was manufactured in upstate new york, I know that, this rug is made from all recycled content, all of this is 100% recycled polymers from bottles so you know, it’s stuff that doesn’t need to look or feel different or cost more, it’s just having the desire and thinking about it, and getting it done. it definitely doesn’t cost more.

It’s fun if you can influence an organization this large.

We’ve grown as a firm about 40% since we started, but our CO2 and energy is down because we’re crazy on efficiency. Our trash is down 50% because we compost and recycle everything, and not only that but we took away everyone’s trash cans, and by doing that we reduced the amount of trash generated by about 25%.

These are small things but they make a difference. All of our magazines are printed on FSC certified paper [Forest Stewardship Council], which just means that the paper is sourced from a sustainable forest and certified as such by the Rainforest Alliance. No other magazine company does that.

We have 500 [sustainability] initiatives around the company that we’re tasked with figuring out. We got people in London to stop taking black cars to the airport and take the Paddington Shuttle—that saved the company a million bucks and also reduced our footprint by a ton. If you have an environmental impact you generally have some form of waste, and if you have waste you have an inefficiency, and if you have an inefficiency there’s usual some financial return as well as some kind of environmental return. Not always—on the magazine, it costs us extra to have FSC certified paper. But we save a lot on other things, and [the certified paper] has such a high environmental impact that we’ve decided to spend the money on it. But we try to find stuff that both saves money and reduces impact.

If you think about the scale of a company like ours—85 offices, and half our offices are now LEED-certified, you know that’s a bigger impact than me alone composting my very little healthy foods. My composting is important, but now we compost in Washington, San Francisco, and New York and New Jersey —overall, a thousand tons a year. It’s a lot, and it goes to an organic farmer in Connecticut. And now we have community-supported agriculture programs here, too. It’s great. It’s really fun. So there’s hope, man.

(Photo: Maureen Drennan)

Bloomberg L.P. 2012 Sustainability Report (pdf)

http://www.bloomberg.com/bsustainable