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Ron Dembo (Adam Rankin)
Ron Dembo (Adam Rankin)

Social responsibility

Save cash, enhance your brand - what's not to like? Add to ...

It was the exhibition of affluence that prompted Ron Dembo to start a charity to help the environment.

The founder and CEO of Zerofootprint, an organization that helps companies and individuals measure, track and offset their environmental impact, went to a technology conference in Monterey, Calif., in 2005. Among those in attendance were major players such as the founders of AOL and Google.

"It was curious to me that there's a group of people who are changing the world but consuming a lot of the world to do it," he says.

His theory applied not just to business types: "David Suzuki has got to have one of the biggest travel footprints out there, for example, but he's doing a lot of good in the process.

"I realized, here's this immense problem but no one is using software as part of the solution. It struck me as a very interesting opportunity."

An opportunity to help the environment, yes. But it would also become a way to help companies make sustainability part of their business model. And that's something, he says, no company can ignore.

"There was a time in the corporate world where you could get away with things. Today that's not the case. Today it impacts financial results," he says, pointing to giants such as Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, who have made sustainability a visible part of their operations, even though it is not core to their business or products. "No company interested in longevity can afford to ignore this."

And the South Africa-born Mr. Dembo knows a thing or two about companies with longevity. After an 11-year stint as a computer science and management professor at Yale University, he took up a post at Goldman Sachs in 1986. He left the financial firm the following year to start what would become the world's largest enterprise risk-management software company, Algorithmics, which he sold for a nine-figure sum in 2005.

His brainwave at the California conference prompted Mr. Dembo to start a charitable foundation with the goal of massively reducing the environmental footprint of non-profit organizations, such as governments and schools. The foundation, which he called Zerofootprint, would rely only on funds raised by the sale of its products and services. In other words, Zerofootprint wouldn't solicit donations - from the government or otherwise.

Ron Dembo's green streak Zerofootprint's founder on the many ways companies can 'do good'

But a charity charging for its products and services was a concept, he says, "people couldn't get their heads around."

The confusion meant not enough clients were signing up, and Mr. Dembo realized the foundation wasn't sustainable. But he wasn't willing to walk away from Zerofootprint just yet.

Instead, he decided to sell Zerofootprint's products on the market through a separate for-profit company and funnel a healthy percentage of sales back into the foundation.

Zerofootprint's main software product, Velo, surveys a company's activities, such as travel and waterconsumption, to measure its carbon impact. Then Zerofootprint provides analysis in the form of benchmarking against peers. "It's very difficult to want to change if you don't know how you're doing in comparison to others," he says. And finally, Zerofootprint makes recommendations to the client on how to offset the impact, whether that's a reconfiguration of office space or more efficient travel itineraries.

In Zerofootprint's case, social good is inherently part of the business model. But Mr. Dembo makes the case that doing good makes sense for any business - no matter its industry, image or product - because it "develops a brand people can trust." And trust translates into what every company wants: dollars.

"What would you think of a company that has total disregard for sustainability?" he asks. "Imagine I told you that your bank uses paper that comes from sources that are linked to the deforestation of New Guinea and they've been made aware of this but they ignore it. Is that a company you would trust? Would you still want to bank there?" He's betting not.

Although many companies have caught on to the benefits of doing good - and making it known - not every company claiming interest in sustainability has its heart in it. "It's true that more and more companies have social responsibility on their agenda, but to be honest, sometimes it's just lip service that is cosmetic rather than cultural."

A truly socially responsible company makes doing good integral to its culture, right down to the way management treats the staff, he says. Zerofootprint, for instance, prides itself on its bright, airy workspace and offers flexible scheduling because management recognizes that employees have different needs.

For Zerofootprint, doing good doesn't stop at getting large organizations on board (and it has its share, including Air Canada and Royal Bank). A big part of its efforts focus on engaging the public.

"People want to do good and change the world," he says. "We want to help them figure out a way to aggregate their power."

One of Zerofootprint's goals is using social networking to help regular people address climate change. The organization has also partnered with several cities over the years to get citizens involved on a municipal level. And, not to be forgotten, are youth: Zerofootprint's website has calculators designed to educate and engage kids.

He admits that supporting the foundation has created limitations for the profitable arm of Zerofootprint. "If we were pure software with nothing else, venture capitalists would understand us a lot better and we could probably grow more quickly," he says.

But growing isn't just about dollars, he emphasizes. Aside from building trust among consumers and creating business longevity, sustainability helps attract and retain staff.

"We're in an era of meaningful jobs," he says. "If companies don't have sustainability on the agenda, they risk losing the best talent to a company that does."


Our ecological impact


The share of Canadians who take public transit to work


Tonnes of greenhouse gases a typical 200-unit building emits each year


Litres of water a single pair of Levi's jeans requires, almost half of which is from home laundering

80 billion

The number of aluminum pop cans used every year

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