Top company profile: Schneider Electric leads decarbonizing megatrend

The French firm is at the heart of a shift that will define the global economy for decades to come

Schneider electric Illustration by Kara Pyle
Illustration by Kara Pyle

The world is decarbonizing. The key to doing so is electrifying essential aspects of our economies – power generation, heating and cooling, and transport – and ensuring that the electricity these sectors run on is zero-carbon and renewable.

It is fitting, then, that 2021’s most sustainable company on the Global 100 index is Schneider Electric. The French firm is at the heart of a megatrend that will define the global economy for decades to come, although it has never produced electricity itself.

Over the last 20 years, Schneider Electric has moved away from high-voltage electrical distribution to focus on data centres, decentralized electrical distribution (including off-grid solar storage) and smart solutions to make the world more electric, energy efficient, renewable and digital.

It has been a long journey, driven by two inspirational CEOs, Henri Lachmann and then Jean-Pascal Tricoire, who has run the company since 2006.

“It started with former UN secretary general Kofi Annan launching the Global Compact principles on sustainability,” says Gilles Vermot Desroches, senior vice-president for sustainable development and strategy. “We were one of the first companies to endorse them and to ask our suppliers to be more sustainable.”

“There are two sides to the sustainability coin,” he adds. “We aim to lead by example within our own operations and ecosystem, and we work to be part of the solution for our customers. Sustainability improves performance, innovation and our attractiveness as a place to work. It creates value.”

Besides curbing its own emissions by 250,000 metric tons of CO2 in 24 months by shifting to renewable energy, the company says its suite of energy-efficient technologies and services should save 120 million metric tons of CO2 on their customers’ behalf by the end of 2020.

Schneider Electric earned the top spot in the Corporate Knights ranking because of its strong performance across a range of sustainability criteria. The company earned 70% of its revenue from sustainable solutions, while 73% of its investments are directed toward sustainable solutions. It also performed strongly in areas including racial and gender diversity and resource productivity and safety.

Schneider electric top global 100 company

The company is, despite roots that go back more than 180 years, in many ways a product of the digital age. “At the start of the internet, the big effort was to connect seven billion people. Today, 300 new assets connect to the internet every second. There are now more than 60 billion assets that can talk to people and to each other to make things run more efficiently,” Vermot Desroches points out. Simple but effective examples of this are controls that ensure that “if you’re not in the room, the light is not left on. If you’re not in the building, the heating is turned down.”

Although Schneider’s business focus is on the clean energy transition, its approach has a significant social aspect to it as well, which has been heightened by the pandemic. “We learned a lot about our impact as a company during COVID. This crisis would have been very different in 2010 without all the benefits that digital has brought, from ensuring hospitals have secure access to energy, to being able to manage business and personal relationships online.”

At the heart of the company’s efforts has been a shift from shareholder value to emphasizing stakeholder value, says Vermot Desroches. “If we want to continue to lead, we have to work with our stakeholders, including our suppliers. We’re asking all our tier-one suppliers to cut their emissions by 50%. We’re asking them to respect human rights.”

A key move, in 2017, was to “build a bridge between our KPIs and the [UN] Sustainable Development Goals,” he adds. These key performance indicators include growing green revenues to 80%, giving 50 million people access to green energy and training one million underprivileged people in energy management.

“The average age in Africa is 19, and 70% of the population [is] under 30. One in six under-30s who had a job in January lost them this year. It is impossible to solve problems for only part of the population. And we need these young people to provide innovation. We must involve them to harness the power of a generation of digital natives.”

“We’re a very technical company, but when it comes down to it, we empower people,” Vermot Desroches concludes. “We believe that access to energy and digital is a basic human right.”

Mike Scott writes about business, finance, clean energy and sustainability.

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