“I became an internal champion for corporate responsibility,” says Molly Cartmill, who began her journey to her current position in the early 2000s, during California’s energy crisis, when she was director of corporate community relations at Sempra Energy. Later, inspired by what she learned from leading companies at a Business for Social Responsibility conference, she began to study the field, and by 2010 she had earned the opportunity to lead her company’s new corporate responsibility department as it tackled the particular sustainability challenges of the energy sector.
The majority of Sempra Energy’s work, according to Cartmill, is made up of large infrastructure projects that have lengthy permitting processes and entail significant public input. “From liquefied natural gas terminals and underground transportation pipelines to utility-scale wind and solar facilities—as well as the electric transmission needed to get renewable power to centers of population—these are the kinds of projects that are difficult to permit and prone to [‘not-in-my-backyard’] concerns,” she says. “A further complication, in the case of renewables, is that you need to build projects where there is a lot of year-round sun and wind, creating limits around where they will be feasible, productive, and efficient.”
Early on, concerns regarding corporate responsibility and sustainability centered on the environmental impact of company facilities and infrastructure as well as customers’ energy use. Today, though, there are also economic, social, and governmental issues, including water use, air emissions, political-contribution transparency, and diversity.
Despite the number of fronts it operates on, Sempra Energy is on top of its game, having years ago adopted a low-carbon business strategy based on the belief that in a carbon-constrained world, demand for lower-carbon sources of energy will continue to rise. “Our strategy encompasses energy efficiency, renewable energy, natural gas, and innovation, which includes smart meters, a smart grid, clean transportation solutions, and other emerging smart technologies,” Cartmill says. “As a result, our emissions are 40 percent below the national average.”
Sempra Energy’s biggest challenge is to not get ahead of itself, Cartmill adds, explaining that it’s important to really listen to impacted stakeholders before planning because a shared agenda will always be stronger than Sempra’s stand-alone agenda. “We then plan carefully, considering everything we learned through the listening process,” Cartmill says, “because we know that the process will be much smoother and the outcome will be much better when we’re open to input—before, during, and after a project gets built.”
Most of all, Cartmill loves that there is no finish line when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices. “You start with where you are right now, with the data you have right now, with the goals you have right now,” she says. “But even the most progressive companies that have been practicing sustainability for 20 years or more have found that there is no finish line.”