Ernie Roberts, sustainability manager for computer accessories maker Belkin, spoke with Earth911’s Evelyn Fielding Lopez and Mitch Ratcliffe earlier this month. Ernie discussed how the company has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 37 percent, electricity usage by 37 percent, and lowered its employee carbon dioxide footprint with in-house recycling and commuting programs. Belkin’s efforts were recently recognized as a Sustainability Initiative of the Year by Business Intelligence.
Learn how a global company makes planet-friendly changes start and last.
Read the transcript below and take another listen to Ernie Roberts’ interview:
Evelyn Lopez: This is Evelyn Lopez. Welcome to Sustainability In Your Ear. This week we have an interview with Ernie Roberts of Belkin. So, who do I have on with me today? Mitch, are you on the line?
Mitch Ratcliffe: That indeed, I am.
Evelyn Lopez: Great. Mitch is our Earth 911 publisher and Mitch, where are you coming from today?
Mitch Ratcliffe: I’m in Tacoma, Washington, the center of the universe.
Evelyn Lopez: Indeed. Also on the line, we have Ernie Roberts the sustainability manager at Belkin and Ernie, where are you coming from today?
Ernie Roberts: Hi, I’m coming from Placentia, California. The other center.
Evelyn Lopez: The other center of the Earth [laughs]. Is that sort of within the Los Angeles area?
Ernie Roberts: Yes, we are right next to Los Angeles International Airport.
Evelyn Lopez: Excellent. I’m here in Tacoma also, sitting in my dining room. Today we wanted to talk about Belkin. Belkin is a leader in developing people inspired products to help our tech work better and it’s a mainstay of the computer accessories industry. Belkin is headquartered near Los Angeles, California but it also has offices all over the world. We were interested in talking with Belkin because in 2009 they set out a goal to reduce 25 percent of their worldwide electricity consumption by 2017. Currently, Belkin has met and exceeded their goal. Achieving really a super impressive 37 percent reduction in worldwide electricity consumption.
Ernie, in particular, this statement that you made really caught our eye. You said, “We recognize that our operations and services impact the environment. We are fundamentally driven to take as many measures as we can to reduce our impact.” With that, we had a few questions for you.
Ernie Roberts: Okay. Awesome.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome to the show, Ernie. Just tell us a little about your background first. How did you get involved in sustainability? Is this what you chose as a career?
Ernie Roberts: It is actually. As a kid, I spent a lot of my summers in the mountains. I always had a natural curiosity about nature. By the time I got to college, environmental science is kind of a natural fit for me. One of my first classes was environmental science and this was before a lot of people were talking about it. It really became apparent very early on in my academic career that this was the subject for me. By the end of that course in college, I knew the book inside and out. I didn’t think I even got a B on any of the exams or final or anything. Everything was A’s. It was just natural to go on from there.
I was working at Belkin while I in college actually and then when this department was created, I was really in the right position to be the right candidate for this department.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Was that around the time, 2009, when the goals were being set? Or later?
Ernie Roberts: This was around 2008, actually. A little bit before we started this whole setting and me going down this path.
Mitch Ratcliffe: You’ve been there since the beginning. What spurred Belkin to invest these resources and all that time to become a more sustainable company?
Ernie Roberts: Before our department was even created, Belkin’s always had kind of an eye on what’s going on the world. We always are very people facing. There was a growing concern around that time for people to expect companies to have some sense of environmental responsibility. Our CEO, Chet, he basically was asking, what can we do to address these concerns? We saw environmental responsibility and stewardship for a company. We wanted to do something for this company. In asking what can we do, I think that’s when I started talking to him more about this and then we had some ideas and that lead to the establishment of this department.
Mitch Ratcliffe: How did you set those goals? Why did you choose electricity over say reducing the use of something that produces greenhouse gases? What made that the particular focus and the best first step for a company like Belkin?
Ernie Roberts: When we first started out, we really wanted to just see where we were at. Where are we, what is our tentative operations? We started to kind of do a self-assessment and look internally to see where all of the energy consumption was going and where all our footprint was going toward.
One of the easiest places to start was starting to collect our utility consumption and just to see what it is. Then from there, we started talking to power companies and whatnot to gather more information from that. We started asking what is our emission factor?
Mitch Ratcliffe: Across the entire company too, not just the production, right?
Ernie Roberts: Correct. It started with just our corporate office and then it kind of turned into something more than that.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So, you started with sustainability assessment or audit, set out electricity as a goal and I know that you have made a lot of progress in changing the behavior of your staff around the world getting them to commute more efficiently. You’ve cut your greenhouse gases. This has been an evolving project, obviously.
Ernie Roberts: Yeah. With employee behavior and stuff like that, people actually wanted to make a difference and wanted to do their part. We just wanted to create an environment that encouraged that behavior.
Evelyn Lopez: Were there some areas, when you started out that you thought were going to be really easy areas of savings that then just didn’t pan out for you?
Ernie Roberts: Not necessarily. I think the hardest part for us was when we started talking to utility companies, there was a lot of pushback. No one really had the answers for us that we were looking for. We were really asking questions that I don’t think they’ve ever been asked before.
Evelyn Lopez: Give us an example. Give us an example of the type of question that you were asking.
Ernie Roberts: We collected all this data in 2008, that was really our benchmark year for what we were doing. We were talking to these power companies and we were asking them how do we measure our carbon footprint? How do we measure our greenhouse gas emissions? Because every power company has a blend of natural gas or coal or nuclear. So, everyone has a different emissions factor, so, we started with just customer service and we had to dive deeper and deeper. We finally got ahold of some of the engineers at the power company and they were able to give us these calculations. So, we could actually say, we consume this much electricity for the month and then we could calculate out. That translated to this much greenhouse gas emission.
So, from there we were able to do that on a month by month basis. We did that for the entire year of 2008 and then we started with just the corporate office but then we did it with our warehouse in Indiana and we did with our other office in the UK. It branched off to other facilities. By the end of 2008, we had a really good snapshot of all of our carbon footprints for all of our major facilities around the world.
Evelyn Lopez: Okay. So, I’m guessing, that there were a couple of different things that you were doing and get the reduction. What were some of the most effective things that you reduced?
Ernie Roberts: Just to go on from that last statement. We had our benchmark year and then that’s when we really started to do some analysis of where are our biggest energy consumptions being taken place? Where are our biggest carbon footprints being taken place? Then from that, we started talking to those power companies specifically at those facilities and asked them if they had audits programs or something that we could do to have someone kind of access and see what we were doing. Again, we really didn’t get a lot of answers from the power companies, but we did find a few other places, which is very similar to starting in your own home.
We looked at our lighting and we started changing light bulbs. We switched over to LED light bulbs and motion sensors in some of our facilities and the initial investment was a little bit of money but the payoff was huge. The cost savings was huge and the reduction in energy consumption. I believe in one of our facilities we reduced over 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions just from changing our light bulbs alone.
Evelyn Lopez: Wow.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Really?
Ernie Roberts: It was really a big eye-opening experience for us. Then it’s easy to change, to roll that into other facilities and look at other ways and look at other things they can do to reduce their footprint.
Mitch Ratcliffe: In addition to the emissions reduction, did you calculate how much you saved by switching to LED just in terms of expense on electricity? That’s one of the things we’re seeing is business’ discovering exactly how productive it is to be sustainable.
Ernie Roberts: Yeah, exactly. I think that was one of the really big business cases for it was the cost saving that we were going to get and achieve by doing this upgrade. There was initial investment that was made and then there was an ROI that was calculated and that return on investment was almost immediate actually because the cost saving was so tremendous for that project.
We had another project here in our corporate office for installing solar panels on our roof. We’re already a lead certified building here but we went above and beyond that and put solar panels on it. Between the rebates that we got from the power company and also the rebates we had from the federal incentive and tax incentive and stuff like that, our payoff was within the first year for that. We had really good cost savings by doing this and then we also had a huge environmental win. Doing the right thing and being a responsible corporate citizen.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Overall you reduced the electrical consumption by 37 percent and your greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 percent since 2009. That’s a phenomenal set of steps and to have done so while becoming more efficient then I would assume more profitable as a result. That must be, you must be a hero in the company.
Ernie Roberts: It’s something we’re really proud of.
Evelyn Lopez: You mentioned earlier, Ernie, that talking a little bit about changing employee behavior, but Chris made it, having a company that is doing this, that must be pretty good for employee morale too.
Ernie Roberts: It does. It actually creates kind of a buzz in our company and so a lot of other projects kind of got snowballed because of some of these wins. We applied some of these wins from our operations and our facilities and stuff like that. Some of that is starting to translate also into our partnerships, some of our interactions with other companies, some of our expectations from our customers and it really gives us the opportunity to address those issues and be really enthusiastic to address those issues because we’re so proud of some of these initiatives that we’ve done.
Evelyn Lopez: Well, what’s next? Are you going to set new goals for yourself? Are you going to branch out? Are you going to try to take on some other challenges?
Ernie Roberts: We are. We are constantly looking and we’re constantly innovating in trying to find new solutions. There are some partnerships we want to partner with at a product level to kind of do the right thing. We just launched Fin which is another brand of Belkin’s aimed at saving water consumption. Actually, a user can basically install this product in their home and they can see real-time if there are leaks. If there is any type of, such as if the water is left on somewhere. We are actually looking at a lot of different things.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Even pulling it into the products. That’s fantastic.
Ernie Roberts: Yeah. That’s huge. That’s really, really huge. I think that’s really where the ultimate goal is and I think a lot of consumers will really appreciate that and be able to look at it from that light. Like, we’re trying to do the right thing. We’re trying to be responsible and I hope we can be acknowledged and recognized for that.
Mitch Ratcliffe: In fact, you have been recognized by the Business Intelligence Group who gave you the 2018 Sustainability Award in July. Tell us a little bit about that. What did they say? What did they recognize about Belkin?
Ernie Roberts: We kind of had our eye on this award for a long time. They were really impressed with some of our efforts and what all of our greenhouse gas savings and all of our utility consumption savings and stuff like that. We recognized our operations you know had that impact. We really want to drive those kinds of changes and I think the award was just kind of acknowledging and recognition of that. That’s something that we’re just really proud of.
Evelyn Lopez: I think you should be. Ernie, as a consumer, I’m willing to try to buy from companies that are making significant environmental strides. How do you work this into your marketing and your advertising so that consumers like me know that you’ve been doing such amazing work?
Ernie Roberts: We work closely with our PR team on a lot of these issues. We’re kind of a work in progress. There is a lot of stuff that we do internally that we don’t really broadcast, and we really want to do that more so we’re still developing some of these things on our website and whatnot to communicate better to our customers and other companies just more about who we are and what we stand for and stuff like that.
Evelyn Lopez: I really urge you to do that because it’s good for the consumers to know and it’s also more likely to spur other companies to try to reach some of the same high standards that you’ve been reaching.
Ernie Roberts: Yeah. This podcast is a really good start in that direction too. I really appreciate you guys giving us the time to give us a voice so we can actually put our name out there and what we’re doing.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Thank you. Thank you. How do you guys plan to continue to drive this change? Having achieved these goals, we talked a little bit about setting some new goals, are you ready to put a stake in the ground and say we’re going to go to 50 percent or anything like that at this time? How can your consumer audience, the customer’s buying this help encourage you in that direction? What are your CEO and customers telling you about the sustainability action?
Ernie Roberts: Yeah. We’re a global company. We have a lot to learn still. We’re still moving towards improving what we’re doing. I think we’re still looking and investigating and I think we are always going to be looking at and investigating for these kinds of opportunities to find these kinds of wins and whatnot. I think the key for us is to just maintain being somewhat evangelistic about our environmental awareness and then also, yeah, just maintaining that focus internally with our leadership team and with our PR team, obviously to translate that for our customers.
Evelyn Lopez: That’s great. If you come up with any new ideas or new initiatives, we would love to hear about it.
Ernie Roberts: Absolutely.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Then to continue this dialogue at any time. As Evelyn has said, this is all about getting consumers aware of, and the ability to make, choices that are based on the investment companies are making in sustainability. They’re voting with their money for sustainability in the products they buy.
One more question about the award. You were one of the many companies to receive that award, there were several dozen. Were there other companies’ projects that you thought, wow, we should do that? Or were you really surprised by the achievement of another company?
Ernie Roberts: Yeah. There was one. AT&T had a carbon abatement goal that I thought was super impressive. They’re a company that we admire. They have a huge footprint and to be able to have such an aggressive goal towards that and achieve it was kind of really inspiring for us and helps keep us motivated and lets us know we are on the right path as well.
Mitch Ratcliffe: That’s great. Ernie, thank you very much for joining us.
Ernie Roberts: Thank you very much as well.
Evelyn Lopez: We really appreciate it. So, that’s it for this week, everyone. If you have any comments or questions, you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow us on iTunes, iHeartRadio, Spreaker, and of course at our Earth 911 website.