Distinguished HP Sustainability Leader Tom Etheridge Joins EarthShift Global as Senior Sustainability Advisor
Pioneering user of LCA for business models, and anticipatory LCA for product design, shares thoughts on how enterprises can steer toward sustainability thinking
EarthShift Global is very happy to formally welcome Dr. Tom Etheridge as Senior Sustainability Advisor; he brings to our organization a uniquely rich skill set and powerful track record of effectiveness advancing corporate sustainability.
We had the pleasure of asking Tom a few questions about his 25 years with Hewlett-Packard and successor company HP Inc., during which he moved from a role in R&D (working on projects ranging from molecular memory to quantum-dot inks and inkjet print head reliability) into sustainability-focused positions, including Worldwide Life Cycle Assessment and Carbon Footprint Program Manager. He has worked informally with EarthShift Global since his retirement from HP last year, before taking his new post.
Tom’s experiences are of interest to anyone seeking to steer an enterprise towards impact reduction, because he helped set HP’s corporate sustainability strategy and used life cycle assessment (LCA) to drive HP’s circular economy goals. These efforts (a number of which involved EarthShift Global and our founder/CEO Lise Laurin) helped the company win top marks from sustainability assessment organizations and recognition from Newsweek magazine as America’s Most Responsible Company in 2019. He also pioneered the use of LCA on business models and application of Anticipatory LCA in support of product design, improvement, and market creation for new and existing products and services.
Tom’s shift into sustainability work began after a year-long appointment in 2008 as HP Visiting Scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Upon his return to HP, “A former manager had started a sustainability team in HP's printing division and she asked if I wanted to join,” recalls Tom. “I had always been interested in sustainability, so I jumped at the chance and on my first day the division VP stopped by my desk and said, ‘I'm getting tired of all these emails saying, "Save a tree, don't print this email".’ I want you to show me whether or not HP's printing business has a measurable impact on global deforestation.’ I was able to show that it didn't and the process of doing the research and modeling showed me just how rich an understanding of sustainability a scientific perspective can provide.”
That led to Tom’s involvement in several printing-related LCA projects. Then, in 2013, HP decided to publish its corporate carbon footprint, a first in the industry, and Tom was tapped “to calculate the impact of the entire printing franchise. From there the role grew and eventually I was managing all of HP's LCA and carbon footprint work across the company. I really enjoyed being able to see how my work directly affected the company's bottom line and our customers' expectations.”
HP successfully leveraged LCA findings to establish data-driven environmental impact reduction goals, including reduced water and carbon footprints, general waste reduction, and increased use of post-consumer materials. And this, says Tom, “eventually led to the business units coming to me early in product development to work on Design for the Environment proactively rather than retroactively. Using LCA, and Anticipatory LCA in particular, I was able to show how design modifications could potentially reduce the impact of a product and how modifying our customers' behavior through things like increased use of duplexing and turning off a computer or monitor overnight could further extend those benefits.
“One day my manager and I realized that we'd started to look not only at the products themselves but at how HP was marketing those products. That's when we started focusing on LCA of business models to show how HP's business strategy could affect environmental impacts as well. So, the combination of my R&D work and the connections I'd made there really set the groundwork for my understanding of how LCA could identify potential environmental impact improvements that still met the company's objectives and our customers' expectations.”
Tom observes that, while companies like HP have often included attention to the community and the environment in their strategic language for some time, “it's really been in the last six years or so that sustainability has become part of the broader executive conversation. Our LCA group initially worked on niche projects in businesses where the marketing teams thought an environmental message might give them a slight advantage. But once we decided to publish our corporate carbon footprint and recognition for that started coming in, the executives noticed a clear correlation to increased sales.”
In 2015, the company spun off its enterprise product lines and retained the personal computer and printer businesses under the HP name. “Our new CEO Dion Weisler immediately announced that sustainability was core to our business strategy,” recalls Tom, “not only because it was the right thing to do but because it was a clear competitive advantage. Since then, Design for the Environment and sustainable thinking became just as much a part of the way we did business as determining profit margins. One of the highlights of my career was the day the new VP of the inkjet business asked for a one-on-one meeting so I could explain how carbon footprints for printing were calculated. That meeting lasted two hours — she was that engaged and curious.”
Does Tom have any advice for LCA practitioners seeking similar engagement and buy-in, particularly what types of evidence or arguments, or methods of presentation, are especially effective with executives?
“HP is an engineering company, so my most effective arguments were typically pretty data driven,” he recalls. “My colleagues and management insisted on seeing results from things like LCA studies or carbon calculations to back things up. Because of a suggestion from Lise many years ago, I started showing them endpoints rather than midpoints — that made a real difference. While midpoints are nice for showing all the possibilities, they're just too much for most people. Showing endpoints like global warming, resources, human health, and environment, gives enough information for people to feel they’re making a decision based on data without feeling overwhelmed.”
Of his new role at EarthShift Global, Tom says, “I found myself wanting some structure in my day-to-day life so that I could balance work and semi-retirement and coming on as an employee at EarthShift allows me to do that. It’s also an honor to officially join this team. I had the pleasure of working with many outstanding LCA providers during my time at HP, and I always considered EarthShift Global the star among them. It's exactly what I'd hoped for when I left HP — getting to work on fun, new sustainability projects outside of printing and computers, and feeling like I'm contributing to the sustainability community.”
In her welcome to Tom, Lise Laurin commented, “Tom has already contributed a lot, enriching the company with his hard work, unique knowledge, and perspective as a client, as well as his willingness to learn. I’m thrilled to have him join us!"