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Thinking Ahead: Environmental Sustainability at Palantir and in the Cloud

Making choices that have positive long-term impacts is something that any company or organization can do.

One of Palantir’s core values is “We Think Ahead”. For us, this means that in everything we do, we consider the big picture, take the long view, and adapt to meet changing needs. Our goal is to create a positive and lasting impact by thoughtfully and deliberately making the best choices and helping others to do so as well.

This value has particular relevance when it comes to how we think about the environmental impact of our operations. In the last year alone, reports from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United States Fourth National Climate Assessment, and others have brought increased attention and urgency to a problem that scientists and policymakers have been warning about for years: the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly as a result of human activity, with immediate and profound impacts for everyone who lives on this planet.

We are privileged to have worked in the past with organizations like the Long Term Ecological Research Network and Resources for the Future on projects to help scientists and researchers share data that informs climate research and policy recommendations. In addition to the work we’ve done for others, we also believe that it’s our responsibility to promote environmental sustainability in our business practices and to encourage others in our industry to do the same.

What We’re Doing

Over the last few years, we’ve made a number of simple changes that have helped reduce our energy usage and the carbon footprint of our operations:

  • Giving everyone on our team the option to work remotely from home or a co-working space, reducing the amount of time and energy spent commuting.
  • Moving into a smaller, more energy-efficient office space located near a public transit hub and accessible via protected bike lanes.
  • Replacing our old and inefficient on-site development servers with cloud-based and virtualized development environments.
  • Using recycled paper and eco-friendly cleaning supplies whenever available. We also have in-office recycling, and in the past have participated in Terracycle’s Zero Waste Box program.
  • Donating old, but still functional computer equipment and supplies to support mentorship programs for underserved students.
  • Switching our office electrical service from a traditional nuclear/coal/natural gas mix to a 100% Green-e certified renewable energy plan using wind power generated within the state of Illinois.

While these changes have made a difference, we think there’s still plenty of room for us to improve. Some of the areas that we plan to focus on in the next year are:

  • Understanding and addressing the environmental impact of company travel and lodging.
  • Quantifying day-to-day energy usage by team members, whether they commute to a physical location or work from home.
  • Increasing our awareness of the supply chains associated with our marketing materials and making sure they’re produced in as responsible and sustainable a manner as possible.

Sustainability and the Cloud

As we delved further into this topic, we also realized that our increased adoption of cloud-based services and tools over the last few years meant that we had effectively outsourced much of our energy usage to other vendors and partners. While it is certainly true that most cloud-based solutions use less energy than non-cloud alternatives, the cloud itself consumes a massive amount of energy.

So we decided to reach out to 28 different vendors and partners that we work with who provide cloud-based solutions to find out what they’re doing to promote environmental sustainability and address climate change. These companies provide Palantir’s hosting and development environments, collaboration and project management tools, as well as services that support our human resources, professional development, and other operations. We asked specifically what measures they had taken to reduce their energy usage and carbon footprint, and what percentage of their operations was powered by renewable energy.

Of those 28 vendors and partners, seven (Adobe, Apple, Amazon Web Services, Google, Intuit, Microsoft, and SiteImprove) already had publicly available environmental sustainability reports posted online. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and SiteImprove in particular were standouts, with 100% renewable energy usage across all of their facilities. We were particularly impressed with SiteImprove, whose data center is not only powered by renewable energy, but also uses groundwater as a cooling agent for its servers to reduce power consumption.

We were not as impressed with Adobe, Amazon, and Intuit, who have all publicly committed to reaching 100% renewable energy usage in the coming years, but have not yet done so. Amazon Web Services in particular owns 40% of the cloud hosting market and brought in over $7 billion in profit last year, yet only recently exceeded 50% renewable energy usage across their operations.

Of the remaining 21 companies who do not publish environmental sustainability information on their websites:

  • 11 either did not respond to us at all or said they’d get back to us but never did.
  • 6 said they didn’t have any information and/or knowledge of any initiatives within their organization to reduce energy usage and/or use renewable energy.
  • 2 provided detailed information about their office recycling and composting programs.
  • 1 (Atlassian) pointed to a recent announcement by their CEO pledging to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2025, but did not have any other details about what they're doing today.
  • Only one (Nextiva, our VoIP provider) told us that they already offset their carbon footprint and support environmental initiatives as part of their Carbonfree® partnership with Carbonfund.org.

We were surprised by the number of high-profile companies who told us they currently have no in-house environmental sustainability initiatives, including a popular workplace messaging platform and an expense-tracking service that recently spent millions of dollars on a star-studded advertising campaign for this year’s Super Bowl.

On the other hand, we were glad to hear that our inquiry had sparked at least one company (a popular password management service) to start gathering more information about their energy usage and carbon footprint so that they could give us some numbers for next year.

How You Can Help

While there are plenty of things that individuals can do to help make their workplaces more environmentally friendly, the biggest impacts come from changes that are made on an organizational level.

We understand that for many companies, the biggest challenge is knowing where to start. Understanding and quantifying environmental impact from an organizational perspective can be complicated and time-consuming. It’s also important to note that at least in the United States, there are currently few regulatory or market incentives to encourage companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Those that do choose to are most often driven by their dedication to a triple-bottom line and/or missional alignment.

That said, there are a few things that companies can do today that don’t require a lot of time or effort to implement. For example, switching to a Green-e certified energy supplier or purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) not only reduces fossil fuel usage, but also creates demand for more renewable energy options in more markets. For those willing and able to take things to the next level, organizations like Carbonfund.org and companies like Terrapass can help companies define and/or achieve their corporate sustainability goals.

The bottom line is that you don’t have to be an eco-hero to make a difference. Thinking ahead and making choices that have positive long-term impacts is something that any company or organization can do. All it takes is the willingness to do so.

Updated May 3, 2019 to include information provided by Atlassian.

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