Ryan Spies has more than 13 years of experience in sustainability, including executive roles in ESG strategy and decarbonization at several Fortune 500 companies, which has earned him multiple Energy Manager of the Year awards. His expertise spans diverse sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and chemicals. Beyond his professional commitments, Ryan is an avid cyclist – he recently completed his sixth consecutive "Tour de Spies," a personal tradition where he cycles daily in Philadelphia throughout the Tour de France.
We had the opportunity to discuss a range of topics with Ryan, including how corporate sustainability can drive innovation, the biggest impact corporations can make, strategies for engaging stakeholders, his advice for breaking into the sustainability space, and what is giving him hope while doing this work.
In the decade-plus you’ve been in the space, how have you seen corporate sustainability evolve?
Corporate sustainability has come a long way. Fifteen years ago, many leading-edge companies saw its potential, and customers began inquiring about sustainability initiatives. Nowadays, many companies are focused on sustainability– some for the right reasons and others due to external pressure.
Both paths present challenges. The companies that aspire to fully embrace sustainability recognize the value of long-term thinking and the impact they can make. They consider how their business can positively respond to factors like climate change, diversity, inclusion, and materials. Ultimately, sustainability urges us to introspect and identify our values within the supply chain, positioning us as part of the solution rather than an obstacle.
Other companies are compelled toward sustainability by the SEC, which is urging companies to report their risks, regardless of their perceived importance. The standout companies aren't being coerced into this position; rather, they are embracing it. They view it as an opportunity to be better stewards of the world.
What role do you think corporations play in driving sustainability progress?
One is education. Companies are in a unique position to educate their own employees and consumers about their impact on the world around them, along with the positive and negative consequences of their products. Education is a crucial aspect of this equation. Companies need to involve consumers in their journey.
Many boards fundamentally understand that climate change and the climate crisis are not going away and will affect the daily lives of people worldwide. However, I'm not sure all consumers fully comprehend the depth of these implications. Companies have an opportunity not only to educate but also to provide solutions. This doesn't mean greenwashing, but rather transparently stating, “This is where we are today. If we want to move forward, we need to invest in renewable fuels, renewable energy, and changes in packaging. We will ask you as consumers to consider how you use products and to use them more responsibly.” All these options are opportunities for companies. While some are seizing the opportunity, others still have work to do. This represents a continuum. Right now, companies are being called upon to change, and that's exciting.
How have you engaged internal and external stakeholders around sustainability?
One program that I love to talk about that I started at Saint-Gobain North America was the WWE or Waste, Water, and Energy Awards. I was in charge of wastewater and energy for over 120 manufacturing sites. We created this awards platform where we identified the plants that performed best in reducing their energy usage and water usage, and presented them with a bejeweled WWE wrestling belt (including an inscription with their names and the year they won it). Then they would have to defend it the next year, so like a Stanley Cup meets a wrestling belt. Leading up to the event, there were smack talk videos, and we had the CEO dress up in a bejeweled cape. We were trying to think about how to make the topic more fun and relevant to the folks who had their hands in the factories every day, and how do we make it more engaging and competitive. By pitting one business against another for bragging rights, and getting their senior leadership involved when a plant would win, we ensured that there's that connection and understanding.The Department of Energy ultimately recognized us for creating that program.
Externally, it all comes down to partnerships and finding the companies who are also trying to solve these problems. We think about where can we collaborate—even among competitors—on solutions that benefit everyone. At Clayco, I worked with a number of other very large US-based general contractors to put together a plan for how to decarbonize the construction field, specifically on job sites. We asked questions like: How do we get rid of diesel generators for our trailers? Or, how do we work as an industry to strengthen the message to our suppliers? That's how you make progress, by looking along the value chain and finding partners.
How do you view the relationship between data and progress?
You can’t manage what you can’t measure. More data is always critical. You need data to understand where you are and where you want to go. That helps you pull the levers into focus and encourage measurement in the right places.
I hope the rules that are being debated right now with the SEC are put in place because having a common language among companies is really important. Companies have been doing a great job up to this point, but there is no legal standard. The SEC ruling will streamline many of those processes, which will help the players who are out there making a difference and push companies that are not doing anything to think about it. Getting more data out there will also help people make more informed decisions.
What’s your advice for people trying to break into the sustainability space?
I’d remind people that having a sustainability or ESG title should be secondary to working for a company that makes an impact in the world. There are only so many sustainability roles out there, so work for a company that is making a positive impact and learn about their sustainability teams. Any sustainability professional will tell you we are guides, we are not doers. We need folks in finance, marketing, and product development to move the needle. Having people who are passionate about making a difference within those roles is more impactful than having sustainability in your title.
What is giving you hope right now?
It’s a combination of things. The challenging weather events this year have opened people’s eyes. That’s not hopeful, but the conversations inspired by the drastic weather are.
Another thing is the tremendous impact the inflation reduction act has had on the renewable energy world, along with EVs and batteries. It’s earth-shattering. I don’t think people realize how much innovation and money is currently being poured into this shift toward a clean-energy economy. And that’s in the face of headwinds against ESG and its politicization. I think that will wash away, and ultimately companies will realize it’s a material risk they need to address. At the end of the day, the dollars talk, and the dollars are all on the clean energy side.