In May, the Cisco Foundation committed $100 million over 10 years to fight climate change. The Foundation, funded by Cisco Systems, said the money would support “technology-based solutions, GHG [greenhouse gas] and carbon reduction, climate resilience, green jobs, and community education and activation.” The commitment was in keeping with Cisco’s recent history on emissions and climate: in 2018 Cisco set an approved, Science Based Target for warming well below 2 degrees Celsius, then achieved 100% US energy use from renewables in 2020, and has reduced its Scope 1 & 2 (operational and power usage) emissions 55% from a 2007 baseline.
One of Cisco’s most ambitious climate commitments is in its supply chain, where the company is targeting a 30% reduction in Scope 3 (supplier and customer) emissions by 2030, based on a 2019 baseline. As part of this goal, Cisco seeks for 80% of its suppliers to set their own reduction targets by 2025; as of 2020, 33% had already set such targets (some of them under pressure from Cisco). For many tech companies in particular, Scope 3 commitments have potential to create the greatest impact, by kickstarting a virtuous cycle within which a cascading series of suppliers must make their own commitments to meet the demands of their largest customers.
Cisco’s climate commitments and progress are, in many ways, exemplary: they demonstrate the power of setting serious goals and progressing through well-defined, intermediate targets to reach them. If all companies were as serious about their commitments, we would undoubtedly be much further along in the fight against climate change. But as a founder of the Science Based Targets Initiative told the New York Times earlier this year, “when you look at what’s behind [some companies’ websites and sustainability reports], you’ll see there is not a lot of substance behind those commitments or the commitments are not comprehensive enough.” Many companies still do not even make commitments to reduce emissions, or publish annual sustainability reports at all.
In the case of Cisco, another set of recent commitments helps illustrate how companies can come to realize the importance of targets, then set and commit to them. Like many companies, Cisco responded vocally to the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and rising support for the Black Lives Matter movement, with CEO Chuck Robbins calling the killing “horrific,” “maddening” and “truly abhorrent.” Cisco promptly donated $5 million to charities fighting racism and discrimination, and postponed the company’s biggest event of the year. But later that same summer, during a company-wide, virtual diversity conference, multiple employees posted comments that included objectionable remarks.
Cisco’s challenges around equity and diversity multiplied from there. In July of 2020, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Cisco and two of its employees, claiming the employees had harassed a subordinate software engineer based on being born into the Dalit, or “untouchable” Hindu caste. The suit claimed Cisco failed to take corrective action, even after successive investigations. Then in September, the company was again sued, this time by shareholders with the general employees pension fund for the City of Pontiac, Michigan, for failing to include a Black board member (similar lawsuits were filed with other companies that appeared to have strong diversity and inclusion narratives, without the board diversity to back them up).
Cisco’s response has been instructive. After the comments were posted during Cisco’s internal diversity conference, the company went through the comments one by one to separate those that represented genuine questions or confusion from those that were truly offensive. In response to the latter, several employees were immediately fired. In September 2020, Cisco pledged $100 million to historically black colleges and universities, launched a $50 million venture capital fund focused on companies with diverse leadership and founders, and committed an additional $50 million over 5 years to increase diversity across its partner ecosystem, including the number of Black employees in management roles at partner organizations. At the same time, Cisco committed to increase its own representation of Black employees by 25%, and at the Director level and above by 75%, by 2023. The company also broadened its nascent pay parity program to analyze promotions, stock and bonuses alongside salary. It will also require preferred suppliers to report their own workforce diversity to Cisco beginning in 2021. Cisco’s 11-member board now includes 4 women and 2 persons of color, including John D. Harris II, who was appointed to the Board in January and is Black.
How Cisco progresses on these diversity- and equity-related commitments remains to be seen. But if the company’s ability to follow through on its climate commitments is any guide, there is reason to hope that Cisco’s workforce will grow steadily more diverse, that equal pay and recognition will be conferred on employees of all genders, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations, that management will dedicate even more support to an inclusive company culture, and that Cisco’s impact on issues of diversity and equity will be felt beyond its own workforce, as partners and suppliers are held to the company’s own powerful standard of commitment.