Why the Google Bus Protests are a Corporate Sustainability Issue

Image credit Craig Frost
Image credit Craig Frost, Twitter

Tempers have risen in the SF Bay Area over the past few months due to sky-rocketing rental costs (the average cost for a 1 bedroom in the city was $2800 this past July). The cost increases are attributed to an influx of well-paid tech workers, many of whom actually work outside the city, down at Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple or one of the numerous other tech companies that litter the Silicon Valley peninsula. Increased demand for housing among well-paid tech workers plus stagnant supply means rising costs, and boy have they risen.

The tensions have a natural focal point in so-called Google busses – private busses that cart tech workers down to their jobs every morning and back again in the evening. These busses conduct their pickups on public streets and at public bus stops and the sheer volume of them slows down traffic flow and regular public transportation for the rest of the city. Most recently, protesters blocked a bus from departing and smashed a window in frustration.

Now, it’s not fair to blame these sweeping economic forces on the individual workers – who wouldn’t take a great job in a great city with great pay if they had the skills? Terrorizing individual workers who bus to work (the busses are a great decision from an environmental standpoint) is a decidedly bad response to the rising economic pressures, but the protesters do have a point. The rising rent costs and crowded public streets are benefiting corporate entities outside the city by providing their workers with a great place to live. These companies are headquartered outside the city limits, minimizing their tax burden in the area they are impacting. That means they aren’t held liable for the constraints on public services caused by the systemic influx of their workers.

However, those corporate entities who claim to be good corporate citizens have a responsibility to respond proactively. Here’s why this is a classic corporate sustainability issue.

The Materiality Principal and Local Impacts

The Global Reporting Initiative, the standard for sustainability reporting, considers local impacts to be a key issue that reporting organizations must address in their sustainability reporting. In fact, this requirement is stated right up front, as one of the key contexts in which to consider a company’s sustainability performance:

“Information on [sustainability] performance should be placed in context. The underlying question of sustainability reporting is how an organization contributes, or aims to contribute in the future, to the improvement or deterioration of economic, environmental and social conditions, developments and trends at the local, regional or global level. (emphasis mine) G4 guidelines, p 10″

What that means for reporting organizations is that it isn’t enough to report on good works, like the procurement of clean energy, or community service projects. If the organization has any substantive impact – positive or negative – in the local community, it belongs in the CSR report.

GRI doesn’t expect organizations to report on all impacts, only the material ones. Organizations must report on issues thatŸ “reflect the organization’s significant economic, environmental and social impacts; or Ÿ substantively influence the assessments and decisions of stakeholders. G4 guidelines, p 11.”

If a company like Google’s operations are having a measurable impact on the city of San Francisco’s rent prices, that qualifies as a significant economic and social issue. And if community stakeholders are bothered enough by the busses to protest them, well a good sustainability report would reference their concerns and plans to deal with them.

Will we see this issue mentioned in future reporting?

Despite all the calls from GRI and other reporting advocates for companies to look closely at their local impacts, actually getting these impacts into the reporting is another story. Sustainability departments are already strapped, tracking dozens if not hundreds of social and environmental issues around the globe. Despite the clear materiality of this issue for Bay Area tech organizations, it may not show up in CSR reporting unless it occurs to someone in the sustainability department and that person can successfully make the case internally that the issue crosses the materiality bar. It’s admittedly a high bar, given the number of issues competing for the team’s attention.

So consider this a call to action, sustainability reporters! This stakeholder believes the rent and congestion issues close to your company’s headquarters deserve to be covered in your sustainability reporting.

Reporting vs. Acting

Reporting is one thing, but actually acting to positively improve is, of course, the ultimate goal. Google issued an email statement after the bus smashing incident, stating that, “We certainly don’t want to cause any inconvenience to SF Bay Area residents and we and others in our industry are working with SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) to agree on a policy on shuttles in the city.” So the tech giant does appear to be actively working, at least on the congestion issues. That’s good news for sustainability reporters who can cover the issues raised by stakeholders in their next round of reporting, as well as their corporate progress in addressing them.

Rent prices in the city are a more difficult challenge for a corporate entity to address, as Google certainly can’t control where it’s employees choose to live, nor can they singlehandedly impact the zoning regulations which limit supply in the city. Nevertheless, they can use their money and power to lobby for increased housing developments in cities throughout the Bay Area. They can work with the transit agencies to increase public transit between San Francisco county and counties to the south where tech companies reside, such that the transit routes Google and Apple have created for private use become an accessible public good. They can even build some of their own corporate housing, like Facebook, or work to make Silicon Valley a more desirable place to live.

Readers, what do you think? Are the local congestion and housing cost issues a core sustainability issue for tech companies? If so, what should they do about it? Weigh in in the comments! 


Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

18 responses

  1. Violent ‘protests’ are a city sustainability issue. Ex Mayor Brown would find a growth favorable solution for the Berkeley suburb of Oakland. Less seasoned political leadership is likely to concede Oakland’s bright future to Political Correctness. San Francisco faces the same issue but is far more economically secure. Both cities could easily drive future growth toward Santa Clara and San Mateo. Google’s future is unaffected.

    1. This is a legitimate point, though I haven’t seen the tech companies expressing much interest in improving Santa Clara, etc… you would think they could easily run a side business in real estate and make Silicon Valley livable in no time!

  2. Wouldn’t it be amazing if successful companies in the area address the growing chasm between the rich and poor. Housing is one concern, but what about addressing the commons: education, transportation, quality of life for all San Francisco citizens. Perhaps a Bay Area plan can be devised that distributes quality of life, education and employment to all; which extends the definition of sustainability. I see this as a leadership opportunity and model for the country.

    1. Indeed, although it’s not just the bay area it’s the whole world. Google (et all) have done incredible good in the world, providing mostly free products that undeniably make life easier for everyone. So I cut them a lot more slack than, say, an oil company in terms of their CSR.

      However, there is a big issue in terms of the wealth creation which for the most part is shared by a relatively small cadre of employees. A key question facing these companies is how to keep “doing good” with that wealth. I’m not talking about philanthropy either, I mean investing that money in ways that alleviate social and environmental problems and help build a more inclusive economy… that’s going to be a fundamental issue of the 21st century.

      1. I think saying Google has done “incredible good in the world” is way too extreme. They are currently dabbling in all kinds of things which I think have questionable value to the world, like Google X and driverless cars where they are pushing technologies like AI that I think have a lot of potential problems. These could even be more problematic than oil. Further, Google epitomizes a culture which keeps throwing technology at problems that were actually caused by technology rather than realizing that true progress comes from social and behavioral change. Technology has become a band-aid for dealing with the symptoms rather than addressing the root social and behavioral cause, and Google is perpetuating this problem to the extreme. Further, by hyping the whole driverless car thing, Google is pushing a culture that is already addicted to cars further into this addiction and making everyone think that having a 2 ton car with hundreds of horsepower is an efficient or safe way to move 1.4 people and a bag (the average cargo in a car) around, regardless of who is driving or how the vehicles is powered. Not to mention that how cars are driven or powered does absolutely nothing to address the massive contribution to obesity cars have caused as well as the dehumanizing of our cities.

        And don’t even get me started on Google glasses. With all the crap that is going on this world, is this how the talented should be spending their time? This is kind of tech luxury just creates more demand for products derived from fossil fuels and other finite resources as well as contributes to a hyper-consumer culture. As the kingdom literally burns, Google acts just like the completely detached king sitting in his palace playing games while war, poverty, and famine unfold all around him.

    2. I’m inclined to disagree with this suggestion. Addressing the growing chasm between the rich and poor is a public problem that should not be taken away from the public domain and responsibility of public officials. Nor, would I see that these companies can naturally transfer their expertise in tech to social issues. Sometimes they do on niche initiatives, but to the scale you are suggesting would wind up shifting the core focus of the organization. Additionally, there’s a perception that everyone at these companies will have the same idea of how to manage the commons as you. I mean, what does these companies being involved in ‘guaranteeing jobs’ mean? What does it mean for someone whose heart and sole lies in baking, not coding? And then if there is disagreement, who votes on it? Who is the company accountable to in the end? I’m making these points to emphasize that the responsibility of public institutions to address these vary issues should not be outsourced, nor should citizens not bolster these same institutions to work effectively. While the companies have a responsibility to be good citizens, citizens should also not pass the buck on responsibility.

  3. Could google use it’s wealth to privatize the public transportation system in Silicon Valley? If Bart was privately owned, it could improve the speed and acess to parts of the bay that make driving still the fastest way to get to these places. Google could implement advertisements and improve the ticketing system as well.

  4. I’ve always wondered from a pure footprint standpoint if
    these buses (which are never full) could allow locals commuting to the
    south bay or in the city to ride on it (for a small fare or free) thereby
    reducing city/highway congestion and overall CO2 emissions

    1. I don’t think it would really work because these are single-destination busses. A better idea would be to upgrade Caltrain and then have these (and other busses) circulate out of Caltrain Stations only.

    2. Clearly you have not ridden on these shuttles as the deadhead from SF/San Bruno to South Bay and back. :) They are often completely full to the point of standing room only. You may be seeing them in early or middle run before they reach capacity.

  5. Nicely balanced. Google, as the representative company, simply can’t control or even impact some of the variables that have contributed to this crisis. As voters, we should be making pointed criticism of the the leaders and process that have brought us to this place through decades of bad policy, underinvestment in infrastructure, and misplaced budget and planning priorities. As an example, we should have a complete hold on all major new entertainment venues such as the Warrior dome until we get the transportation and housing crises under control.

    However, as the author points out there are somethings that Google can do – lobby for better policy, spur investment in communities closer to their headquarters facilities. One of the most brilliant suggestions I’ve hear so far is to solve homelessness. They have the resources and this would ameliorate the techie attacks on the less fortunate that have percolated in media these last few months.

    This is a systems issue – attacking one group of workers doesn’t solve the problem although it has brought the glare of spotlights. In general these are good problems to have – the alternative is bleak and clearly visible in Detroit. But, they are problem that require creativity – and isn’t that what the companies with the bus fleets are all about.

    1. There is plenty of housing in the south bay, and much of it is better quality than SF or Oakland. People want to live where they want to life. That is both completely acceptable and normal. Never have I heard any other metro complain about people want/needing to work in one city and choosing to live in another. This is highly typical across the country and around the world.

  6. It is not solely google’s responsibility to solve every socio-economic problem. Nor is it HP’s, Salesforce, Facebook, etc. However, contributing to the public commons can benefit many. Microsoft and the Gates Foundation has apparently spurred a better quality of life in Seattle by donating to area public schools. Planning for future growth and quality of life was important enough for them (and yes, of course, it’s good for their image) but the effects are lasting. Good discussion here!

  7. There’s a strain of SF liberalism that’s hard to take even for the most left-wing among us. Solnit’s article (http://www.guernicamag.com/daily/rebecca-solnit-resisting-monoculture/) being a characteristic example: young, white, not disabled, and not even a long term resident, she has decided that she ought to be able to live in SF and those who she deems unworthy should not be allowed to live here (somehow). It’s mix of entitlement, strident 60s era, self-serving New Leftism and ignorance makes one tempted to engage in the kind fratricidal political battles that has handicapped liberal causes for decades. Instead I’ll confine myself to a couple of points:

    1. The fact that a company providing an inexpensive mass transit alternative for its employees so they can move out of areas of suburban sprawl and into areas build for high density, residential communities, is somehow seen as another example of rapacious corporate greed is absurdest and needs no further comment as such.

    2. Those complaining about gentrification are at best silent about policy changes to build higher density neighbourhoods quickly or in fact are actually hostile. Often coming up with formulations that would halt all new construction until an amount of affordable housing that they deem adequate has been constructed.

    3. The notion that Google must pay its pound of flesh for for its perceived involvement in the self inflicted housing crisis plaguing SF, is offensive. It’s the very worst of the public-private partnership, neo-liberalist rhetoric of the past. we don’t need Google or Twitter to ‘give back’ to their community. We need them to be responsible corporate entities that don’t don’t distort our democracy with billions of dollars in legalised bribery that is present day corporate lobbying and campaign financing, and that don’t engage in a maxamalist program legalism that violate the intent and spirit of not the letter of the law.

    If we want Google to ‘contribute’ more to SF then we should tax them, and we should do it at the city, state and federal level. We should be writing articles about the grotesque inequality and concentration of wealth that we have in America.

  8. Google should just buy out all the land the people protesting are from then resell it all to new buyers or employees, privatize all the road ways and public services, and put a charter government into place. Problem solved.

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