Earlier this year, JetBlue released its 2016 environmental and sustainability report, accompanied by a white paper produced according to the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) standard for the airline industry, which covers material environmental, social and governance (ESG) information of interest to investors.
With the release of the report and white paper, JetBlue became one of the first companies — and the first airline — to report according to SASB’s intensive standards. As Sophia Mendelsohn, JetBlue’s Head of Sustainability, said at the time: “Our focus is on smart disruption. We are not relying on the status quo for sustainability reporting; SASB’s industry-specific standards help us present the most useful information to our investors, further tying sustainability to our bottom line.”
We recently spoke with Mendelsohn to learn more.
What led JetBlue to produce a SASB-aligned report and how has it changed the company’s reporting strategy?
Sophia Mendelsohn: Reporting has always been a core pillar of sustainability — kind of the foundation that the house of corporate sustainability was built on — and that makes sense because we live and die by the ethos that if you can’t measure it, then you can’t manage it.
Corporate sustainability has come a long way across Fortune 500 companies in the United States. We no longer need to debate or prove the existence — now we’re focused on integration and rapid delivery of short-term results and long-term planning.
So, within that context, it makes sense that the traditional image-heavy or GRI-oriented sustainability report made sense at first for corporate sustainability, but might not anymore. So, that’s why we began looking for a new way to report.
What attracted you to SASB?
SM: What really appealed to me about SASB was leaning on the FCC’s definition of materiality. GRI is great and they do a very good job of being all things to all people; SASB was different. They came and said they we’re just for US publicly listed companies and we have something special for the airline industry or targeted specifically for the airline industry, so that really spoke to me — I wanted to change our reporting to the language that our investors spoke.
Throughout this new reporting process, did JetBlue find that its priorities were where they needed to be? Were there any surprises or gaps? If so, how are they being addressed?
SM: What was fascinating was that, because SASB was written based on a definition of materiality, you’d hope that JetBlue was at least aware of thinking, on a base level, minimum actions on all of these issues. And we did find this to be true, especially with safety. SASB also helped highlight the alternative energy space, where we could do more and think more broadly, as well as in the climate risk disclosure space. It did a good job of helping us see if we were checking the basic boxes on materiality, but also seeing that the definition of best-in-class actions and disclosures in certain areas was rapidly escalating and elevating, and that we could always do more.
On the subject of energy and emissions, JetBlue is already rolling out NextGen technology to reduce emissions, with a goal of having the entire fleet equipped by 2019. What are some other technologies the airline is exploring to reduce emissions and reach its goal of saving over 500,000 gallons of fuel burn per year?
SM: The big one is biofuels. We were the second airline to sign a renewable jet fuel agreement and I believe it is the largest. It is up to four percent of our total fuel usage throughout the year — up to 20 percent in our busiest airport — and that is somewhere we truly innovated. We went out to the market and said we know the fuel is safe, we know it works — how come it’s not on the market at an affordable price? And the answer was economies of scale. We can’t make it cheaper if we make smaller batches, and we can’t make bigger batches until we have the orders and we won’t have the orders until it’s cheaper. So, we looked to break a chicken-and-egg problem there.
I’ve heard United and other airlines talking about trying to scale the demand for alternative, low-carbon fuels. Aside from that, is there anything else that airlines can do to move this along?
SM: I think airlines have to do what we did and show the producers that we’ll buy it if they make it and get really involved in the development and viability of the fuels, and not just wait for it to be handed to us in a perfect scenario.
You mentioned earlier the materiality aspect of SASB. What did JetBlue’s materiality assessment reveal about shareholders’ concerns?
SM: It’s not a surprise that climate change is a consideration for companies, it’s not a surprise that we have emissions associated with our jet fuel — these are macro trends, long public knowledge. It’s not surprising that shareholders wanted to know that we had our arms around the issue, that we didn’t have our heads in the sand and that we are really working on them.
Speaking of climate risk, JetBlue was the first airline to assess materiality of climate risk. How do you intend to use your influence to inspire greater industrywide sustainability efforts?
SM: A rising tide lifts all ships. I always give United credit for going first with the biofuels deal because what they did made my job easier. And I hope that as I continue to push and push, that will make it easier for my counterparts in any company, aviation or not. And that’s a powerful motivation for me, believe it or not.
How much pushing did you have to do? Did you have to push a lot for certain aspects of JetBlue’s climate agenda?
SM: If it’s a good idea, you don’t have to push too hard for it and I always know that I’m on the right path if I don’t have to push too hard. If I’m getting a lot of resistance, I may need to go back to the drawing board and rethink what I’m trying to do and ask.
What does JetBlue’s new commitment to support the recommendations of the Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosures mean for JetBlue, and how will it build on with the SASB standard?
SM: It’s the next level of SASB standards. Supporting the Taskforce is like doubling down on the mentality of SASB. So, the big thing that that will change for us is climate risk scenario planning. What happens if storms increase, etc? What will we do?
Beyond the white paper, how does JetBlue plan to communicate its climate risk to shareholders and the broader public? Will the information be incorporated into the annual report, or will it continue to be a separate environment and sustainability report?
SM: For the moment, it will continue to be separate and obviously if something becomes material it will immediately be incorporated into our annual report. I think the brilliance of SASB is that it tees organizations up to understand and filter what is material in the environmental, social and governance space and helps you address issues ahead of time — things that might have otherwise been siloed in a sourcing team or a sustainability team. It shines a light on them in the most positive way, leaving nowhere to hide. And that in turn helps companies address possible risk issues, so that they either don’t become material or if they are already material in the future, they can tell shareholders that they have a robust plan for them.