Who Cares About Sustainability? John McEleney Does

Interview with the founder of Onshape and former CEO of SOLIDWORKS

On the green in more ways than one. John McEleney, cofounder of Onshape.

On the green in more ways than one. John McEleney, cofounder of Onshape.

In comes a call from John McEleney. A call from McEleney, cofounder of Onshape, formerly the CEO of SOLIDWORKS, is never dull. It can be an important announcement about a new product, his latest project, something we need to know about or something we got wrong.… But this time he wants to talk about sustainability.

Why sustainability now? Don’t we have more pressing problems? Like being forced to go back to the office during the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, most of Europe heading into a cold winter, supply chains being broken, the stock market’s volatility … economies balanced on the brink.

McEleney agrees. We do have pressing problems. Ever the engineer, McEleney sees our problems as failing parts of a bigger system.

“You’re in a plane and it’s going down,” says McEleney, getting right to the point.

McEleney has returned from an extended European vacation with his wife. He visited the Swiss family he stayed with during a study abroad program during his senior year of college. They remembered him. Who wouldn’t? McEleney is a human dynamo and would be hard to forget. He drank beer from glasses in Germany—not plastic ones. Glass is recyclable, reusable and better for the Earth.

When you’re running a business, you have to be thinking about what’s important. You build dashboards and you build key process indicators to keep things on track. If you are flying a plane, you need to know the compass readings, the altitude, airspeed, fuel levels, balance. You have gauges.

For companies, right now the war and economy are very topical. But like a pilot flying a plane, the warning lights are on, they’re blinking, the buzzers are going off. They should command attention because they’re warnings of critical systems.

Let’s say you have a fuel blockage and you can’t transfer fuel on one wing with the other. If you can’t do that, you have a huge problem. You have to take care of it. But while you are dealing with that, you’ve ignored checking the turbine blades, you’ve ignored serviceability, drilling out the roots and reinserting the rivets that are past their duty life. When is that alarm gonna go off? It probably isn’t. You’ll get one more flight. Some problems are long in nature and duration. They do require attention, but they’re not going to always be the ones with a blinking light. They will get more critical over time. Like sustainability.

In Germany, they deliberately focus on the environment and on minimizing waste. We’re out with friends at a beer garden and we noticed the lack of plastic. The only plastic there were some utensils, which were sterilized between uses. Everything else was glass, which can be washed and reused. They’ve developed a culture that minimize the amount of plastic.

I think sustainability is one of these things that requires leadership and it requires people beating the drum for thinking in terms of environmental impact.

Look what happened when President Biden tried to increase the supply of fuel. Why? Because we haven’t gotten to the point of long-term sustainability of other fuel sources. So, we are getting kicked in the teeth. Some people would say it’s hypocritical for the U.S. to talk to the Saudis and forget [about] human rights. But to get more oil was a necessity. You have got to keep the machine running, keep the incentives for EVs even if it means more lithium mining for batteries.

I don’t know what the long-term solution is. I don’t pretend to be an energy expert or understand the balance of things. What I do understand, though, is you have to keep to the maintenance schedule of the aircraft; otherwise, you’ll have a catastrophic problem.

How can we be more aware of sustainability when we buy?

You don’t need a PhD in ESG [environmental sustainability and governance], though I do know someone who has one. I remember a plan that would understand your sustainability preferences and from your browser, so it would help you shop accordingly.

There can be all of the corporate responsibility and governance for sustainability but that would be on the consumer side. Think of slider scales of things that matter to you and have it influence your purchase decisions. You would get an ESG score on your possible purchase. Bringing this awareness to a demographic that’s coming up that’s not just about getting the cheapest product. To them, what is the most affordable product in terms of their values—factors in addition to money. There’s a big opportunity on the corporate side for this.

Let me give you another example. I’m on the board of Stratasys. Like many companies, they do an annual sustainability report. They did a lot of work with Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoints and Word documents. It was by itself a project. That’s good because you have to collect information to create a baseline. But what you really want to have is an operational system like Salesforce, a system of record so you can understand the journey. Then you will be able to have your sustainability report be an output of the mechanism that you’re tracking on a daily basis.

It won’t be a spreadsheet. It will be a database. You can pull reports off it directly. You can be monitoring key processes and if they are being focused on. What can we do inside of our product? How can we work with our customers? How can we be a better partner with our customers to help them? We believe sustainability reporting will be like the nutrition labels on food products. Instead of how much carbohydrates, it will be how much carbon.

There’s a younger generation that is demanding it. They have purchasing power and influence. The idea of thinking about it as a system, as a process and a journey, I think is a really important one. What we’ve tried to do so far is highlight customers that are focusing on sustainability and how they’re using our products to help do that. There are obvious examples. For example, Numilk, which is producing plant-based milks.

Numilk uses Onshape, but let’s forget about that. Think about their business model. It’s based on the idea of producing the milk on the spot with water, not having to transport the water. You’ve just reduced the carbon footprint. And make it a better experience. That can have a profound difference on an aspect of our lives. Think of that applied in many more dimensions.

To be continued….