When it comes to taking full responsibility, ‘a little less bad’ is just not good enough

At a recent event in San Diego, The Body Shop’s International Director of Corporate Social Responsibility Christopher Davis neatly encapsulated the conundrum facing many leaders in the responsible business world when he said: “How was I going to create a new strategy for The Body Shop which allowed us to be a business that functions with Earth’s systems, that doesn’t make things a little less bad, but makes them good?”

In other words, it is one thing for corporates to set targets and embrace a strategy that reduces their negative social, economic and environmental impacts, but quite another for them to reach that all-important destination whereby their activities are having at minimum zero impact, and ideally contributing positively to the world around them.

When it comes to the definition of what constitutes taking ‘full responsibility’ for these impacts, unfortunately there is no real consensus nor collective goal towards which companies can aim.  The plethora of initiatives, global pledges and indices corporates can align with all offer the same promise – positive recognition for measurement, disclosure and in some cases reduction of their ‘harm done’.  

The rewards for adopting these approaches are manifold and can include improved staff and customer loyalty, positive reputational gain, efficiency savings, easing of shareholder pressure, open up new markets and product opportunities… the list goes on.  The carrot for companies to measure, publish and reduce harm is significant and palpable, so it is hardly surprising that many companies are happy to sign up to this type of action. 

But what is the real and lasting impact of all this measuring, reporting and reducing on tackling the world’s most urgent problems? Specifically, in relation to carbon emissions, is corporate action – whilst accompanied by continued business growth – actively slowing the planet’s inexorably rising temperature? The depressing news recently emerged that carbon dioxide levels have topped 400 parts per million throughout 2016, and we know that incremental rate of absolute carbon reduction in business has actually slowed down in the past year. And whilst it is encouraging that hundreds of corporations have signed up to climate-related commitments, this is not still enough ultimately to reach the zero carbon emissions by 2080.  

At ClimateCare we firmly believe that taking urgent action to halt climate change is the most central tenet of progressing towards the UN’s Global Goals.  A good measure of the disproportionate impact of climate action on the outcome of the other 16 Global Goals is evidenced by a recent study published by the OECD that Africa’s air pollution is causing more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition, and could develop into a health and climate crisis reminiscent of those seen in China and India. 

So, given what we know about the integral nature of combating climate change through carbon reduction to reaching the other global goals, it is worth examining what constitutes full carbon responsibility in more detail. And whilst it is laudable and imperative for companies to measure, publish and reduce, if the ultimate destination is for business ‘to do more good’, they will inevitably need to pass through ‘carbon-neutral’ along the way.

A very recent report by CDP and We Mean Business sets a baseline for corporate client action post Paris in order to meet the Agreement’s ambitious ‘below 1.5 C target’.  This report states that corporates need to eliminate their negative environmental and social impacts, as a baseline from which they could begin making positive impacts. In other words, what is now required is a science-based break-even point, as well as a strategy to progress toward it.

For most companies, eliminating their carbon emissions entirely through operational efficiencies and transformational business practices is a near-impossible feat. Even applying all best efforts to reduce, organisations will still generate unavoidable emissions.

Carbon offsetting provides an effective and viable solution for companies that want to take full responsibility for their impacts, whilst at the same time achieving a wide range of far reaching social outcomes.  And yet, historically, the offsetting industry has been treated with some disdain, with accusations of ‘selling out’ and allowing companies to outsourcing their carbon problem whilst continuing to pollute.  In reality – the opposite is true. 

Not only do well-managed projects deliver multiple Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) outcomes, which can be aligned with an organisation’s wider CSR strategy, but offsetting carbon as part of a holistic approach to achieving carbon neutrality or indeed a net positive position offers an absolutely crucial part of the corporate responsibility armoury.  Given the urgency and scale of the global climate challenge we face, continued squeamishness about its inclusion in a corporate sustainability strategy is a luxury the planet can ill afford.

Sophie Brooks, director of Client Services, ClimateCare

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