Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Beyond Compliance: Green Monday and the Rise of Corporate Action

For the past year, Carbon Clear has been a sponsor of Green Monday, a UK-based corporate sustainability networking event. Once a month, 300-500 sustainability professionals and corporate executives get together to share their experiences implementing programmes aimed at making the world a better place.

The topics tackled by this group are ambitious.  Last night we heard from a U.S. company that provides an online platform for peer-to-peer car sharing. Think Zipcar or City Car Club, but scalable to reach every town or village in America.  Members buy fewer cars (reducing overall resource and energy use) because they don't need to have a vehicle sitting in their driveway when they want to get from Point A to Point B. A second sustainability benefit comes because the costs of car ownership become variable rather than fixed costs.  Car owners pay the cost of their vehicle and insurance whether they use it one day a year or every day - which makes the incremental cost to drive an additional mile quite low.  Car share members, by contrast, pay only for what they use, with the result that members drive relatively less and cycle, walk or use public transportation more.

Another Green Monday delegate works for a major pharmaceutical company that is, rather counter-intuitively, investing in sewerage and water supply infrastructure in developing countries. The company's CEO made a committment to provide medicines to treat water-borne diseases at cost, which is a common practice among pharmaceutical firms. Interestingly, the company has since found that it made even better sense to spend their money shoring up local infrastructure to prevent those diseases from occurring in the first place.

A third company is working to get people out of cars and airplanes entirely, by tackling the technical and financial challenges to high quality videoconferencing.  These initiatives and others like them have the potential to save millions of tonnes of carbon emissions and improve the lives of tens of millions of people around the world.

What is striking about the Green Monday discussions is the relatively low profile played by senior government policy makers, and how rarely delegates representing hundreds of major corporations cite government regulation as a spur to action on sustainability.

Governments do have a critical role to play in support of environmental sustainability.  They provide a democratic mechanism for setting local and national priorities, and can ensure that measures that help the environment don't have a disproportionate impact on poorer people.  What is more, governments can correct market failures by putting a price on environmental damage through fines and penalties, cap-and-trade mechanisms, and taxes.  When it comes to climate change and a number of other global challenges, however, market failure has been compounded by policy failure.  Governments around the world have been deadlocked for the past decade over a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that will replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in December 2012.  Despite an urgent need to change course, carbon emissions continue to rise, and a host of natural resources, from water to petroleum and topsoil grow increasingly scarce.

Green Monday and similar initiatives show that we don't have to wait for government regulation before we take action.  Companies can go beyond compliance to deliver solutions that enhance the environment, inspire their staff and customers, and directly or indirectly improve their bottom line. It's encouraging to see more and more business set ambitious sustainability targets and devote corporate resources to achieving them.