CORPORATE SUSTAINABILITY

All things must pass – as may one day the human race…. But in the meantime,  the business case for action on environmental issues including in relation to climate change adaptation has become increasingly widely understood and mainstream.

Inequality is inextricably linked with exposure to environmental risk.

This matters as even though my first ‘blog’ was a typewritten local Friends of the Earth group newsletter, and I did a masters dissertation on  EU Carbon Tax policy in 1994  – I’ve always approached environmental debates by trying to get into the mindset of a sceptical thinker  – no point preaching to a choir when there are stubborn links in chains holding back action – and – by seeking positive social impacts as an integral part of the process.

Images of poor people in poor countries have in the past and to some extent, still are commonly used to promote measures that do not directly assist them, (other than by limiting global totals.)

While a solar home system in Bangladesh and a patch of Scandinavian forest may both be equally beneficial in offsetting carbon emissions ; it is the former which can  directly bring renewable electricity to help raise living standards and make some of the people most vulnerable to climate change more resilient and better able to adapt. Both measures are useful, but one is more necessary,

It really matters that more is done by and within developing countries, China and India in particular to address climate change and the need to seek sustainability.

It is symptomatic of historical global inequalities that for all the contributions made by the BBC and Sir David Attenborough in  raising global awareness for the need for action on plastics, governmental interest in the West for improving recycling,  mainly came about after China decided it did not want to be a dumping ground for the world’s discarded plastics.

Dhaka Tribune, for which I write as a member of its Editorial Board and London Bureau Chief, has a MoU  to support the work of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in developing a world-class institution applying local experience, knowledge and research in one of the countries that is most affected by climate change.

Environmental risks and threats are strikingly visible in Bangladesh. From the pollution of Dhaka’s Buriganga from tanning factories to controversial coal power plants such as Rampal in the Sunderbans, there is much to be done. Yet the nation remains a low per capita emitter, pioneered banning plastic bags, and has investors willing to build greener factories.

So while there is plenty to be concerned about particularly  http://goodbyebangladesh.blogspot.com/, there is always a lot of eco innovation and action to welcome. Even though in a warming world, these may not come soon enough for millions whose homes and livelihoods are under threat.

Defining CR?

Whilst some of the contemporary debate about Corporate Responsibility (CSR)/Responsible Business etc may appear new to some, it is worth remembering that debates about environmental and social impacts in business are at least as old as the industrial revolution itself. Even in the 19th century, some employers made a business case for improving the living conditions of workers and in early 20th century Michigan, Henry Ford argued that raising wages so that the workers who made his cars could also afford to buy them was good both for his workers and his company.

Conscientious citizens have long used their influence as consumers and investors to influence the private sector.  Although boycotts can be counter-productive and are often limited in their effect, they can have huge symbolic power as Gandhi famously demonstrated.  The 1970s and 1980s campaigns against investment in apartheid South Africa and some of the Western multinationals operating there, greatly increased global public and media interest in concepts like ethical investment and corporate responsibility.

Thirty years later, and the concepts and vision no longer need explaining. Practical guides and introductions are now commonplace:

Although hugely valuable and influential, ethical choices, such as choosing an ethical bank account, or buying goods certified as organic or fair trade are almost by definition always at first a minority choice.  There is also often a moral dimension – who is more useful for the good of wider society, an investor who avoids holding shares in a tobacco company because they do not want to profit from the harm inherent in the product, or the citizen who campaigns democratically for the government to discourage use by raising taxes?   (One answer by the way is that someone could be both.)

Nonetheless, even though the common interest of practitioners is to improve impacts against ESG standards across the board and to mainstream good practice, it would be short sighted to dismiss ethical/moral choices as always a niche/minority activity.  The end of 2012 and start of 2013 saw the tax debate originating in the UK spread  globally (after many years of diligent campaigning and being overlooked by much of the media except for Private Eye)

In the intervening years, while taxes paid (or rather not paid) by major multinational corporations has become very much part of the public global agenda, Private Eye and the Tax Justice Network continue to set the pace in confronting the UK’s role in enabling tax havens and the systemic underpayment of tax around the globe.

So it remains true perhaps that despite corporate responsibility and ESG commitments becoming the norm, idealist v pragmatist debates still carry weight and when it comes to making meaningful change, ‘purists pushing above their weight’ often have the most impact: concepts I explored historically in 2013’s Ethical Investment and Consumers in Cultural History and which appear to have resonance with the rise in all forms of impact investing.

It must always be remembered however that business and civil society can only do so much. Governments and the rules that they and multilateral institutions set, have the power to do much more- if electorates will let them.

Case in point, while it is both encouraging and greenwashing for businesses to be talking about supporting the Sustainable Development Goals, in a world where systems are geared to protect and enhance the privileges of the wealthy and influential, left to their own devices, how far would and could they go (if not asked by citizens to do so) to support  SDG Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries? Answers on a postcard  to WEF @ Davos.

 

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