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Can Corporate Citizenship Save the Planet?

By Shannon Bond on March 6, 2008No Comment

From nice-to-have to center stage: as issues such as global warming and water conservation become harder to ignore, the corporate citizenship community is in the spotlight. The future of our planet was a popular topic of discussion at The Conference Board’s 2008 Leadership Conference on Global Corporate Citizenship.  At the Marriott Financial Center in downtown Manhattan on the 26th and 27th of February, “leadership” was used not only in referring to those managing corporate grant and volunteer programs, but to the role these decision-makers may play in changing the way the world does business.

Traditional corporate citizenship topics were discussed and debated over the course of the day-and-a-half long event, but both formal sessions and side conversations seemed to focus most heavily on the environment.  As pressure to be “green” builds and the urgency of our carbon conundrum intensifies, the world is looking to corporations to be leaders…and corporations are looking to each other for guidance.

From employee recycling programs to multi-million dollar clean energy investments, there is plenty to be done.  But how to do it well?  The journey from theory to practice can be long especially when that journey involves budgets, boards of directors, and supply chains. 

To help the audience understand exactly what the environment is up against, Peter Senge, the Founding Chair of the Society for Organizational Learning at MIT, kicked off the conference with a startling lesson about carbon emissions. He presented a compelling, yet alarming model that uses the image of a bathtub to demonstrate that the rate at which carbon is being emitted into the atmosphere (the faucet) is much faster than the rate at which it is being absorbed (the drain).  According to this model, the bathtub could overflow by 2045.  With the overflowing tub comes the melting of ice caps, ocean levels rising, ecosystems failing, cities flooding.  [You can see the bathtub demonstration by clicking here.]

The point of Mr. Senge’s talk was not to scare everyone into going home, turning off the lights and crawling into bed, but rather to change the way we think about climate change from something looming ahead that we should do something about, to something that is smack-dab in front of us that we must do something about.

So what do we do?  According to the 2008 Leadership Conference, one should:  educate him or herself, set goals, and be a leader. 

1) Educate yourself.
The complexity of environmental issues can be daunting. It is important to be aware of tradeoffs, and to be familiar with the industry lingo so as not to be lured by “green” sounding programs and products that are not “green” at all. The CarbonNeutral Company reminded conference participants of the increasing importance and inherent complexity of taking your business CarbonNeutral®. Lawrence Selzer from the Conservation Fund cited one alarming statistic after another in his luncheon keynote, reminding everyone how much more there is to understand about the limitations of the planet.  The more we know about these limitations, the better equipped we will be to work within them.  

2) Set goals.
When Mr. Senge introduced the issue of carbon emissions, he reminded the audience that there is a big difference between reducing emissions, and reducing them 80% by 2045. Without concrete goals to work toward, we can too easily let ourselves off the hook. One way to hold your company accountable is to be as transparent as possible with your reduction targets and progress; publishing these in a CSR report for all to see can help ensure the environment stays top-of-mind.

Developing a framework to guide you toward your goals can be hugely helpful, according to Scott Noeson of Dow Chemical Company. Mr. Noeson suggests creating a framework that is targeted and realistic. “If you try to make it about everything,” he warned “it can become about nothing.” So be aggressive, but bite off only what you can chew.

3) Be a leader.
Mr. Noeson went on to explain that his company has succeeded in making sustainability a core part of their business by consistently asking the question: “How can we be more significant as a company?” Significant to customers might mean making environmentally-friendly products to bring into their homes. Significant to suppliers might mean increased standards for doing business. Significant to communities might mean investing in research that will alleviate the next generation’s worry over an overflowing bathtub.

Companies have an enormous opportunity to leverage their sphere of influence to initiate change. Leading by example can speak and achieve volumes, but communication is critical. Mark Armitage, President U.S. of the CarbonNeutral Company, reminded the audience that overselling a commitment to the environment is not likely to succeed in positioning a company as a leader in the space.  Communicating what you are doing and why you are doing it in a transparent way can form a solid foundation for demanding compliance from your supply chain and influencing your peer companies and customers.

Only time will tell if the corporate citizenship community is up for the challenge at hand, but the interest and excitement over environmental conservation at the 2008 Leadership Conference on Global Corporate Citizenship is certainly encouraging.

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