A lack of political will means that companies must lead the way on climate change

All the political chatter about who, if anyone, would represent the UK at the COP27 climate summit starting in Egypt this weekend is a bit disappointing. Not least because the COP26 took place in Glasgow just 12 months ago and was considered a success. That newly-elected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has now found time on his calendar to attend is of course a step in the right direction, but the nature of his decision unfortunately speaks volumes for the way politicians – like them – are doing so tend – work on all tricky issues – to put off something specific about climate change to deal with more pressing issues. Granted, the challenges Sunak faces are pretty tough. But even these could pale next to climate change.

It is noteworthy that Earthday.org, the organization that grew out of the first events to demonstrate the importance of environmental protection in 1970, announced last month that Earth Day would continue next year for the first time since the movement began this year’s theme will be — Invest in our planet. Kathleen Rogers, President of Earthday.org, said in a statement: “In 2023 we must come together again in partnership for the planet. Businesses, governments and civil society all have an equal responsibility to take action on the climate crisis and ignite the spark to accelerate the shift towards a green, prosperous and just future. We must unite in our fight for the green revolution and for the health of future generations. Now is the time to invest in our planet.”

Fortunately, some business people are willing – although clearly not enough – to think longer term than politicians. Yvon Chouinard’s recent announcement that he and his family would be giving away Patagonia, the company he founded, so that all of his future profits could be used to fight climate change and protect undeveloped lands around the world is clear an extreme example. It matches the idiosyncratic approach of Chouinard, who always described himself as a reluctant businessman. In an interview at the time of the move, Chouinard expressed hope that it could “influence a new form of capitalism”. But the truth is that he and his colleagues have already encouraged many other companies to take the environment seriously.

Twenty years ago, Chouinard and colleague Craig Mathews of Blue-Ribbon Flies started 1% for the Planet to encourage companies to donate at least that percentage of their earnings to environmental activities. What started as an initiative of a few like-minded outdoor companies has grown into a major organization with 5,500 business members covering around 65 different industries. More than half of its members are now based outside the US, up from 20% in 2015. In the two decades since its inception, it has overseen $435 million in support for approved environmental projects.

CEO Kate Williams explained in an interview that an important part of the organization’s activities is certification. Programs are not funded directly. Instead, it encourages companies to establish links with suitable recipients of the funds and ensures that the companies really meet the 1% commitment and verifies that the projects do what they promise. This is intended to counteract the “green washing” where companies claim to do more than they actually do.

But Williams also believes the policy of encouraging companies to donate the funds to the countries where they operate encourages greater engagement with environmental groups by allowing employees to get involved. She hopes the organization’s success – with more service companies, manufacturers and retailers proudly displaying the 1% logo on their websites – will inspire more philanthropy in the sector. She points out that although research shows a real need, there is comparatively little philanthropic giving to environmental causes.

As with so many issues these days, economics seems to be ahead of politics when it comes to climate change. It is said that one of the problems with politics today is that the parties put choice before principle. This may explain some policies, but when it comes to the environment, the public seems more concerned than politicians realise. Hence the excitement when the hapless Liz Truss announced a relaxation of the shale gas fracking ban, another policy reversed by her successor. But companies — even those heavily involved with fossil fuels — know how their customers think. Not all of their claims about their activities stand up to scrutiny, but the reason they make them is because they know the public expects it of them. That’s more than can be said of many politicians.

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