The longest journey begins with a single step. Some companies are taking it.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the looming climate catastrophe: governments that don’t act, voters who don’t hold them accountable, and consumers who make choices every day that imperil the future of humanity.
Undoubtedly, however, a lot of the blame falls on the shoulders of the world’s corporations. They have recklessly exploited resources, withheld evidence of a looming climate catastrophe, fueled consumerism instead of making more environment-friendly products, and spent billions on lobbying against new environmental laws and regulations.
However, some businesses, many of them small, are trying to do their part to contain or reverse the damage that has already been done.
Take, for example, a small German company that is acting to discourage its employees from flying to reduce their carbon footprint. As an incentive, Berlin-based WeiberWirtschaft eG is offering its staff additional days off if they don’t use planes to reach their vacation destinations.
“Everyone knows that air travel is a climate killer. But alternatives often cost a lot more time, and [free] time is becoming increasingly important,” Najda Ivazovic, a member of the company’s management board, told WhoWhatWhy. “At least we want to disprove this argument [by] rewarding climate-friendly behavior. For example, if you travel by train, you definitely need more time to get to your destination. This should not be an obstacle for our employees.”
That is why WeiberWirtschaft is granting its employees up to three extra vacation days if they avoid flying. To the company, this is not just about saving some jet fuel; it’s also about sending a message to others.
“Our employees are environmentally conscious, hence our new policy is an additional incentive for them,” Ivazovic said. “We want to lead with a good example and inspire companies to think and work in an environmentally friendly way; each business has an impact on the environment and can make its own contribution.”
WeiberWirtschaft is not the only company that wants to discourage people from flying. Curiously, KLM is another, which is remarkable because KLM is an airline. This year, the Dutch national carrier published an open letter that encouraged its customers to “fly responsibly,” for example, by exploring whether it might make more sense to use trains for some trips or if others are even necessary in the first place.
While some companies aim to mitigate climate change through policy, others center their entire business model around it.
One of them is Solar Sister, which helps women in Africa create sustainable clean energy businesses. More than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to energy, said Katherine Lucey, Solar Sister CEO and co-founder. This “energy poverty” keeps them stuck in a cycle of poverty, she added, which means that providing people with energy is the first step in creating a path toward prosperity.
“But it must be done in a way that benefits both people and planet,” Lucey told WhoWhatWhy. “Economic opportunity cannot come at the price of environmental degradation.”
Lucey believes that businesses play an important role in this process.
“Business can be a powerful force for good. It’s not just a moral imperative to choose to be environmentally sustainable; it is critical for long-term success,” she said. “Businesses don’t operate in a vacuum. They need healthy supply chains, customers and communities. Operating without a sustainability plan is short-term thinking.”
It is encouraging that a variety of businesses, from small and medium-sized enterprises to multinational corporations, are making an effort to create change, often through innovation.
In fashion, Nike and Kering have developed strategies to inform designers of the resources required to produce each type of fabric so they can create sustainably manufactured lines. Patagonia is running ads with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket” — to get people to reduce consumption — and Sweden is building shopping malls where all products are upcycled (i.e., made from waste materials) or repaired.
In food, inventive companies like Beyond Meat have created meat alternatives, producing a tasty plant-protein burger that requires significantly less water, land use, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger. Meatless products are now being sold by many prominent brands, and through international restaurant chains, like TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, and Burger King. Also riding the vegan wave is Blue Evolution, whose seaweed products absorb carbon and de-acidify the ocean as they grow.
Some countries are also doing their part. The planet is greener than it was 20 years ago, thanks to massive tree-planting initiatives in China and India, and Ethiopia in years to come. Other large-scale efforts include creating longer bike paths in the UK and the CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project) campaign for cleaner air, with over 7,000 companies/cities in 750 locations voluntarily signed up to disclose their environmental activities and encourage eco-transparency.
Finally, young people, who have the biggest stake in the environment, have become a driving force to combat global warming.
They hope to take a stand to “bring light to government inaction on the climate crisis and utilize protests and forms of political dissent, as well as education, to force the government to take concrete action to combat [climate change threats],” as 17-year-old Evan Meneses, who is active in School Strike for Climate Australia, told WhoWhatWhy.
The immense problems created by our changing climate are matched by equal opportunities for action, change and innovation.
“We think that every step counts — no matter how big or small it is. It’s important to create an awareness for sustainability,” Ivazovic said. “Corporations can implement sustainability in their culture and take a leading role in environmental awareness.”
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Andrew / Flickr.