• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Real corporate social responsibility

A concept that's been almost synonymous with "greenwashing" might be starting to become meaningful.

February 6, 2014

I get a lot of electronic newsletters.  Addressing problems of unsustainable practice will require a mix of knowledge, skills and techniques not addressed by any single academic discipline, any single market sector, any single political group.  So I try to keep up with a wide range of topics from an even wider range of perspectives, although I often find myself ignoring potentially useful information for the simple reason that I don't have time to read it.

One class of newsletter (and it's a large class) that I tend to skip more often than not focuses on Corporate Social Responsibility, including (but not limited to) corporate efforts to be seen damaging the environment less than the competition does.  Most of the items in these letters are eminently miss-able, in that most of them are either product promotional announcements or spiels from commercial consultants trying to pad their resumes, their portfolios, their credibility.  Many of the latter, for reasons that elude me, exhibit an incompetence which I'd fault in a middle-school student.  In many cases, a potential client who actually read one of these pieces would run, not walk, away from the author.  Cramming as many semi-current buzzwords as possible into a minimum number of column-inches without regard to whether or not the sentences were cogent (much less meaningful or constructive) shouldn't, in a rational universe, be a successful way to build a consulting business.  (On the other hand, advertising cholesterol-free peanut butter or gluten-free seafood shouldn't be a successful way to sell food products, and I've seen both done repeatedly.  Sigh.)

So I'm pretty tired of ostensible sustainability consultants who speak of eliminating wasted time as if that had environmental benefits, or of the social desirability of selling services rather than goods (but then cite energy service company performance contracts -- which are actually implemented by delivering physical goods -- as an example).  It's a tough job market out there. If you can find words to imply that some resource-consumptive behavior somehow exemplifies Corporate Social Responsibility, maybe somebody will give you money for that.

But then . . .

But then . . . 

But then along comes an effort like the Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business.  Undertaken by a range of corporate, public-interest and educational groups, it's a valid attempt to create a set of goals, objectives and (most important) Key Performance Indicators that can indicate whether a business or organization is operating in a way that's sustainable for itself, society and the environment.  Based on a set of eight sustainability principles long promulgated by The Natural Step, and reflecting both scientific knowledge (where available) and the precautionary principle (where science doesn't have answers yet), the newly-released working draft of the Benchmark embodies responsibility to society in a profound manner.  One example:

The poster-child issue for sustainability, at least in developed countries, is climate change.  The benchmark, based on the best science available, ascribes about two-thirds of anthropogenic climate change since 1750 to fossil fuel combustion.  And it doesn't pretend that society can simply stop burning fossil fuels, it merely attempts to specify how the amount of fossil carbon an organization can sustainably emit can be calculated.  Outfits that emit less than that benchmark amount are, at least in this dimension, operating sustainably.  The interesting thing about the way that benchmark is set is that it inherently presumes that the right to emit carbon accrues not to organizations or corporate entities, but to individuals.  And it assumes that all individuals on the planet accrue that right to the same degree -- folks in the global South don't have less right to emit greenhouse gases than those of us in the developed North.  Whatever the "safe" total emission level is (and that number will change over time), divide it by the total human population of the earth (also changing), and that's an individual's rightful carbon emission allowance.  Corporations and other organizations can emit carbon sustainably to the extent that they gain that right from individuals they employ, and the amount of time they employ them.  For each full-time (40 hour) employee working year-round, the employing organization accrues roughly one-quarter (40/168) of the individual carbon allowance.

As I said, the benchmark's still in draft form, and some parts are draftier than others.  For example, in at least a couple of places, inequalities are reversed (greater than when it should be less than).  These things happen.  But the effort to create a meaningful, calculable standard is a good example of what can happen when a wide range of interested parties -- universities included -- work together for mutual benefit.  And it's not just on a macro level that good work is being done -- the very algorithms being evolved seem based on a profound understanding of what corporate responsibility to society really means.



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