While scanning my morning news, I came upon this article: “The CVS Effect in Action: Avon, Honeymaid, Mozilla, Chili's Respond." As most know, CVS announced it would stop selling cigarettes and tobacco products at more than 7,000 stores by October 1. According to the article, companies like CVS that take a bold stance on an issue impacting human health, the environment or other social cause are only doing so to attract more sales. The article goes on to mention several examples of companies taking a stance ‘against’ a cause because its customers asked them to. Are companies really that motivated by profit that their conscious speaks so quietly? In my experience the answer is no.
Sure there are companies that go about their business without contemplating how their investments impact others, and campaign after campaign call the ‘big’ guys to stop deforesting for palm oil or to improve child labor in food production. There is some 'bad' stuff out there and the campaigns do work. But isn’t much of the ‘bad’ stuff about naivety? When provided the right education, and staffed with the right resources, can’t companies do good? More and more companies are hiring former non-profit staff to lead the development of CSR programs or foundation work. Increasingly companies recognize that having a staff of well-intentioned, globally connected professionals will help improve the efficacy of corporate philanthropy dollars and also aid in the development of a business case for social involvement.
Customers are simply asking for better products. Walmart’s announcement to sell organic products at lower costs is more proof that mainstream buying is now deeply tied to what’s good for us, our families and the planet. Companies are getting this.
I had a recent conversation with a mid-size food company. We were chatting about CSR goals and the company’s competitors' sustainability investments. We tried to find an example of a competitor not engaged in some form of sustainable work, whether on farm, throughout the value chain or at point of sale and it was nearly impossible. Certainly the larger food companies are investing in sustainability in the millions, but that even the smaller organizations recognize the critical nature of sustainable investment is a huge deal.
The pressure is on for companies to listen to their customers that want to associate with products that are made well, are healthy and don't cause our planet distress. This also means there is good opportunity for companies to profit while aligning with a cause. Customers will pay for this and resources prove it. The most reputable companies are spending an average of $100 million on CSR. According to a 2013 study on reputational risk, 68% of consumers trusted companies to make as much societal change as their governments.
While I get Ms. Sommer’s point that the customer prevails in right or wrong, I see the customer and company heading us more towards the right side of the equation and the push to make societal wrongs go right coming from both customer and company.
This week's release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on climate impacts has climate scientists, policy officials and NGOs frantic over the impending doom of our planet due to climate change. Dire news about increased flooding, droughts, agricultural instability, food insecurity, water shortages and more unstable weather patterns splatter across headlines that read "the worst is yet to come!" As someone who has been working on climate change issues for many years now, I am frankly relieved that the climate challenge is finally getting some attention. I am also quite dubious, however, that even the dire statistics laid out by the IPCC will make the kind of waves that are necessary if we are to truly reach our goal of capping temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.
Take for example this headline from last year about the Pacific Island of Kiribati: "This entire country is about to be wiped out by climate change. It won't be the last." Back in 2009/2010 there were rampant news stories about the rising waters around Kiribati due to melting glaciers in Antarctica and that tens of thousands of refugees were making their way to New Zealand for resettlement. Surely the concept of losing an entire country to climate change would pressure international climate negotiators to move quickly and agree to far-reaching action at the meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Aside from good progress on forest carbon and forest protection, carbon emissions goals have barely budged. Seeing any improvements in our climate is impossible unless we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) significantly and yesterday. So what are we waiting for?
The IPCC report also mentioned that "damage from climate change and the costs of adapting to it could cause the loss of several percentage points of gross domestic product in low-lying developing countries and island states." It added that "climate change could 'indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence' by “amplifying” poverty and economic shocks.' " Reactions from leading government officials have been positive, although there continues to be a science slant around the news rather than the critical view that climate change is an economic problem. UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey was quoted as saying: "The science has spoken. Left unchecked, climate change will have far reaching consequences for our society." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke up: "Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy....The costs of inaction are catastrophic." There have been reactions from every large NGO and action group. Certainly the climate community has spoken up. Yet is the news reverberating the way it should? Even the U.S. cable networks ignored the report. This is quite shocking given how Hurricane Sandy gripped peoples' attention for weeks. The U.S. Department of Energy admitted that climate change made Hurricane Sandy into one of the worst storms the United States has ever seen. Already the U.S. Government has spent more than $12 billion (billion!) to rebuild and remake the lives of those who lost everything. Surely the waffling on the part of New Jersey governor Chris Christie that climate change is 'real' doesn't help. I would be interested in his take on the IPCC report.
Where are the reactions from the countries most vulnerable? I have not seen one statement from a developing country drawing the urgent attention to the grim details. What I have seen, however, is twitter feed after twitter feed on the part of agricultural advocacy groups, poverty alleviation bodies and others pointing out the need to focus on climate change now for the future of our planet. We owe it to the world's poor to ensure the story of climate change is told right and is addressed as an economic challenge. We cannot just leave it up to the politicians to enact change. Movement has been glacial at best. Let's determine what adaptive measures we can take NOW to rebuild our food systems, our waterways, our nature preserves and ensure the future of biodiversity and the beautiful places that we love to visit is a critical priority. The time to act is now. So what are we waiting for?