“What gets measured gets managed”, is an often-quoted phrase in business. In other words, putting a certain activity under the microscope can help you to make it better. This old adage rings true today in the sustainability world.
Business is changing. Profit is no longer the only measure of success. While some firms are of course stuck in a business-as-usual cycle, there are major brands out there at the leading edge of social and environmental awareness.
Marks & Spencer, for example, with its Plan A initiative. Launched in 2007, the retailer initially set out 100 sustainability commitments that it said it would achieve in just five years, covering issues such as climate change, waste and its use of natural resources. This ambitious target has since been expanded to 180.
Then there’s BT, whose recently-unveiled Net Good framework aims to help its customers reduce their carbon footprint by “at least three times” its own emissions by 2020.
Other firms such as Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Unilever are also among those famed for their leadership in sustainability.
What links each of these five names, and countless others, is a sense of social and environmental sustainability. But these guys are not treehuggers; they’re doing what they’re doing because it makes financial sense. While reducing carbon emissions and cutting down usage of precious natural resources is a clear and valuable by-product of their actions, they’ve realised that being sustainable saves them money in the long-term.
Gone are the days when business doing good for the planet and its people (or more to the point, not doing bad) was seen as solely for the sandal-wearing folk among us. Some of the biggest brands on the planet are clearly switched on to this message. But there are issues attached.
It’s easy to pull up these sustainability leaders for various misdemeanours. And campaigners do an excellent job of bringing certain issues into the public eye.
Walmart’s recent annual general meeting, for instance, was targeted by protesters over poor wages and working conditions for employees in the US and overseas. Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble has been criticised for price fixing and animal testing in the past.
And greenwash does happen. You simply have to look at oil giant BP’s role as the official sustainability partner of the London Olympics in 2012 to see that. But what sets these brands apart from their competitors is their comparative willingness to clean up their act.
The same applies in the investment world. Ethical investment funds are often criticised for investing in potentially unethical or unsustainable companies. One of the perils of negative screening on areas like tobacco, armaments and pornography is that you can allow mining and fossil fuel firms into your portfolio. This causes the sector to receive quite a bit of flak.
When a number of employees at pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline were accused of large-scale bribery in China in July, Blue & Green Tomorrow went straight to the investment house Alliance Trust, which holds relatively large stakes in the firm, to see whether it would be considering pulling its investments. Analyst Mike Appleby responded with an impeccable justification, saying, in short, that it will carry on investing in the firm as long as it continues to prove it is committed to cleaning up its act.
Progress is what responsible and sustainable business is all about. Dedicated ethical brands such as Ecover and Traidcraft are truly excellent organisations – with sustainability embedded at the very heart of their business – but we need the big boys on board to see real change.
What tends to be the case in many large businesses – and this is going from anecdotal evidence only – is that the chief executives get the sustainability message; and so do the employees nearer to the bottom. But it’s the middle managers calling the shots on an everyday basis who fail to look at anything but the number at the very bottom of the table in the financial report.
Corporate social responsibility may have passed its sell-by date in modern day business, and Michael Solomon, director of Responsible 100, pondered this very question in an excellent two-part investigation for Blue & Green Tomorrow in April (part one and part two). What truly matters is good, responsible, ethical and sustainable business practices.
But for consumers and other businesses, quantifying which names are actually leading the sustainability push is sometimes tricky. The five brands mentioned at the beginning of this article are some of the leaders, but only because they are relatively vocal about their commitments to change.
This is where Amee comes in.
An acronym for the no-holds-barred Avoiding Mass Extinctions Engine, Amee (pronounced ‘Amy’ and stylised as ‘amee’) was set up in 2007 and provocatively states on its website that it has “the fundamental belief that intelligent businesses who adapt will thrive, those who don’t will become extinct”.
“We’re trying to make environmental insight as transparent as financial insight”, says CEO Tim Murphy at the company’s office on City Road, near Old Street in London.
“In 150 years of accounting standards, people are used to benchmarking financial results. We want to bring in environmental results.”
Amee has a database of 2.8m companies in the UK, which it uses to put together environmental risk profiles. These include a firm’s carbon emissions, its water usage, its energy usage and more. Through its website, amee.com, you can search for pretty much any major brand and find out its environmental score (out of 100) and its financial score (out of five).
Of course, as the Amee platform grows and becomes more popular, there could be a real reputational risk for the companies involved. Being found consistently towards the bottom of such a comprehensive environmental database would be tricky for even the best PR departments to justify. However, the Amee team say it goes much further than reputation.
“We’re making sure that the models that we use and the data that we collect blend together in order that we understand firstly what a company’s emissions are”, says executive vice-president Paul Charmatz.
“We’re inviting them to update those emissions to make them better. We’re looking at the information that is available publicly to put into the database, and then we have objective views on how much somebody’s emissions are, and more importantly, how they compare to similar companies.”
He adds, “It’s gone past reputation. We’re really bringing this data to the chief financial officer in a business. This can be real risk.”
In 2011, Amee was one of only eight UK companies to be named in the Global Cleantech 100 – a list that details the most promising companies in the clean technology sector. It has worked with the likes of Google, Morgan Stanley and the UK government, and by bringing tangible, measurable environmental data into the public domain, its platform can spread the sustainability message.
The firm recently announced a partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – its second contract with the government – in which it will be helping to improve public sector efficiency and seek out supply chain risks.
To go back to the quote at the beginning of this article – “what gets measured gets managed” – this is fundamental to sustainable and responsible business. We now have the means to see which firms truly mean what they say when it comes to sustainability, energy and the environment. And as consumers, investors and businesses, the responsibility is passed onto us to make more informed decisions about what we do.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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