Experts from right around the world are warning us of the dangers that climate change poses to our way of life and even our existence in the years and decades to come. A global rise of more than just 1.5 degrees Celsius could be enough to create a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Recent reports have predicted that by 2070, much of the currently habitable land could regularly see temperatures as hot as the Sahara Desert.
Every single person on the planet has a responsibility and obligation to make changes to limit their environmental impact and contribute to the reduction in humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. These can be simple changes that don’t make much difference to our lives but can have a huge effect on the environment, such as cutting down on how much meat we eat, recycling more, turning off electronic devices when they’re not needed, and walking or using public transport instead of driving.
But it’s not just people that should be making changes, companies also have a big responsibility to play their part. Here are the ways that “corporate citizens” can improve their environmental impact.
Cut Down on Waste
Waste is created by every business. This could be directly from its manufacturing operations in the form of offcuts, byproducts, or rejects that don’t meet quality assurance standards. It could also be indirect, with packaging materials that get discarded by customers being a big problem.
Businesses can reuse waste from manufacturing, either by using the materials again or by altering manufacturing processes to reduce the amount that gets generated in the first place. Careful design of products and packaging can also cut down on the amount needed. For example, the cosmetics company Lush uses popcorn instead of packing peanuts while smartphone manufacturers are removing charging plugs from their boxes as most customers already have one, allowing them to ship their devices in smaller boxes.
These aren’t the only areas where businesses generate waste though. Offices and canteens can be big sources of paper and plastic waste, with disposable food and drink containers a big problem. Many companies are beginning to remove these from their facilities, encouraging staff to bring their own reusable products. For example, PokerStars prevented 26,000 plastic bottles from going to waste in its Isle of Man office by switching to eco-friendly alternatives.
Travel is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions. Most ways that we get around require us to burn fossil fuels, usually either petrol or diesel. In the European Union, 71.7% of all transport emissions come from road transport, with aviation and marine transport taking second and third place with 13.9% and 13.4% respectively.
In contrast, rail accounted for less than 1%.
Of road transport, 44.3% was made up of cars and almost all of the rest made up of commercial vehicles.
Businesses are a big contributor to the amount of travel, moving goods and people. Little can be done about the movement of goods, this is necessary for trade. However, a lot can be done to reduce the need for people to travel for work purposes.
Remote working allows people to stay at home and avoid the morning commute to the office. Even if employees switch to spending a couple of days at home and a couple of days commuting, they’ll take a big chunk out of their vehicle emissions and save money in the process.
Once at work, many employees are required to travel to face-to-face meetings with clients, even when these aren’t necessary. By adopting digital meetings through software like Microsoft Teams and Zoom, this unnecessary travel can also be cut out. It also has the added benefit of making people more productive since time isn’t lost while on the road.
In 2013, a Chinese travel firm experimented with remote working over a nine-month period. It found that the 16,000 employees that volunteered to work from home were 13% more productive than their office-based colleagues. Another study conducted in the US saw productivity increase by 35%.
Therefore, it’s a win-win for businesses, which can save the environment, cut down on the cost of office space, and improve performance all at the same time.
One company that has recently switched to this approach is BP. In early March 2021, it told its 25,000 office-based employees that they will be moving to a flexible working pattern which will involve spending two days a week working from home.
Create Products That Are Sustainable
The products that companies sell have an environmental impact beyond the manufacturing process. For example, clothing that is made from synthetic fibers like polyester can shed microplastics when it is washed. These tiny particles then end up in our oceans and can have an impact on marine biology. This even applies to garments made from recycled plastic and other recycled materials.
Lack of understanding of this problem in the past has resulted in materials like lead and asbestos being used in products and buildings. The effect of decisions to use them in products made decades and centuries ago will continue to pose environmental problems for many years to come.
There are now laws in place that force companies to make such considerations, particularly relating to electronics. In Europe, manufacturers are required to take responsibility for recycling and disposing of old products under the WEEE regulations. This helps to prevent chemicals used in these products from leaching into soil and, eventually, the water table.
Manufacturers can also make their products last longer, reducing the frequency that they’re thrown away and helping to cut down on the number of new products that need to be made. This is difficult for some businesses though as it means they’ll have fewer customers that need to buy from them.
However, by building a reputation for quality, they can justify a higher price tag for their wares that could offset the lower sales volumes.
For example, the website Buy Me Once sells cast iron woks manufactured by Skeppshult. They cost £129, making them four to six times more expensive than most works on the market. However, it comes with a 25-year guarantee. Therefore, if it only lasts the length of the warranty, it will have cost £5.16 per year, which works out less than a £20 alternative that only lasts three years.
Protecting the environment is an obligation that all businesses have. However, that doesn’t mean they should look at it as something they “have” to do. As you can see in the examples above, it’s possible for companies to align their commercial interests with protecting the environment, creating a win-win scenario.