Houston, we have a problem

Is this worse than greenhouse gases?

There are a lot of dirty businesses out there, and when they can get away with it, engage in some pretty appalling behaviour. Things like getting their products made in sweat shops that use what can only be described as slave labour, using hardwood from clear-felled tropical rainforests or destroying the natural environment to mine for resources. These practices are morally wrong and they’re unsustainable, but because businesses can get away with that kind of behaviour; they will do so in the interests of short-term profit.

But things are changing, and the growing numbers of sustainable businesses are doing things very differently. Can you imagine a sustainably run businesses dumping waste in a river? Or using production methods that left toxins in the environment? Even if they could get away with it and even if everyone else was doing it, no genuinely sustainable business would operate that way.

But what about greenhouse gases?

I recently surveyed `80 New Zealand businesses that described themselves as being sustainable to find out what they were doing about their carbon footprint, and the results were not what I expected.

When asked whether climate change was caused by human activities, 93% agreed that it was, with 71% believing that it was urgent and 84% important for New Zealand businesses to address their carbon footprints. These figures made it clear that the people who run sustainable businesses are in no doubt about the urgency and importance of the business community dealing with their carbon output, so logically they’ve either dealt with their greenhouse gas output, or are actively working on it.

This was reflected by 21% being happy with their current carbon footprint with 54% being reasonably happy, although recognising that there was still room for improvement. So far so good; it would appear that sustainable business owners know what needs to be done and are generally happy with how well they’re doing. Unfortunately, when I started to dig deeper, things got a little less positive.

What gets measured gets managed, so it would be realistic to assume that when managing a business’s carbon footprint is so overwhelmingly recognised as being both urgent and of major importance, it would be measured and managed. Yet only 32% of the respondents had both accurate data about their carbon output and a strategy to manage it, with another 14% having a strategy but had only limited data. Of the remaining 54%, 29% generally tried to minimise their carbon output, but had no strategy or data to measure their success with and 18% liked the idea, but saw no reason for them to do anything.

Less than one third of sustainable businesses take their carbon footprint seriously enough to do something about it, with the remainder doing little more than hoping for the best. Are sustainable businesses in NZ as laissez faire about other forms of pollution? Can a business that is not sufficiently concerned about their contribution to climate change to even measure their pollution be described as sustainable?

As long as the majority of sustainable businesses don’t take full responsibility for their role in climate change we simply cannot expect other businesses or consumers to do anything either.

Quick figures:

71% Sustainable business people that think it’s urgent that NZ businesses address their carbon footprints.
84% Sustainable business people that think it’s very important for businesses to address their carbon footprint
75% Sustainable business people that are happy with their company’s carbon footprint
32% Sustainable business  people that accurately measure and manage their carbon footprint
43% Sustainable business people that try to manage their carbon footprint without data.

If you want the original data and questionnaire, please contact me and I’ll  send it to you.


3 thoughts on “Houston, we have a problem

  1. I do like to believe that if there were solutions provided most of these businesses would be more careful with their carbon footprint, but regardless, this just reflects how cheap talk is.

  2. Much as expected – lip service to the environment is all very well, and for some it becomes the company ethos and is incorporated into decision making. For the rest, you need taxes and markets in pollution managements.

    When our government signals by its actions that it regards Greenhouse Gas as unimportant, it is hardly surprising that the business sector acts in the way you describe.

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