Why big business is not the enemy of environmentalism

Written by Hippy in the City on 10th April 2017

Hippy in the City is a new column on Good With Money, by an anonymous financial services sector worker, based in the City of London. Here, the Hippy writes about what it’s like to be green, in a City that can sometimes seem pretty mean.


I’ve offered to write about my company’s journey towards sustainability for Good with Money. It’s anonymous, because I work in financial services. But it needn’t be really because this is a blog about optimism, highlighting the good things that are happening as we hiccup our way, uncertainly, to a cleaner and more sustainable future.

The problem with optimism is that it doesn’t chime that well with climate change activism. Behave as if you are winning, and you might forget the urgency of the impetus driving you in the first place.

The drumbeat of negative environmental news can be so dispiriting that it’s easy to forget that our individual choices, combined, make a huge impact. History is just a collection of actions by individuals who chose to get up from their proverbial sofa and move, whether they are acting as part of an insurance company or voluntarily coppicing the local woodland.

So this is my aim: to share what I’m learning and inspire others.

Businesses are simply communities of individuals

Of course, this aim and my very comfortable sofa may disappear in a flash of white before you can say ‘Trump’ and ‘tactical strike’. But let’s raise our hopes for humanity just a little.

Sustainability is not simply ‘recycling’ rebranded; nor it is a meaningless buzzword created by yoghurt-weaving ecologists living in the depths of the home counties. It’s actually a business strategy being adopted and promoted by major brands. Have a look at what the likes of L’Oréal, Unilever, Allianz and PWC are doing in this area.

One consultancy, oekom, just found that for the first time in its nine years of reporting on corporate responsibility, genuine progress is being made on sustainability, thanks to initiatives like the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Sustainability means different things to different people but to me, it’s about being environmentally (in the broadest sense) responsible and putting concern for people, planet and profit at the heart of a business’s strategy.

While the definition might vary, companies with a sustainability mindset show certain similar behaviours:

  1. They understand in detail all of the impact that their company has on their environment, be that water or energy use, Co2 emissions or paper usage.
  2. They go beyond regulatory compliance and use the active management and analysis of data to set targets to reduce their resource use.
  3. They publically report on their progress, even if they miss their targets.

Their enthusiasm for sustainability might not be as pure as the love of trees. Sometimes it is driven by the desire to save money, to reduce legal or regulatory risk or to mitigate the risk that political uncertainty or climate change might have on their supply chain.

Or, dare to believe, they might genuinely believe in doing the right thing. Whatever the motivation, the outcome is that their organisation tends to tread more gently on the environment and this in turn can be used to enhance their brand in the eyes of those that buy their products and services.

Sustainability as a strategy appeals to different parts of a business in different ways. Using less more efficiently is synonymous with saving money and that has obvious appeal to the finance director and, to a lesser degree, the investor relations department. The head of operations may see an improvement in the flow of company data, the analysis of which can shine a light on what changes need to take place in how the business operates (or what gaps in data need to be filled).

The legal and risk departments get further reassurance that the company remains on top of HSE and regulatory requirements and real estate gets management support and funding for their energy savings proposals.

It also delivers benefits to the HR department, marketing and new business teams. Concrete action in reducing carbon emissions, for example, is useful in positioning a firm as an attractive, responsible employer for graduates and talented staff and large companies and government bodies are looking for suppliers that share their values and demonstrate responsible behaviour.

Do these multiple benefits to the firm of genuinely acting sustainably undermine their efforts? I don’t think so.

Our sustainability programme aims to deliver the above and by doing the right thing, our firm mirrors what our clients want. This supports our efforts to grow our business. Our continued profitability in turn ensures that I can continue to fund my children’s addiction to Match Attax cards and chocolate spread. In the words of that creatively hirsute, mendacious White House sage: ‘We gonna win so much you may even get tired of winning’.

The cynic might say that sustainability is less about everyone winning and more about businesses using the environment as cover to further their own ends. This may be true in some instances. It’s worth remembering, though, that businesses are simply communities of individuals and I’ve been heartened by employee and executive enthusiasm for our plans to make our company a more responsible and sustainable employer. Most people, wherever they work, want to do the right thing and maybe feel less helpless against that drumbeat of negative climate change news.

While I secretly might like to see our project result in myriad recommendations including the banning of all plastics in the office and the immediate roll out of an electric taxi supplier, I know that some executives have more limited objectives in mind. My objective is to show how consideration for the environment can benefit different parts of a business. The more that I can show how sustainability helps them achieve their goals, the more progress I’ll make in advancing the environmental agenda.

When I do speak to a colleague who dismisses the importance of sustainability or the environmental movement as a whole, I tend to email them this excerpt, together with the United Nations report on Resource use and Decoupling (A topic for another time):

“Global economic and social development over the last two centuries has been largely achieved through intensive, inefficient and unsustainable use of the earth’s finite resources. Over the course of the 20th century global resource extraction and use increased by around a factor of 89. Global population grew around half as fast and GDP grew at a significantly higher rate (by a factor of 23).  Given  a world population that grows by 200,000 people each day and especially a rapidly growing global “middle class” associated  with  resource-intensive  consumption patterns,  the  demand  for  natural  resources  will continue  to  increase. According to the Global Footprint Network, if current economic and production trends persist, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us by 2030.

The global challenge today is to lift one billion people out of absolute poverty and to set the pathway for meeting the needs of nine billion people in 2050 while keeping climate change, biodiversity loss and health threats within acceptable limits  (“planetary boundaries”).  For  present  and  future  well-being, there  is  a  need  to  achieve  sustainable  resource management by decoupling natural resource use and environmental impacts from human well-being”.

This sort of stuff might make me the least popular person in the office, but there’s no popularity – or profit – on a dead planet.