This post was originally published by Shelby Bell in June 2020 and has been updated.
With each new sunrise, the prospect of work brings another day, another dollar. And for many, the honest work we do day in and day out may be rooted in tradition—operating with practices as old as the organization itself.
But everything that works for us, be it ho-hum or windfall, has come into question now that the Earth has stopped acting like it’s business as usual. Debated for its existence, severity, and real impacts, climate change has been thrust into the spotlight once again with a new message for businesses: innovate... or else.
As the thermostat rises, clock ticks, and whatever other metaphors are used in sensational headlines about a societal SOS, many business owners are lining up to ask “what can I do about climate change?”
The answer is not as easy as flicking a switch. In fact, it might be like rewiring the entire breaker box. But, as you’ll see, the decisions we must make are no longer a line in the sand. In today’s heated world, the most sustainable choices will become the most profitable.
Note: if you already know about climate change, you can jump right to our 5 sustainable steps to fight it!
What is Climate Change?
Formerly referred to as “global warming,” climate change has become the accepted term for describing a deviation from the Earth’s average condition. Specifically, today’s perspective of climate change involves a spike in the historic trend of the climate. Global land and sea temperatures are increasing exponentially, sea levels are rising at alarming rates, and extreme weather events are becoming more common.
Confirmed by scientific consensus, the period of rapid change humanity is experiencing is, unfortunately, self-inflicted. Activities of human beings, such as the burning of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal), unsustainable harvesting of natural resources, and mismanagement of waste, have caused a climate crisis through the effect of greenhouse gases.
When we drive cars with combustion engines, heat our homes, cut down trees, bury our trash, and go about our “normal” lives, we emit carbon dioxide and methane that gets trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. Sunlight penetrates these gases, but most of the resulting heat becomes trapped, unable to leave the our atmospheric enclosure—acting very much like a greenhouse.
With ever-increasing levels of emissions year over year, the gamut of effects have followed suit.
Temperature. A 2020 climate report from NOAA suggested the combined land and ocean temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.13℉ (0.08℃) per decade since 1880. Forebodingly, since 1981, the average rate of increase has more than doubled to 0.32℉ (0.18℃).
10 of the warmest years ever recorded have been post 2005, and seven of those have occurred since 2014. Without a doubt, 2021 will surely enter the top 10 as well. Globally, July 2021 was the hottest month in documented history. Over the course of the summer, California, Sicily, and Siberia (which is north of the Arctic Circle) all set single-day heat records over 118℉. Greenland, meanwhile, hit nearly 75℉ and the highest point of its northern ice sheet experienced rain for the first time.
Sea level. The global average for sea level has risen between eight and nine inches since 1880, a third of which is attributed to just the last two and a half decades. Caused by a combination of meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets and thermal expansion of seawater, the acceleration of sea level rise threatens all nations with a coastline. For the U.S. in particular, NOAA reports that high-tide flooding is now 300% to more than 900% more frequent than it was 50 years ago.
Severe weather. Driven by climate change, severe or extreme weather has become more prevalent, damaging, and devastating. Longer (and hotter) droughts, larger wildfires, more powerful hurricanes and tornadoes, and even torrential rainfall are all influenced directly by a hotter climate.
The frequency and intensity of such—evidenced by recent tragic precipitation events in China, Belgium/Germany, and Tennessee as well as historic wildfires in the American West, Turkey, and Greece—signal more of what’s to come.
Why is Climate Change Action So Urgent?
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has catapulted the hot-button topic of climate change into the public sphere yet again. The UN-mandated committee is dedicated to regularly delivering objective scientific information relevant to understanding human-induced climate change to the world’s policymakers.
What’s different from the group’s past five reports? Perhaps the framing. IPCC’s 3,000-plus-page, 234-author report released in August 2021 has been called “grim,” “bleak,” and “a catastrophe”—a “code red for humanity” that necessitates immediate action.
For context, let’s rewind to 2015, when nearly 200 nations throughout the world adopted The Paris Agreement, which set a global framework to avoid global temperature rise below 2°C while pursuing efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. That threshold, determined at the time to be the “point of no return” for the Earth’s climate, is possibly what makes the current IPCC report so damning.
While many countries agreed to fully adopt solutions over the next couple decades, the authors now suggest that the planet’s temperatures will rise, regardless of additional fossil fuel consumption, by 2040. That means the solutions humanity has been working toward for tomorrow should have been in full swing yesterday.
Many factors have contributed to a delayed reaction to such an existential crisis—politics, economics, and stake of responsibility included—but the best news is that taking action on climate change is less of a debate than ever before. A 15-year study examining 4,856 newspaper articles across five countries recently concluded that 90% of media have the facts straight.
And one fact in particular is gaining traction among CEOs and boards across the planet: what’s good for the world is good for business, and vice versa.
The Business Impact of Climate Change
Along with the environmental consequences, climate and environmental disruptions (like extreme weather, droughts, and resource scarcity) were ranked as the highest potential risks to business by the World Economic Forum. Determining factors are their ability to reduce the availability of raw materials, disrupt supply chains, wither demands for goods and services, and change resource availability and costs.
How much into the red could this put the economy? The New York Times references a report conducted by the CDP, which asked firms to calculate how climate change might affect their business financially. After analyzing submissions for 215 of the world's 500 biggest corporations, the CDP found that companies potentially face $1 trillion in costs related to climate change beginning in the next five years.
It’s not just the Fortune 500 and Wall Street that would see substantial losses, because when the environment loses, the whole world loses. According to a report by insurance giant Swiss Re, the world’s global domestic product (GDP) could drop up to 18%, or $23 trillion, by 2050 if no action is taken. And while experts agree the poorest nations would be most adversely affected by climate change, even the major economies would suffer irreparable harm. The U.S. GDP could dip as much as 10.5% by 2100, while a joint release by Stanford and UC Berkeley predicts average American income will shrink 36% over the same period.
However, if you think this is just an issue for companies that rely on oil, natural gas, or other natural resources, you’d be ignorant to the issue. Any business that uses petroleum-based plastics (over 99% of plastic is produced using fossil fuels) along its supply chain or generates methane-emitting food waste has a part to play.
While the world’s largest organizations are making commitments through coalitions like We Mean Business, it won’t be enough. No matter the company size, influence, or availability of resources, every business can and should make a collective impact.
Thus, we’re providing some guidance for your business to get involved in saving the world. There’s no time to waste.
Steps Businesses Can Take to Fight Climate Change
REIMAGINE YOUR WASTE HABITS
The ways by which we manage our waste have major effects on climate change. In 2018, Americans produced 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash), and 49.97% of it was sent to landfill.
Three key hidden facts tell the full story on why this is such a problem: 1.) 24% of it was food. 2.) Our national recycling rate was 32.1% despite an estimated 75% of the stream being recyclable. 3.) Landfills are the third-largest source (15.1%) of methane emissions in the U.S generated by human activity.
Recycling and responsible waste management can drastically help. The EPA estimates that increasing our national recycling rate from 30 percent to 35 percent could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 10 million metric tons of carbon equivalent.
Keeping food waste out of landfills would create marked change (in the right direction) as well. Organic material, tightly compacted in a landfill, emits methane, a greenhouse gas said to hold 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Finding an avenue for composting such materials significantly reduces emissions.
Furthermore, an effective recycling plan eliminates the need for raw materials, minimizes the release of greenhouse gases, and saves energy. In fact, recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees from being cut down, representing a 64% reduction in energy consumption, a 58% reduction in water usage, and a 60-pound reduction of air pollution. The resulting tree preservation leads to the protection of water catchment areas and promotes the capture of carbon dioxide, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions further. On the economic side, recycling leads to decreased waste costs, saving businesses money in the long run!
INCREASE AWARENESS AMONG EMPLOYEES AND CUSTOMERS
The activities of an average American create 19 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year, enough volume to fill the inside of three Statues of Liberty. So, that means if your company has a headcount of 25, your emissions—from employees alone—fills a Statue of Liberty per week.
If you want to reduce it, the best encouragement for your workforce is educating them about the impact their actions have on the environment. Creating a “green” team is a great place to start. This group of passionate employees will help identify opportunities to improve environmental initiatives, as well as spread the message across the organization. When it comes to programming, the 5 Rs is a rewarding first lesson.
MINIMIZE BUSINESS TRAVEL
Business travel is one of the top human-related emission generators for businesses. In 2019, overall transportation accounted for 29% of total greenhouse gases emitted into the environment. The year prior, commercial air travel alone produced 918 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, a 32% increase over the previous five years. The New York Times suggests that for many people, flying is their greatest “environmental sin,” noting that, “if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create.”
Organizations who understand the negative environmental impacts that business travel creates are already working on solutions. Normalized by the COVID-19 pandemic, video conferencing technology has made it easier than ever to connect customers and coworkers across the globe. Though, if travel is required and it’s a regional destination, traveling by train or bus is up to 90% more carbon-efficient than traveling by air.
CHOOSE SUSTAINABLE SUPPLIERS
As companies take on carbon reduction strategies internally, it’s essential to focus on external factors as well. Making smarter purchasing decisions and working with sustainable suppliers ensures sustainability remains a priority throughout the entire supply chain.
Now more than ever, suppliers are offering more sustainable products and services, as well as valuable post-consumer base materials. By choosing to work with environmentally conscious suppliers, businesses can contribute to protecting the environment while also saving money by using products that use less energy, produce less waste, last longer, or promote a closed-loop process. And there should be less concern for meeting margins when, according to a Nielsen study, 55% of global online consumers would pay more for products and services provided by companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact.
CUT ENERGY CONSUMPTION
According to Science Daily, energy consumption is responsible for over one-third of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. In fact, the average office building spends over $30,000 per year on energy. Needless to say, focusing on energy reduction can result in big wins for businesses, both in terms of sustainability and cost savings.
Many business owners start by updating their energy systems to LED lighting, optimizing heating and cooling systems, and installing products rated for efficiency. The EPA estimates that businesses could save over 1.5 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions if every office product purchased in the U.S. were ENERGY STAR-certified.
Tying a sustainable supply chain to efficient production, decreasing dependence on natural resources and investing into recycled materials can make a stark difference. Using recycled glass requires 30% less energy than producing it with virgin materials, and creating new aluminum products from recycled aluminum saves more than 90%—and even as high as 95%—of the energy it would take to produce new metal. Talk about capturing lightning in a bottle (or can).
While there’s no definitive playbook for businesses tackling climate change, guidance is there for those seeking it. For a sustainable strategy session for your business’s waste and recycling, shoot us an email.