Profit and the planet



With #ClimateStrike on September 20 stretching across the globe and thousands here in South Africa taking part, public opinion on the future of the planet has never been more evident. The rhetoric of recycling, eating less meat, taking public transport and each of us doing our small part simply isn’t able to combat the looming apocalyptic threat, either in our minds or in reality. The clear lesson to be learned from last week’s strike is that society has realised the need for much larger-scale action to be taken.

Given the trend towards socially-driven enterprises and corporate efforts, consumers are expecting corporations to act in accordance with their values. Climate change, as evidenced by the success of the #climatestrike tag and #trashtag, is among the public’s most pressing concerns.

What this boils down to from a business perspective is simple. Corporate action against climate change is no longer a purely symbolic marketing opportunity but instead a core ideal that must be integrated into business models. Consumers are more aware of marketing and advertising strategies than ever before and are especially savvy to efforts that attempt to benefit from social good, such as “greenwashing”.

One needs to look no further than that ill-fated Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner, from which Pepsi’s stock and image are both still recovering, to understand the damage that can be done when activism is clumsily commodified. Looking overseas to Denmark, LEGO has recently set an excellent example by swapping over to a bio-based material as opposed to traditional plastic for their famous, brightly-coloured blocks.

Small supply chain changes like this can have a massive impact when implemented on a corporate scale. When action like this is taken throughout an entire economic sphere, an even more profound and pronounced difference will be made. This ecologically defensive economic position ultimately pays dividends for enterprises who adopt it, as consumers are more likely to opt for a product that is “green” or comes from a brand they connote with the fight against climate change — if their actions are indeed earnest.

“South African companies need to urgently assess their GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions and set very ambitious reduction targets, aligned to national targets and ensuring global warming doesn’t exceed 1.5°C,” says Dr Achieng Ojwang, executive director of the South African network of the UN Global Compact, a voluntary worldwide initiative encouraging businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

The South African network has 67 local companies listed as participants, including Woolworths, Discovery, Old Mutual, and Pick n Pay. Much more comprehensive participation must occur at every economic level if we’re to succeed in averting the crisis, but this promising start demonstrates that corporations can be convinced of the need for them to act decisively.

Employees everywhere should urge their companies to sign the Global Compact and business owners, from the level of budding entrepreneurs through to owners of SMMEs and chief executives of conglomerates must take it upon themselves to think of better ways to do business. These include auditing your company’s carbon footprint and developing a climate action plan in order to pivot towards more earth-friendly practices, no matter how pedantic one might need to be to see them through or how impractical they may at first seem to those who are set in their ways.

Government policy is undoubtedly the most effective manner through which to ensure these changes are made. However, legislation is not a lever lightly turned. Businesses must take this moment to make the first step towards a better future, setting an example and showing to others that real change can be made. All it takes is your co-operation and help.

James Nash is a freelance writer and photographer born in Cape Town and raised in New York. He’s covered topics from film and literature to the changing face of tech 

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James Nash
James Nash is a freelance writer and photographer born in Cape Town and raised in New York. He’s written on literature, tech, fashion, music and more for The Way of Us, GQ, Glamour and The Mail & Guardian.

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