Corporations can help address today’s environmental crisis

Figure 1 Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

Figure 1 Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

By Brandon Rosenbach 

"Campaigns against corporations have led them to take greater care that their goods are not produced under unacceptable working conditions for starvation wages. All of us, by the decisions we make about how we live and work and travel and consume help to shape an environment. To think and act morally, to do what is right because it is right, influence others; it begins to create a climate of opinion; good like evil, is infectious. We do not have to accept the unacceptable. The only thing that makes social or economic trends inevitable is the belief that they are. The unfolding drama of the 21st Century is one of which we are the co-writers of the script." - Rabbi Jonathon Sacks (The Dignity of Difference)

Society and industry rapidly transformed at the turn of the 20th century. Corporations rose to power, and wage earners outnumbered self-employed workers for the first time. Corporations began to dominate lives around the world, resulting in a reevaluation of the role of corporations in society.

The rise of corporate social responsibility

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie published The Gospel of Wealth laying out his principle that all personal wealth beyond that required to supply the needs of one's family should be regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the community. He was one of the first to declare that the rich have a moral obligation to give away their fortunes and did his best to do so, giving away an estimated $350 million by the time he died.

Sharing a rags to riches history like Carnegie, John Davison Rockefeller gave away $540 million (unadjusted for inflation) before his death in 1937 at the age of 97. Other captains of industry were similarly generous including Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell and John Pierpont Morgan. 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) took hold in the U.S. in the 1970s, when the concept of the “social contract” between business and society was declared by the Committee for Economic Development in 1971. The social contract is based on the idea that business functions because of public “consent,” therefore business has an obligation to constructively serve the needs of society. This is often referred to today as “license to operate” – that is to contribute more to society than solely their products for sale.

Figure 2 Hiker in Patagonia cap. Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

Figure 2 Hiker in Patagonia cap. Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

CSR and the environment

Those corporate philanthropic beginnings have spawned a diverse range of partnerships supporting some of the world’s largest environmental nonprofits today. Businesses have founded hundreds of foundations in the US alone, all focused on the environment.

Fortune 500 and other large businesses have added green initiatives into their future plans for growth and innovation. Patagonia aims to make its supply chain carbon-neutral by 2025, arguing that the supply chain is "where all the issues are." That's meant working with recycled cotton, polyester and down, among other materials, and trying to find more natural fibers to make clothing with, as well as pushing suppliers to adopt more sustainable practices.

Adidas invested almost 10 years of research into making recyclable shoes, and they just recently revealed they will be selling a running shoe that can be 100% recycled into a new pair of shoes - a “closed loop” manufacturing model, meaning the company can use previously made products to make an entirely new product. This will help the company keep its pledge to only use recycled plastic as of 2024.

In 2012, IKEA announced its goal to be powered by 100 per cent renewables by 2020 – but just four years later, it upped the ante aiming to be a net energy exporter in the same time. Lego runs on 100% renewable energy 3 years before their publicly announced deadline.

Seventh Generation not only uses sustainable practices, it’s also created space for green products in a particularly environmentally destructive industry – household cleaners. By 2025, 100 percent of materials and ingredients used by the company will be bio-based (made from plants or renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials, not fossil fuels) or recycled.

Drawbacks of CSR

The voluntary nature of CSR means that while some organizations have fundamentally transformed their sourcing, manufacturing and design to reduce their carbon footprint – others have deployed CSR mainly for the company’s own benefit. 

One such method, Greenwashing, helps companies look more environment-friendly than they really are - by spending more money, time and effort on marketing its products as ‘green’, rather than actually minimizing its adverse impact on the environment. For example, the Kauai Coffee recently stated that their single serving coffee product is 100% compostable, taking the guilt out of a single serve. In reality, if a consumer wanted to decompose the product, he or she would have to bring it to an industrial facility, not a basic compost pile. 

Starbucks claims to be climate-change aware and released goals to make 25% of its cups reusable by 2015 while eliminating the use of antibiotic treated meats. However, the company has fallen short of all its goals. In 2015, Starbucks’ percentage of reusable cups was only 1.9%, and the company earned a D+ in a report on antibiotics in their meats, lagging behind both McDonalds and Taco Bell. It’s up to consumers to hold companies to their promises. 

The next evolution of CSR: Extended Producer Responsibility

Figure 3  Plastic Bottles

Today 100 companies have been responsible for more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. So maybe a bit more support is needed to encourage more companies to take leadership in addressing the environmental impacts of their businesses.

When Thomas Lindquist first introduced the concept in Sweden in 1990, he proposed that product manufacturers and distributors should be responsible for the life of their products and packaging after the consumer is through with them. The idea of Extended Producer Responsibility has since gained some traction. 

Motivations for extended producer responsibility practices include a mixture of economic, environmental, and social factors. Extended producer responsibility shifts the economic burden of the cost of disposal from the government to the producer of the product. Within an environmental context, products must be designed for recyclability, and extended producer responsibility encourages design for recycling while discouraging the use of toxic components in the product. Finally, extended producer responsibility meets increasing consumer demand for environmentally friendly products that can easily be recycled or are manufactured using recycled content.

Extended producer responsibility legislation encourages remanufacturing initiatives because it "focuses on the end-of-use treatment of consumer products and has the primary aim to increase the amount and degree of product recovery and to minimize the environmental impact of waste materials".

The policy first appeared in the early 1990s in a few European Member States, especially for packaging waste, and has later on expanded across the EU and beyond . Since then, EPR has contributed to significant increases in recycling rates and public spending savings on waste management, and helped decouple waste management from economic growth. In April 2018, the European Parliament approved a plan to increase recycling and reduce landfills, strengthening provisions for extended producer responsibility.

Figure 4 Cardboard scraps awaiting recycling at paper factory in Poland. Photo by  taw .

Figure 4 Cardboard scraps awaiting recycling at paper factory in Poland. Photo by taw.

Over 68 million tons of paper and paperboard products are recovered annually in the U.S., achieving a recycling rate of 64.7 percent. US companies have pledged $1 Billion to recycle paper from CascadesGreen Bay Packaging, and Pratt Industries and ND Paper over the next 18 months. 

In Connecticut, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) released the nation’s first statewide evaluation for four extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws for paint, mattresses, mercury thermostats, and electronics. These four programs have diverted 26 million pounds of material from waste, saved Connecticut municipalities and taxpayers more than $2.6 million per year, provided additional services worth another $6.7 million, and created over 100 jobs.

Unlike the U.S. and other countries, Canada used to send only 21% of its plastic to China. With China's scrap import ban and the resulting drop in commodity markets, trash is piling up in the provinces of Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island. Meanwhile Vancouver has no such issues. This is attributed in part to a successful extended producer responsibility (EPR) system that already encouraged domestic processing.

Earth Law and extended producer responsibility

Earth Law wants legal recognition for Nature to be seen as a person like corporations are. Although we’re often critical of corporations, many have already taken transformative actions to be part of the solution. From CSR to extended producer responsibility, corporations now also have a clear pathway for approaches they can choose to adopt. 

Like extended producer responsibility, Earth Law also represents a paradigm shift in how we look at protecting the environment. Both are holistic approaches that address the root causes of the environmental crisis we face today. Recognizing the right of Nature to exist, thrive and evolve is the first step in taking proactive action to safeguard the health of Nature.

Figure 5 Photo by WestBoundary Photography chris gill

Figure 5 Photo by WestBoundary Photography chris gill

As with the successful examples of extended producer responsibility, codifying new behavior into law helps everyone evolve their business practices – in the same way that legally recognizing Rights of Nature will support decisions and actions which promote the health of Nature and our fellow species.

Integrating Earth Law concepts into business models and practices is similarly important to incorporating the principles and practices of extended producer responsibility. Earth Law Center works with governments, civil society organizations and businesses to connect and catalyze Rights of Nature efforts around the world.

Earth Law Center is building an international movement from the ground up, one that gives better grounding to the idea that humans have a responsibility for how we impact the world around us. The belief that nature - the species and ecosystems that comprise our world - has inherent rights has proven to be a galvanizing idea, and we work with local communities to help them organize around the rights of nature to protect their environment from the threats that they see.

This idea of Earth Law grows every day thanks to people spreading the word, local organizations launching initiatives, local governments looking for ways to strengthen protection of Nature. Businesses and consumers can spread the word about extended producer responsibility as well as Earth Law – so together we can work towards a healthy planet.

You can take action today by: