Climate Change needs more than Plastic Surgery

Most week days, I wake up at around 6.30am to go for a run, do some yoga or go to the gym. It makes me feel alive and ready for the day, and I am usually more productive and focused at work as a result. Over time, it also ensures I look healthy and hopefully means I’ll live longer.

Some mornings, however, I do wonder whether I’d feel just as good by getting an extra hour of sleep, plus having some plastic surgery to stay looking young. It is getting more and more tempting here in the UK and worldwide – as the “quick fixes” become cheaper and more acceptable to discuss on TV, the internet and other social outlets.

Plastic surgery is in demand worldwide
Plastic surgery is in demand worldwide. Picture: Mathplourde, 2007

Sometimes, I worry that we’re taking the “quick fix” approach with climate change.

For example, last week, I decided to have a look at a few sustainability strategies of firms that have a “footprint” in the developing countries that DFID works in.  As I began to read the strategies, I could see that many firms are doing quite a bit. Many were monitoring carbon emissions in their UK offices and worldwide, training their UK employees to recycle and use resources more efficiently, and many were supporting excellent pro-poor and conservation projects in developing countries.

But as I finished reading, I realised that very few of these sustainability activities were linked to the core businesses of these different firms. It was like the firms were getting collagen injections to plump up their lips, or a bit of liposuction to suck fat away. None of it would actually tackle a bad diet or any underlying insecurities.

I had been hoping to see the various firms boast about investing in infrastructure for local businesses, ensuring local markets grow by using local products, or investing in new research or technology to reduce the emissions or resource waste from their commercial activities. Perhaps more crucially, I had hoped that the companies would actually do most of their sustainability activities in developing countries – so that developing countries get access to sustainable technologies and information (e.g. smart-meters, eco-labelling, recycling, etc).

The good news is that some businesses have begun to tackle their health and exercise, rather than just use plastic surgery. A recent paper by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte provides some examples – from Walkers Crisps reducing resource waste by partnering with farmers, to Zipcar and Whipcar helping people avoid locking into car ownership. Marks and Spencer’s Plan A Initiative could probably be added to this list – culminating last week in the launch of the world’s first carbon neutral bra!

If you’ve not got time to read papers, this podcast from the Harvard Business Review features the co-author of the book “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World”, Don Tapscott. He discusses some of the reasons for these new sustainability trends and also mentions Nike’s Green X-Change platform for sharing sustainable innovation. And this TEDx Talk in Warwick features Caroline Fiennes, Executive Director of the Global Cool Foundation, sharing her rationale for using “mainstream” campaigns in the public and private sector.

But the question is whether developing countries will also benefit from these sorts of efforts – whether by small or multinational firms, investors, banks or charities.  I know of very few examples where this is happening – the partnership between Botswana’s Government and De Beers springs to mind, but beyond that I get stuck… Perhaps there are more examples out there?  Please do post them if so!

Whatever the case, I’m hoping that courses such as the world’s first MSc in Carbon Finance (to be run from the University of Edinburgh’s Business School) will inspire a new, internationally-minded generation to come up with “disruptively innovative”, financially sound, business models to stimulate low-carbon, green growth.

How else will we avoid the plastic surgery?

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