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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What is next for the sustainability team?

Last week the newspapers were full of green content. The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all contained extensive coverage of the EPA's Greenhouse Gas Endangerment Finding. And of course it was Earth Day too, so there were whole sections dedicated to how to be greener.

I see a sea-change in the language used at green conferences in the USA. Until recently climate change was rarely mentioned. I was often the only one using the terminology. Others preferred to refer to energy efficiency and energy security. Now, we go down the line on a panel and one by one everyone talks about climate change. It seems like one of the mainstays of corporate social responsibility has been achieved - recognition in USA government and business circles that climate change is an issue caused by humankind and that needs to be addressed through government and business action. So what next - have we achieved what we need to?

Well of course, sustainability includes a lot more than environmental issues. Social and economic sustainability are just as important. But in the climate change space there is still much to be done too. The subtitle in The Wall Street Journal item about the EPA's endangerment finding was 'Businesses Brace for Costly New Rules as EPA Declares Warming Gases a Threat'. We cannot rest until subtitles like these read "Businesses celebrate a regulatory framework that will mitigate climate change and the cost of adaptation'.

The article goes on to comment "unless superseded by congressional action, the EPA ruling eventually could lead to stricter emissions limits".

It is tempting for companies to use the expertise of their sustainability professionals to identify whether compliance with congressional or EPA action will be less expensive. But there will be plenty of people in corporations assessing these operational costs. The CSR team should be the voice in the company representing the far greater cost of adapting to climate change and identifying which approach is most likely to avert climate change.

It is also tempting for the CSR professional to use their expertise to become immersed in compliance and offsetting. These are critical roles, but the role of CSR is to be the advocate for those issues that are beyond legal requirements and beyond the need to make a short term profit. Once it is law or compliance, the CSR exec needs to move on and ensure they are looking further ahead and continuing to push the envelope.

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