Absolutely Greener, Relatively Speaking: A Closer Look at CSR Reporting

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I was recently exchanging e-mails with a dear friend, Melissa, who works in the CSR , or corporate social responsibility, department of a major US corporation. We were talking about traditional national and global economic growth rates (which, of course, may not be achieved in times such as the current global slowdown) and how improved environmental standards could go beyond previous relative standards, but still result in cumulative negative impact. Melissa noted, "More companies are reporting defined sustainability goals and achievements--for example, reduced emissions, energy, water, landfill waste--to show that they're really greening up. The numbers that headline CSR report summaries and press releases tend to be framed in relative terms "standardized" per unit or pound produced rather than absolute totals. Because our economy is founded on growth, sustainability becomes a moving target. While relative or standardized numbers are an important tool in helping a company measure progress against itself, they don't necessarily indicate whether the company is moving towards ecological balance, and thus true sustainability."

I agree with Melissa. Say a company sets a goal to reduce emissions and packaging waste by 15% per unit produced, while seeking to grow by 15%. If the business reaches both goals, even though its products are more "eco-efficient," its total eco-footprint will hardly improve since production growth adds new emissions and waste. If the company's growth exceeds eco-reduction goals, the result is clearly a heavier footfall on the planet. Humans are using the earth's resources faster than nature can replace them, and we've been told that CO2 emissions must be reduced to 75% of today's level just to stabilize current deterioration rates.

My own view is that we not only have to raise the bar—meaning absolute environmental progress—but ultimately, we need to change the ways our economy grows. If growth remains consistent with historical rates, relative improvements need to accelerate such that absolute progress is achieved. But given Melissa's point, unless we change the ways our economies grow and impact global resources, even with absolute improvements, we'll see diminishing returns.

TerraCycle focuses on reducing waste, and by using waste as a productive input. There are many other ways to strike gold in the inefficiencies of our current system. I'm not suggesting voluntary simplicity on a global level, but I think we, individually and collectively, need to move toward a "less is more" approach, and there are probably ways to measure and reward progress—like building cars, televisions and other products with longer lives, which will result in less frequent repeat sales and lower GDP. I think we will evolve ways to value and reward less impact, rather than being geared socially, psychologically, and economically to producing more.

Do you agree? If so, where do you see the early impactful changes in incentives, measurement and environmental impact taking place?

Want more, not less? Read about CSR in our archives

Six Steps for Genuine CSR
Carbon Reduction Solutions
Corporate Sustainability Ratings

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