Translating carbon jargon into meaningful change
By Sandra Lee, Social Impact Lead, University of Leicester > Net Zero, carbon neutral, carbon positive – each organisation and product seems to be claiming something different to convince you of their planet-friendly credentials.
But how do you pick out a genuine commitment from the ‘greenwash’?
In a nutshell, a good climate strategy should include reducing ALL emissions as much and as fast as possible, then investing in offsetting the rest in a scheme that ideally supports technologies and projects to remove emissions from the atmosphere and locks them away (don’t plant trees if you’re just going to burn them) and, ideally, then seeks to increase this offset beyond their ‘net zero’ so they are making a positive contribution to the environment.
Since the UK Government’s announcement to target net zero by 2050, the phrase has become the most well-known term when it comes to reducing the impact of climate change but different organisations and Governments define their net zero targets differently – they didn’t include aviation, 8% of the UK’s carbon footprint, in the original net zero target!
At the University of Leicester we have spent the last year, in partnership with colleagues from De Montfort University working with the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership (LLEP) to deliver carbon literacy training to the Board as well as sustainability webinars and workshops with local SMEs and other organisations.
Their feedback has been very useful and has shaped the support we offer – here are some of the basics:
Bolt-on vs embedded sustainability
A truly sustainable organisation (and yes, we are including financial as well as environmental sustainability) pursues sustainable value above shareholder value and transforms its core business activities, rather than looking for symbolic wins at the margins.
What are your organisation’s values? They usually include loyalty, trust, honesty, respect … but increasingly we are seeing inclusivity, ethics, integrity, and making a positive contribution feature. Moreover, what is your organisation’s culture? The adage of ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is particularly apt when you claim an environmental conscience but don’t offer the infrastructure to support it.
A strong sustainable ethos also pays off when you want to appeal to younger customers and employees. National Union of Students (NUS) data (2020) found that, when applying for jobs, 74% students said that having the chance to work in an organisation which makes a difference to social and environmental issues was important to them, and 77% would consider a position with a starting salary of £1,000 lower than average (£20,000) in a company with a strong environmental and social record and 55% would still consider it if it was £3,000 lower.
Young people are prepared to invest in a better, shared future. Are you?
It’s not all about energy
When we think about net zero, it’s easy to look at our utility bills and business miles – but we have a much bigger sphere of influence than that. How do your customers reach you? What is the total environmental impact of your product – from supplier to disposal? Who do you bank or invest with? What pension provider do you use? Are you inadvertently promoting fossil fuel industries (or others that you may not wish to be associated with)?
As we ‘build back better’ from the recent challenges, investment in the green economy is the best way to achieve this and ensure we can all stay in business for decades and centuries to come.
Our Leicester Innovation Hub works with organisations to help them identify and reduce their negative environmental impact and to improve their positive social impact.
Some local inspiration
The Innovation for Good programme, uniquely developed by the University of Leicester and delivered by trained students, provides local businesses and University suppliers with the tools and data to embed environmental sustainability into their practices and align these to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The team have worked together with a number and range of businesses, in addition to several social enterprises to support them to innovate and grow sustainably.
These range from local theatres delivering events as part of the Leicester Comedy Festival to start-up companies like LENKÉ Space and Water Solutions, supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) Business Incubation Centre, based at the University of Leicester-led Space Park Leicester, to further their investigations into international water management using space data.
Where to start
All of this can be boiled down into five simple steps:
- Set meaningful company values and communicate your commitments to your employees, stakeholders and customers. Make it part of your culture and set milestones.
- Find out your carbon footprint (all of it, not just the utilities) – know ‘your number’ – there are some useful resources on the UK Business Climate Hub.
- Look at where you could have the biggest impacts locally.
- Obtain ideas from your staff!
- Carbon Literacy training is a great place to start and local sessions targeted as SMEs are available in both Nottingham and Leicester.
- Research alternative ways to do things.
- Could your local University help?
- Look at your sphere of influence.
- Can you ‘close the loop’ on your product lifecycle?
- Could you partner with anyone at any stage of your product journey?
- Again – University Innovation Hubs are well placed to help!
- Quick wins.
- Longer term, impactful measures.
- Investment opportunities.
- Make peers, staff, supply chain aware and promote your successes.
- Pledge to support local climate plans.
In short, tackling climate change and/or adapting to it is a big task that isn’t going to be achieved by small, peripheral changes but by a fresh look at our values, culture and infrastructure. Although this is a daunting task, support (and funding) is available.
So let it be the start of an exciting new journey together…
Dr Sandra Lee is Social Impact Lead at the University of Leicester, and provides strategic direction for social and environmental impact both at the University and with a number of local, regional and national partners.
Going net zero means a better business and a better environment for everyone. During #NetZeroWeek2021 you can access dozens of exclusive live webinars/podcasts; all free-to-attend.
See the confirmed live webinar programme taking place around Net Zero Week 2021.