To engage or not to engage: the Big Business Debate

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June 25, 2014 by Tess Riley

I was recently asked to write an article about the business case for corporate carbon reduction projects, which led me to think more broadly about engagement.

There’s a debate to be had amongst environmentalists – and others – over the extent to which one engages with big business. I spent much of my teens and twenties struggling to think that I could bring myself to work with the Tescos, Nikes and Starbucks of this world to reduce things like carbon emissions, despite being aware that to do so could make significant immediate gains while longer-term goals (and ultimately a radical overhaul of our entire political economy landscape – my desire if not theirs) were being met.


Over time, I’ve come to recognise that the boundaries are much more blurred than that. Take Greenpeace for example, where I interned, working on an Indonesian palm oil campaign as I simultaneously wrote an MSc dissertation on the topic. Yes we put a spotlight on the dirty practices being carried out at the expense of vast areas of forestland – and the people and wildlife who relied on that land – but, at the same time, approaches were being made to the corporations carrying out those practices to encourage them to stop. Engagement is critical to the work Greenpeace and others do, even if the headline glitz and glamour can overshadow that.

So when asked to write about the business case for environmentally responsible practices, I again returned to the question of engagement. Companies’ goals may be driven by profit above all else, but this can be used as a lever to drive change and encourage companies to set targets well beyond legal limitations. Campaigners of all sorts can use this to their advantage when engaging with businesses through multiple means.

Difficulties in this case therefore arise when companies fail to meet the targets they set themselves, as happened with Bupa, my key case study when researching carbon reduction investments. However, aware – if nothing else – that the cost of carbon-based electricity sources is going up while the cost of installing renewables is going down, Bupa admitted they were lagging behind and upped their game, implementing a £20 million fund that included installing LED lighting, CHP and solar sources in Bupa premises across the world, for example saving 10,000kWh of electricity over a year in its Caulfield care home, Australia, leading to a saving of Aus $12,000 (£7,000). Multiply this over time and number of properties, and alongside other measures implemented, and Bupa is clearly set to make long-term savings that justify its initial investment.


You can read more about Bupa in my Green Futures article here, but I leave you this time with a question:

By measuring cost savings against carbon ones, this can encourage companies to go further in making carbon reductions. However, I’d be interested to hear from those who know of examples where measuring these two alongside one another has negative implications, for example because a company takes a short-cut route to make biggest cost savings at the expense of the biggest carbon savings… Do you know about it? If so, I’d love to hear from you!


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