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CSR : what if firms took responsibility?

Sorting your rubbish in earnest, or stopping air travel, is (unfortunately) not enough to halt the destruction of the planet. But unlike private citizens, a company can make all the difference by changing its practices – even single-handedly.

So what measures do not boil down to greenwashing?

What is corporate social responsibility?

Corporate social responsibility, known as CSR, pertains to the effects that a company has on society. It takes account of several aspects related to sustainable development: the social aspect, the economic aspect and also (and most importantly), the ecological aspect. Although there’s no law to compel companies to take action on CSR, most are pledging to make improvements. Moreover, the biggest companies have whole departments given over to CSR. Their remit ranges from checking that social and environmental legal obligations are complied with to implementing virtuous processes encompassing ethics, eco-design, fairness and a great deal of issues connected to all aspects of the company, from manufacturing to product development. While these concerns are sometimes driven in large part by the need to communicate and be seen to care, a great deal of companies are making real changes to meet demand from consumers and developing products that are more respectful of the environment and of people.

Measuring companies’ impact on the environment

First and foremost, companies must assess the consequences of their business on the environment. There are environmental reporting obligations and legislation involving public policy with which company practices must comply. They must also comply with legislation on water, biodiversity, energy and waste, among others. To initiate transversal environmental measures in a company, the first stage is to run a 360-degree impact assessment, taking account of the legislative framework and initiatives taken by the company off its own bat. This applies whatever its size or sector of activity. A little internal audit can correct some simple habits whereas a life cycle analysis, for example, can initiate real transformations: packaging, waste management, sometimes water, air and soil pollution, through to biodiversity. But the number one concern is the company’s effect on global warming via greenhouse gas emissions.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions: the carbon footprint

To take action on CSR to rein in the company’s impact on the climate, this impact first has to be assessed via a carbon footprint. Specialised, certified “Carbon Footprint” experts make this calculation through a study that takes account of all the company’s ledger lines: from energy usage to design to all the materials used. This assessment costs up to €8,000 on average (of which ADEME can cover up to 70%). This footprint identifies the activities that emit the most CO2. Then it’s up to the company to find solutions to change its practices: changing the use of natural resources, modifying the production process, transferring the workforce.

Reducing energy usage

The energy used by companies is polluting and therefore generates CO2 to a greater or lesser extent. Nuclear power plants generate electricity without emitting a lot of CO2, as do renewable energies. Here in France, at least, the majority of “decarbonised” electricity comes from these resources. However, a lot of CO2 is emitted by all kinds of machinery, and sometimes oil- or gas-fired heating. These factors vary depending on the sector of activity. The company will launch its reconversion plan to find its own low-carbon energy solutions while taking account of its offshore activities.

Moreover, every company can instate a list of “best practice” points without changing its processes: switching off unnecessary lights, appliances and shop window lighting every evening, turning down the heating and air conditioning. Little routines which, when done by all companies, bring significant change. And considerable savings to boot. All the more since it’s possible to automate these little routines with timers to programme appliances.

Reducing waste

A company can generate a lot of waste. It ranges from carboard boxes (which could be recycled) to organic waste (in the case of livestock farming) or material offcuts such as leather, fabric or wood (which could be re-used) to industrial waste. Waste reduction is particular to each company. It can be done at production level and also internally with the workforce, and in overseas branches where needed, in accordance with the legislation of the country in question.

To take action, the production process has to be revised upstream to bring about a reduction in the use of resources; downstream to work on paring down material use; and at the end of the cycle to consider recycling, re-use or upcycling by selling on waste materials to others who will make use of them, following the circular economy principle.

Internally, review orders with the purchasing manager to ban disposable items like cups or stirrers, and put a recycling system in place. Why does employees’ rubbish not get recycled? Because they each have their own rubbish bin into which they throw cans, paper and apple cores which get mixed up together. The bins are emptied at the end of the day by cleaning companies, which can’t sort the contents of these individual rubbish bins. It’s up to the company to put a system in place, with shared bins provided to sort paper from household waste and plastic waste.

Switching to eco-design for production

A company can make an effort without its products being totally eco-designed.

The eco-design of a product (or service) makes for manufacturing that has as little consequence as possible on the environment, throughout its life cycle: raw materials and resources used (such as water), through to the end of its life. So this effort is about degradability, packaging, freight transport… from A to Z! There are environmental certifications, known as eco-certifications, which are issued by certification bodies to vouch for respect for the environment. While making plastic packaging lighter is beneficial and makes it possible to use less plastic and reduce waste, it doesn’t go far enough to be called eco-design. Beware of greenwashing, which allows companies to promote an eco-friendly aspect of the product and lead consumers to believe that it is completely virtuous, whereas the rest of its production process has not been improved. In this area, there is the ISO 14001 standard and EMAS registration. This eco-audit, born out of an EU ruling, takes account of voluntary initiatives and assesses their environmental record.

Embedding eco-friendly initiatives in the ways of the company

As well as providing sorting bins, switching off unnecessary lights and switching suppliers in favour of more eco-friendly tools and supplies, a great deal of actions can be launched on a top-down basis. They can be included in the house rules, or shared with the workforce via a charter.

Means of transport are among the sectors with the highest greenhouse gas emissions. Companies may, for example, opt to avoid air travel, make carpooling easier or refund public transport costs. Granting work-from-home days and replacing some business trips with videoconferences also means avoiding means of transport. A charter can inform staff about IT pollution to optimise the way e-mails, large attachments and electronic signatures containing images are sent. It’s also possible to cut down on document printing, and use the reverse side of (non-confidential) printouts as scrap paper.

Companies can rein in the amount of meat served in the canteen, and work with associations to avoid wastefulness. They can also fit water-saving devices in the toilets, sinks and wash basins, sell on used equipment to staff or have broken appliances repaired instead of replacing them.

Companies can give each of their employees a mug and water bottle to eliminate disposable cups and bottled water bottles – two anti-plastic habits that are easy to implement – and refillable pens instead of non-refillable ballpoint pens, etc..

In this way, the message also goes out to clients and suppliers to raise their awareness of the issues. These measures cost next to nothing, and if all companies were to take action along these lines the result would be significant.

Professionals in all sectors can take this responsibility for the environment – which is often easier than you might think. And to keep the initiatives going over time, there has to be target-setting, reporting on outcomes and tracking to check on the effectiveness of the company’s action plans and pledges made.

Ecology includes people, and gets the workforce involved in a joint project both at home and in the workplace. Whether it’s an office, chain store, factory or field, this mindset makes for high uptake and a priceless team spirit which also raises worker efficiency.

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