What Happens When Being Good to the Planet Isn’t Profitable?

By Team Deep Earth

Part I (by Stephen)

I’m thinking a lot about the dangers of just making a business case for sustainability. Businesses can save on electricity bills by replacing lightbulbs and appliances, reduce waste disposal costs, cut supply chain costs by being more efficient or recycling. But what happens when the return on investment doesn’t make sense on purely economic grounds? Then, by framing sustainability as a good business decision, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. It’s even harder to effect real change.

At our meetings today we learned that some local mining companies have made the emissions they’re sending up the smokestack less hazardous by filtering out some sulphur dioxide, converting it to sulphuric acid, and selling it to companies in other industries. But if they were still able to just send it up the stack unrefined they’d probably do so. Recycling the sulphur is a way to mitigate the cost of scrubbing the gaseous by-product, not a genius way to increase profit.

I know that the Centre for Impact Investing at MaRS tries to get investors to devote 10 percent of their portfolio to stocks which will provide lower financial returns but some good social benefits. There’s no equivocating about the economic cost. If you want to do good, provide social or environmental benefits, the market will not reward you. Your bottom-line will take a hit.

Maybe we need to just steel our resolve and be real about what it means to be sustainable, even in Sudbury. Internalizing the costs we’ve been externalizing to the environment for hundreds of years is going to suck. It’s going to be expensive. It’s not going to be a way to make more money (at least not in the short-term). Until we’re willing to have that conversation, and until we’re willing to force companies to pay those costs through legislation such as a carbon price or bans on certain practices, we’re doomed to fail. More missed targets, forgotten action plans, and lost decades. Let’s get real.


Part II (by Ian)

Working with B Lab Canada, I have come to strongly believe that the private sector must be involved in the fight against the complex social and environmental issues facing our communities. Our meetings on Tuesday in Sudbury with EarthCare and reThink Green highlighted the important role businesses can and need to play in addressing environmental issues. Both initiatives, EarthCare through the city and reThink Green as a non-profit, have key elements that focus on getting local businesses involved in sustainability work.

In our meeting at reThink Green it was exciting to learn about how Sustainable Waterloo Region, part of the Sustainability CoLab Network, is working with B Lab to expand their Regional Carbon Initiative. The program was originally focused on getting companies in Waterloo to reduce their CO2 emissions but is now expanding into a holistic Regional Sustainability Initiative that helps businesses look at a range of environmental factors. reThink Green will be launching its own program focused on businesses called Green Economy North. If the Regional Sustainability Initiative is successful in Waterloo, there is potential for it to spread to Sudbury and other cities in the province through the Sustainability CoLab.

It is really encouraging to see such interest from companies in Greater Sudbury to get involved in these initiatives but I still left with some reservations. The current paradigm around corporate social responsibility (CSR) is based on the idea that changes to help the environment will also always have a positive impact on a company’s economic bottom line. The argument is that companies need to make these environmental changes to increase their profits and maximize their competitiveness, with the benefit to the environment being an important but secondary selling factor. While I understand that this has been the only way to get many companies to even consider environmental policies and programs, I worry that it is not enough. While for a majority of situations I think there can be a win-win scenario between the economy and the environment, I don’t think it will always be the case. This argument continues to place corporate profit above both people and the environment, meaning that in the case of a trade-off, profits come first. It does not touch on the moral, ethical and very real issue that our current economy is operating beyond the limits of what our planet can sustain. At what point do we recognize that we do not need to be making environmentally focused changes in businesses to increase economic profitability, but because it is necessary if we want our economy to stop eroding the planet we all depend on?

Quick wins such as getting companies to recycle or use energy efficient appliances are an important first step, but I want to continue pushing further. I want to support companies that are willing to look beyond their bottom line and find ways of using their business model to a positive net impact on their community and the environment. I want to be working to build an economy with companies that use business as a force for social good, not CSR initiatives as a way to mask the harm the inflict. The B Corp certified companies and the business leaders I have met through B Lab prove that taking this next step towards true social and environmental responsibility is possible. I look forward to seeing the impact that EarthCare, reThink Green and the Green Economy North program have in Sudbury, and I hope that the B Corp movement can follow right behind to take companies to the next level.