Green Leadership overcomes Greenwashing


By Kathryn Cooper.

William Pinar once wrote that “we are what we know” and also “what we do not know”. For me, this idea that our identity is shaped by what we are and what we are not—what we pay attention to, and what we do not, is at the heart of our unsustainable habits in Western culture. In effect, we are the two sides of a coin. Both sides belong to us. Change one side and it affects the other. That is why it concerns me that in a recent survey of 1200 global executives commissioned by The Economist, 71 per cent of business leaders either agreed or strongly agreed that too many companies are using “greening” and sustainability as merely a public-relations tool. Companies are not changing who they are/who they are not—just who they pretend to be.

When we see a program that is designed to effect authentic behaviour change, we should embrace it. In July, Air Canada (the world’s 14th largest scheduled and charter airline), and the Zerofootprint Group of Companies, launched their Corporate Carbon Offset Program. Seemingly based on principles of social marketing, this program encourages companies, as part of their corporate carbon management strategy, to offset the CO2 e from travel that they cannot cut from their operations.

I see offsets as one tool of authentic behaviour change. For some critics offsets are seen as enablers of the status quo. They believe that individuals and businesses use them to appease their “greenhouse guilt” by paying to conduct business as usual. But this theory disregards the opportunity presented by quality offset projects. Anyone familiar with the concept of internalizing externalities might see offsets as a first step toward this important economic practice. There is some wariness about offsets because of a lack of transparency and choice among many offset offerings. You might wonder, with the very little information provided to most offsetters about the projects they are funding, whether it is all just smoke and mirrors. Yet somehow, many people overcome this concern, and take the leap of faith. In 2006, about $91 million of carbon offsets were purchased in the voluntary market, representing about 24 million metric tons of CO2e reductions (State of Voluntary Carbon Market. This might seem small compared to the 4.1 billion metric tons of unsequestered CO2e (4.5 billion tonnes) humans add to the atmosphere annually, but it is a step in the right direction.

air-canada-launches-2034.jpgAdhering to good social marketing practices such as: overcoming barriers, making activities convenient and providing incentives; the Zerofootprint/Air Canada Corporate Carbon Offset Program is unique. Zerofootprint and Air Canada have dialed up the commitment to accountability, quality, and choice in the offset industry. For this program, Zerofootprint sought out regionally diverse certified carbon offset projects. Corporations can choose offsets from four registered projects that have been verified and certified by an independent body using ISO 14064-2 or an equivalent standard. In addition to certification and registration, projects must also be “additional”, meaning that they would have not otherwise have taken place, that they account for “carbon leakage” (to avoid unanticipated CO2 emissions), that they be managed under good risk management practices, and that they have a significant sustainability impact. Corporations can choose from a tire recycling program in Quebec, a run of river hydro project in Ontario, a forest restoration project in British Columbia, and a landfill gas recovery project in Ontario. Offsetters can see a detailed description of these projects on the Zerofootprint website and the site is regularly updated with photo and CO2e sequestration or CO2e avoidance data.

A unique feature of the Corporate Carbon Offset Program is the “Green Leader” initiative, which rewards early adopters. The first “Green Leader” under the program was the Royal Bank of Canada. And since in a voluntary market, someone needs to measure and recognize how behaviour has changed, Zerofootprint offers Levels of Distinction to every company who participates. In this case, companies that offset 100 percent of their remaining travel can use a branded platinum seal in their promotional activities. Good social marketing theory says “make the behaviour visible”, and this is exactly what this seal does. The seal is a sign of the company’s commitment to sustainability. Levels of bronze, silver and gold provide a step-wise goal of advancing a company’s sustainability stature.

The design elements of this Corporate Carbon Offset Program, with its focus on accountability, quality, convenience, choice and incentives, are enablers for authentic corporate behaviour change. The program sets the bar high enough that companies can transform what they know and what they do in significant ways. It may not be as easy as “greenwashing”, but it is real and meaningful, and it is an approach we need in a low carbon world.

Kathryn Cooper is a sustainability practitioner and a researcher in sustainability and education at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Previous WorldChanging Canada articles on offsets:

Bundled Carbon Offsets

Gradually Greening: Neutralizing my Car
Going Beyond Carbon Neutrality