Friday, 4 October 2019

Some quick thoughts on CSR

I've been involved in several sustainability initiatives, but people often ask whether they really make a difference. In this article I'm going to think about them from the perspective of effective altruism, which is about using reason and evidence to do the most good.


  • There are lots of different ways organisations impact the environment
  • Some ways to make a difference matter much more than others
  • The best things make more than 1000x the difference of the least effective things
  • The highest impacts are from global policy change and technological innovation
  • Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise, and look after yourself

What makes a difference?

Like lots of other people, I started by thinking about small consumer things in like coffee cups and plastic straws. But I found that cutting out plastic or reducing landfill is not necessarily the best thing to do. For example, there was a review of the impact of different shopping bags done by the UK Environment agency (link here) with some interesting conclusions.
The environmental impact of all types of carrier bag is dominated by resource use and production stages. 
Cotton bags should be reused at least 131 times to ensure that they have lower global warming potential than conventional carrier bags that are not reused. 
Another popular movement is about people who are opting for reusable straws. But if we want to clean up the ocean, straws are far from the main driver. A study published in the journal Science found that plastic straws make up about 0.025% of all ocean waste, and another study found that 46% of the ocean waste was from discarded fishing equipment. So if you’re motivated by concerns about the ocean, then advocating for better standards in fishing (such as the MSC), or even abstaining from eating fish, is probably much higher impact than abstaining from using plastic straws.

There was a paper in Science in 2017 called the Mitigation Gap, which looked at the conventional recommendations about environmentally friendly behaviour.

They concluded that we’re spending too much time focusing on small things like efficient lighting, when dietary choices make at least eight times more of a difference. I've shown some of their results in the graph below, which compares the greenhouse gas effects of different individual actions.

(To differentiate between diets, I’ve combined the results from the paper above with this study.)


Corporate social responsibility is often more about marketing than it is about driving an impact. Virgin Atlantic offer 'sustainable' bamboo travel kits. I suspect bamboo toothbrushes are more harmful for the environment than plastic ones, and this draws attention away from the huge environmental impact of flying. This is greenwashing; when an organisation looks like they're doing something sustainable, but in fact it's papering over what matters.

David MacKay was a professor of physics at Cambridge, and head of the Department for Energy and Climate Change, wrote an excellent book called Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. 
Have no illusions. To achieve our goal of getting off fossil fuels, these reductions in demand and increases in supply must be big. Don’t be distracted by the myth that “every little helps.” If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes in demand and in supply.
He gave the example of a news article telling people to switch their mobile phones chargers off when not being used in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He made the point that mobile phone chargers use less than 0.25% of a house's energy consumption. He made the full text of his book available here.

Choose 2-3 of these:

High Impact
  • Offsetting —I have no problem with offsetting at all, as if we can find good ways to stop carbon from entering the atmosphere, and fund those opportunities, then this is a net gain overall. 
  • Travel —encouraging staff to take the train rather than driving or flying is quick win, as trains create less than 10% the emissions of planes
  • Supply Chain — this might be one of your biggest opportunities. It's worth asking suppliers about their life-cycle analysis and how their products are made. 
  • Office energy provider— you can get zero-carbon energy providers, e.g. Ovo, Bulb, Ecotricity, and this can be a really quick way to make a difference.  

Medium Impact
  • Buildings — often heaters and air conditioners are used unnecessarily, which can be very expensive and is a cost as well as an environmental saving. 
  • Divestment of pensions and other financial investments — most pension schemes are invested into indices which include fossil fuels, and also weapons companies. If your organisation has a considerable pension fund, or manages some other funds, then this could be a big lever of influence. I'd suggest doing more research on this.
  • Increasing vegetarian food options— it is now increasingly accepted that animal agriculture has a huge adverse effect on the environment, both through land and resource usage, and through increasing climate change itself. Vegetarian and vegan options are highly in-demand everywhere. 
Low Impact
  • Lighting—LED lighting is a cost-effective way of reducing emissions, because LEDs are a cost-saving overall, but it's small beer in the big scheme of things
  • Facilities— often people focus on water reduction for offices, e.g. with more efficient toilets, but neglect the impact of food (a single steak uses 5000L of fresh water, but water-saving toilets only save a few hundred litres), so I probably wouldn't bother with this one
Anyone can set a target

I've come across several organisations that have been under pressure around climate change and sustainability, and so they've set a target (e.g. reduce greenhouse gas by 20% by 2050) which is both unambitious, and often they've barely achieved any reduction at all. One telecoms provider only achieved a 1% saving in the last 5 years. So make sure that targets and metrics actually bite.

Global problems require global solutions

It's really important to consider the overall impact of each choice, and be open to surprising or systemic conclusions like providing more vegetarian options or advocating for industry-wide policies to lower emissions. These offer the opportunities to make the biggest difference of all. 

I've compared the options I showed earlier on with how incredibly effective these charities are. Even a £10 donation per month is fairly small - and this has over 1,000x the impact of low-energy lightbulbs! 

In 2019, the charity evaluator Founders Pledge came up with two recommendations for points of particularly high impact:
  • The Coalition for Rainforest Nations - This nonprofit works on avoiding deforestation by partnering with governments and businesses. 
  • The Clean Air Task Force - This nonprofit works in the US and helps scale up zero-carbon energy systems, plus work on tightening federal and state environmental regulation 

These organisations are working in exceptionally high-impact spaces. They're doing things like protecting the rainforest (a carbon sink), and lobbying to shut down coal plants in the US, and establish zero-carbon safe nuclear energy systems. I personally donate to both of these organisations, and it's great to think that my donations are put together with those from other people, and they help make an enormous difference.  They accept funding for donations, and so even small donations from individuals or charities to companies can drive outstanding results.

Making it happen

Working on sustainability is an infinite task. Because we can't do everything, we need to choose only a few things, and those should be the things that make the biggest difference. 

Groups solve collective action problems. And you can't take all of this on yourself. This can be a great way to get support from other people passionate about sustainability, and share out the workload. You could: 

  • set up a mailing list, 
  • write articles for your organisation's newsletter, 
  • create a monthly meet up with other interested people for one-to-ones/having coffee, 
  • create an online resource / website / message board that other people can sign up to. 
With stuff online, it's a great way to scale your impact to lots of people. It's also a great way to make friends and look after yourself. There are some very smart and truly inspirational people working in the field, who have a lot of good ideas.

A final note

Thinking about and working on climate change and sustainability is hard. I have great respect for the many wonderful people working in this field. What matters is the difference you make, not how burnt out you are. Choose only 2-3 things to do, and make sure they're the highest impact things you can find.

Go home at a reasonable time. In the evenings, I go to the gym, climb, I make time to see my friends and I will admit that I am geekily working my way through the box set for Battlestar Galactica (alongside my regular habit of watching old episodes of The Simpsons).

Welcome to the club, and good luck!

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