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The U.N. General Assembly including the U.N. Climate Action Summit, Climate Week NYC, the youth-led Global Climate Strike, and the U.N.’s report on the impact of climate change on the world’s oceans and frozen regions have placed the climate emergency front and center in the news and the collective zeitgeist of the planet this week. And for good reason.
Accelerating climate change and ecological breakdown pose an existential threat to all life on Earth. The scientific community has agreed that a 1.5°C increase in average global temperature is the limit to reduce the worst impacts for our planet and its inhabitants. At the current trajectory, we will reach this limit as early as 2030.
We are living in unsettling times, in fact at a crux moment in the arc of human history. We need bold, courageous, urgent, and unapologetic leadership, from all sectors and all levels of society, more than ever. Yet we are bombarded minute by minute with a level of brazen incivility, shameless cruelty, and cowardly inaction seen only at our very worst as a species. How will this story end? History has its eyes on all of us.
Those humans going to the edge to call us to higher ground, like the youth activists, are dealing with severe backlash and even death threats for speaking truth to power. What does it mean to lead in such times? It means pulling everything you hold dear close while you put all of your values and passion on the line, in the hopes of creating something better, often at great personal peril.
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Reasons to Hope
And yet, amidst the din, beyond the cowardice and rancor, this crisis is also calling forth the very best humans have to offer.
Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, delivered a fierce and provocative speech to world leaders at the U.N. Climate Action Summit. She and other youth leaders filed a legal complaint against five of the world’s biggest carbon emitters. On September 24, 2019, Certified B Corporation Patagonia was named U.N. Champion of the Earth, receiving the U.N.’s top environmental honor for a dynamic mix of practices that has put sustainability at the heart of its successful business model. And throughout this week, corporate leaders like Seventh Generation, Ben & Jerry’s, W.S. Badger, Namaste Solar, Patagonia, and thousands of B Corporations and other mission-driven companies around the world—representing large and small businesses from a wide range of industries and geographies—are risking brand equity, customer loyalty, sales, and even stock price to show up in force and solidarity with youth activists this week for the climate strikes. Many are closing their retail shops and manufacturing lines, doing social media blackouts, and even busing employees to the strikes.
Unprecedented times indeed.
As the source and cause of the vast majority of the planet’s greenhouse gases, the business sector is uniquely culpable for the climate crisis — and therefore responsible for demonstrating leadership in eliminating emissions and drawing down carbon as rapidly as possible. Recognizing that voluntary action by individual businesses is insufficient to address the scale of the climate emergency, businesses are also called to do their part in advocating for policy changes necessary to remove impediments and align incentives that will drive meaningful climate action, such as policies that incentivize and accelerate the decarbonization of our economy and drawdown of carbon in the atmosphere, including a swift transition to 100% clean and renewable energy and a shift to a regenerative food and land-use system — while ensuring economic opportunity and a fair and just transition for displaced workers and communities impacted by climate.
Leadership in Action
Since its founding in 2007, the B Corporation movement has always been about leadership. These are companies that are embedding into their very legal fiber the commitment to consider the interests of their full set of stakeholders, not just shareholders. They operate according to compelling values such as the notion that in using their businesses as a force for good, they can create a global economy that creates shared and durable prosperity for all. That their businesses must be conducted in a way that acknowledges that people and our Mother Earth matter, and that we are dependent upon another and responsible or each other — and for future generations.
Most B Corporations are answering the call to respond to the climate emergency already. Beyond individual corporate action, B Corps are also recognizing that they can do so much more together than they can do alone, under the banner of the B. They are putting these values, and their hopes and vision for a better world, into action. COLLECTIVE ACTION. B Corps are acting decisively, urgently, boldly, and unapologetically, working to create an inclusive and regenerative economy, to show others’ what’s possible, and to lead. They are acting in community on some of the most pressing issues facing our civilization and biosphere, convening, converging, and mobilizing, and unleashing the power of the “B” and driving real systems change and impact.
B Corps Acting Collectively on Climate
The global B Corp community has been working to respond to the climate emergency in their respective markets. Leaders from some of the world’s most climate-progressive B Corporations gathered in February 2019 at Taos Ski Valley, a Certified B Corp in New Mexico, to co-create a short- and long-term collective action plan to address the threats of climate change. Meanwhile, B Corporations in the United Kingdom worked together to create and release the Climate Emergency Playbook. In May 2019, the Global Governance Council of all of the B Lab entities worldwide convened a Global Climate Task Force made up of delegates from B Corporation partner markets around the world to develop a unified response to the climate emergency. In September, a group of climate-leading B Corps in Canada, the UK, and the United States created a toolkit for B Corps and other companies to mobilize to support youth in the climate strikes.
Now, the B Corp Climate Task Force, working in close partnership with the B Corp Climate Collective, and through extensive stakeholder review, is developing a set of bold commitments to respond to the climate emergency. These include a policy and advocacy strategy for the global B Corp community to support meaningful climate action as well as the integration of the SDG Action Manager that will launch in January 2020 and will help businesses track their progress on the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by U.N. member states in 2015. Together at COP 25 in Santiago, Chile this December, a delegation of B Corporations will join High Level Champion of COP 25, Gonzalo Munoz (who is co-founder of Sistema B, the B Lab equivalent and partner in Latin America) virtually and in person in Santiago to announce these collective commitments.
Addressing System Failure
The unique role of the B Corp movement is to tell the truth: The truth is that a primary driver of the climate emergency, and the greatest impediment to meaningful climate action, is the system failure that centers our economy on maximizing profits at the expense of people and the natural world. This leads to short-term decisions that externalize environmental and social costs, creating massive systemic risk and social unrest, and undermining healthy markets. Business leaders have a vital role to play in calling this system flaw into question at every opportunity, starting first with embedding broader stakeholders interests into their own corporate operating system. As we systematically — company by company, industry by industry, market by market — remove impediments and align incentives, we can accelerate meaningful climate action and move toward a new economic system that requires corporations, and the investors who own them, to operate with a first principle to preserve the natural and social systems upon which life and thriving markets depend.
One of the most recent collective responses from the B Corp community on this front took the form of a formal response to the Business Roundtable’s statement on the true purpose of the corporation, resulting in multiple full-page op-eds around the world in response, including in The New York Times, and urging the Roundtable’s companies to put their words into action, inviting them to “Let’s Get to Work.”
The B Corporation response to the climate emergency cannot and will not be limited to bold climate action within individual companies, nor as a global community, but will also be focused on bold advocacy to upend the system failure of shareholder primacy.
Agency to Act in Such a Time as This
We are facing a global emergency that threatens our only home and all our children. It’s time for leaders to lead. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019, Greta Thunberg famously said, “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” One B Corp CEO has said when evaluating his own and his company’s climate actions: “Does it meet the Greta test?”
B Corps recognize their agency as individual businesses, and as a collective force, to act — and in so doing to literally change the course of history. That agency, that power, resides in every one of us as individual human beings — in everything we say, do, write, eat, buy, and invest in. We have the power to rewrite our future as a species. Reversing the damage done by climate change, and designing and growing a new economy that plays by different rules will be long and hard work. LET’S GET TO WORK!
Kim Coupounas serves as a Global Ambassador for B Lab, as a delegate to the B Corp Global Climate Task Force representing the U.S. and Canada, and as co-leader of the B Corp Climate Collective. She is also formerly CEO and co-founder of one of the earliest Certified B Corps.
B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.
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For Such a Time as This: Climate Action and True Leadership in a Time of Crisis was originally published in B the Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.