I first woke up to climate change when I was about 13. We covered the greenhouse effect at school and were told about the direct relationship between carbon emissions and a warming planet. What struck me more than the information about temperature increase was a page in our Geography textbook showing how the world map would change in the future as sea levels rise. This was in about 1995 and it was taught, like most things at school, as fact. What’s more, we were taught that the impacts would occur within our own lifetimes. Looking back, that Geography lesson was the moment that my worldview started shifting, from teenage motor sports fanatic to environmentalist.
By the time I got to university, I was committed to pursuing a career that combined design with sustainability. When Vineeta and I then started Wholegrain Digital in 2007, sustainability was at the core of our business plans. Our aim was to not just help positive organisations succeed, but to be a shining example of how a business can be run in a way that is both environmentally and financially sustainable. We designed the business from the outset to minimise its environmental impact, including our service rather than physical product offering and our remote working culture. We spent the first few years going through the classic startup challenges, made even harder by our desire to stick to our own principles, and after a slow start our reputation spread and the business thrived. 12 years later, I feel we’ve proved that sustainable business is possible.
It was in 2014 while flying to the US for a holiday that I read This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and I realised the insanity of what I was doing at that moment. I believed that I cared about the future, but my actions didn’t tell the same story. I needed to start doing more than just the easy wins and make some tough decisions in both my personal life and our business operations.
In my personal life I sold our diesel and bought an electric car, shifted from a vague-etarian diet to a plant-based diet and made a plan to radically reduce my use of air travel. At Wholegrain we introduced a strict no-fly policy, started monitoring our emissions and taxing ourselves for carbon. We formalised our project selection process, certified as a B Corp, and integrated sustainability into every aspect of our web work, including design, development and hosting. We have also actioned various initiatives to encourage our team to reduce their personal impact, such as offering incentives to switch to renewable energy at home.
We’ve made huge progress as a business over the past few years and I’m proud of what we’ve achieved as a team, but I believe that we need to keep striving to go further. The past year has been a wake up call, even for myself. 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became the leading voice of reason, calling us to take action now to protect our future while we still have a chance. David Attenborough followed suit, better late than never, and pushed the issue into the mainstream, while Extinction Rebellion took to the streets to put pressure on our government. Together with others they have pointed out the obvious – that since my Geography lesson 24 years ago, we haven’t actually done anything to solve the problem. In fact, we’ve kept making the problem worse and are now running out of time.
So this brings us to our declaration of a climate emergency. The UK parliament was the first in the world to declare a climate emergency in May this year and our friends at Leap have been leading voices in asking businesses to do the same. I’ll admit that I dragged my feet on this one. I dragged my feet because I didn’t want to trivialise the issue by making a thoughtless declaration. I didn’t want to declare a climate emergency just because others were doing it. We had to have a good reason, and until now, I wasn’t sure what a declaration in itself would achieve. However, it’s now become clear to me that we do need to declare a climate emergency and that all businesses should do the same.
The reasons for us declaring a Climate Emergency are as follows:
There’s no doubt that humans are more successful at achieving things when we have a clear vision to focus on. The world we create is after all the manifestation of our collective vision, so it follows that solving the climate problem is far more likely to happen if we make it a central focus of what we do. Even in businesses like ours, sustainability is often treated as the icing on the cake, when in fact it needs to be treated as the foundation upon which everything else is built. Declaring a climate emergency sends a clear signal to all team members, suppliers and clients that sustainability needs to be a priority and not an afterthought. It focuses everyone’s minds and I’ve no doubt that this focus will deliver even better results.
At Wholegrain, we’ve always tried to operate in a responsible way, but we’ve done it because we want to, not because anyone is actually holding us to account. It’s well known that you are more likely to achieve a goal if you tell lots of people what you are trying to achieve. It seems we respond better to the accountability of our peers than to ourselves. Publicly declaring a climate emergency means that we have to be able to demonstrate what action we are taking and anyone can hold us to account on it.
There was a part of me that thought that we didn’t need to declare a climate emergency because we were already taking climate change seriously as a business. What I was missing is that if businesses like ours don’t declare a climate emergency, then we can’t expect businesses with less of an environmental focus do so. What the world needs is not for small businesses like ours to be sustainable, but for all businesses to be sustainable. Our greatest impact at Wholegrain therefore is not directly in our own actions, but in being an example and inspiration to other businesses, showing them why and how they can operate sustainably. Declaring a climate emergency is one more way that we can lead other businesses to take climate change seriously.
It’s a great milestone that the UK parliament has declared a climate emergency and that various other regional governments across the globe are following suit. However, I believe strongly in taking ownership for the impact of our own actions. Government has a lot of influence, but it has failed to take meaningful action for longer than I have been alive. Of course we should ask them to do their job properly, but we should first do our own jobs properly. A large proportion of human impact on the planet takes place through the actions of businesses. If we are to truly solve the climate crisis, we need the business community to face up to its role and tackle its own impact head on. When businesses declare a climate emergency, it sends a signal that businesses can and do have a big impact, and that we should do something about it.
The science is clear on climate change and it tells us that we need to take meaningful action now. We live in a world where we talk as if science is the rational basis for our decisions, in life and in business, and that scientific fact should never be disputed. Yet when it comes to climate change, we behave as if the science is meaningless. We cannot have it both ways. Either we believe the science or we deny the science. If we believe the science then we need to act like we believe it. Declaring a climate emergency says that we believe the science.
As much as any of the above reasons, I believe in calling a spade a spade. We’ve created a situation that threatens the lives of millions of people, not just in the future, but people who are already alive today. And yet we go about our business as if there’s no problem. We talk with great importance about this year’s profit margins, pension plans, GDP growth, the Wimbledon final, the latest Netflix series, and where we are flying to for the weekend. Yet we show almost no recognition of the fact that we are already in the greatest emergency ever to face humanity. We’ve brushed it under the carpet for too long and we need to call it what it is – an emergency. Declaring a climate emergency is one small step towards ending the collective denial that has driven us to this point, and a first step towards taking the radical action needed to ensure a positive future.
So that’s why we’ve declared a climate emergency, and that’s why your business should too.
The question should not be, why declare a climate emergency? The question should be, why not?
You can read our Declaration of a Climate Emergency here.
If you want to learn more about the current Climate Emergency and what it means to declare a climate emergency as a business, the following links and books are a good place to start.
- IPCC Special Report on Global Warming on 1.5C
- This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
- The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallis-Wells
- No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg
- Business declares a Climate Emergency
- The B Corp Climate Emergency Playbook
If you want to share ideas and chat about how business can help tackle climate change, get in touch and say hello.