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So Who Wouldn’t We Work With?

February 2021 by Dave Coleman

Carbon Literacy works with all audiences and in all contexts, so over the years we’ve been challenged in public on a number of occasions with the question “So is there any organisation you wouldn’t work with?”. Usually, this is followed up with something like “If [insert name of organisation with appalling record on climate change] approached you, would you work with them?”

The implication of the question is that some organisations are “good” and fine for us to work with, some are “OK” and OK for us to work with, and some organisations so “bad” that there is no hope for them, and to work with them would be “selling out” and potentially undermining our green credentials.

When we were in the process of creating The Carbon Literacy Project, we thought about this issue for a long time.

Carbon Literacy is a low-carbon culture-change project, explicitly embracing “everyone who lives, works and studies” in reducing emissions. Therefore on the face of it, perhaps we should boycott organisations that have a record of polluting behaviour and emissions, and not work with them. But if what we really want is for organisations with an appalling record to stop being appalling, surely we are in fact obliged to engage with them? In fact, perhaps to seek out those very organisations specifically to work with them? After all, they are the organisations that need to change the most, and have the most capacity to change?

However, if a “bad” organisation promises that they have now changed, and we, therefore, badge them as culturally Carbon Literate, how does that sit against their historic record of pollution? What about the risk that a polluting or environmentally damaging organisation passes our tests, and then badges itself as a Carbon Literate Organisation? Does this not undermine the credibility of Carbon Literacy and all the hard work that the huge ecosystem of Carbon Literacy trainers, learners and organisations participating in our collective project have invested in? What about the risk that an organisation simply wants to use Carbon Literacy as “greenwash” to paper over the cracks in its performance; is that OK?

We grappled with these questions for some while before our team and the Carbon Literacy Trust arrived at the position we currently hold.

Firstly, as an ethical charity, there are some organisations we would find it very hard to have any level of engagement with: totalitarian regimes, and organisations established to engage in criminal activity spring to mind. These are entities that need to be shut down not engaged with.

However, that leaves a host of organisations that have a hugely polluting past, but recognising the scientific reality, are now rapidly shifting position.

The automotive industry is a prime example. From a position where some global motoring organisations mocked action on climate change and tacitly supported climate change denial, to tolerance of the view that things would need to change “eventually”, to engagement, to transformation, and now the planned phasing out of fossil fuel vehicle manufacture by almost all the world’s vehicle manufacturers. That shift in position has been only ten years in the making. Although this action alone is far from being a complete answer to climate change, in taking a substantial step forward in reducing society’s emissions and changing the way society thinks about energy and climate change, the automotive industry is transforming in front of our eyes.

Should we say these organisations are now Carbon Literate? If not now, then at what point? Should we wait until they have largely sorted their act out before we engage with them to help them change their culture? What about their historic ambivalence – in fact at times downright hostility – to action on climate change? Can we just ignore that?

Here’s our position.

  1. Subject to ethical red lines hinted at above, we engage with any organisation that sincerely wants to use Carbon Literacy as a tool to materially change its culture, catalyse the actions of its people, and accelerate its thinking and action to reduce emissions in line with the speed and scale that the science now demands.

    This extends to work both within the organisation and, through the use of its influence, work “outside the fence-line”, working with its supply chain and within its sector. If an organisation is currently highly polluting, we need it to move onto a pathway towards being less polluting. Or perhaps not polluting at all. Or perhaps even making a positive contribution towards negative emissions, either through its own activities or using its influence in a positive way within its sector and more widely in society.

  2. We will from time to time engage with organisations that either have a history of high carbon emissions, or are high emitters now, or engage in activity that can be viewed as anti-environmental. In this kind of relationship, we will work with a historically or currently polluting organisation and use Carbon Literacy to help them reduce their damaging activity. Individuals can learn, apply and be certified as Carbon Literate (which is an individual certification that belongs to the learner) and if those individuals choose to, they can publicise their individual Carbon Literacy, but…
  3. Where we work with organisations that are historically or currently highly polluting or anti-environmental, we won’t publicise that organisation’s use of Carbon Literacy, or support or collaborate with marketing or other communications activity in social or traditional media, or reveal any Carbon Literate Organisational accreditation. And we will make it clear that as part of our relationship, we expect the organisation to do the same.

The consequences of this approach are clear.

If an organisation is sincere in wanting to substantially change its culture, there is no downside to engaging with Carbon Literacy on this basis.

The benefits of more Carbon Literate staff or participants will make themselves felt in the organisation’s activities and their footprint. The organisation can publicise and be judged on the environmental progress it is actually making as a consequence, without any need to publicise Carbon Literacy itself. As the organisation moves towards increasing environmental responsibility, this will allow us to review its status, and perhaps then, as part of our relationship, announce, publicise and promote the progress the organisation has made in changing its culture, to inspire others.

Conversely, if an organisation wasn’t entirely sincere in its initial engagement, and viewed Carbon Literacy simply as a quick badge to try to “paper over the cracks”, there is no value in doing so, if no greenwashing of its reputation can occur – so the organisation is unlikely to engage. The policy itself thus becomes a test of whether the organisation is sincerely engaging with and becoming Carbon Literate – or not.

We are well aware that this policy isn’t a perfect answer to the challenge, but our position is nuanced, carefully thought out, and we continue to think hard about how to deal with these issues.

And we welcome your ideas!

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