Climate change protest

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Only hard and fast rules across the industry can solve failures of collective action and low ambition

2021 is the year the corporate climate commitment machine seemed to go into hyperdrive. From ‘net zero’ Mars Bars to ‘plastic offsets’, we’ve seen schemes good, bad and downright dubious launched into the media spotlight.

Last week saw a bumper edition, with five retailers (Co-op, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Tesco and Waitrose) signing up to WWF’s ‘Commitment for Nature’ – a pledge to halve the environmental impact of UK shopping baskets, with action across seven issue areas. As COP26’s official negotiations head into their final days, are all these retailer pledges a big step forward, or more of Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah blah blah?’ Sadly, there are good reasons to fear the latter.

The first big problem lies in the nature of voluntary business pledges. The evidence is clear most voluntary commitments tend to deliver a lot in the way of PR noise, but little in the way of action. They are plagued by a lack of transparency and low participation rates once the publicity bonus of the first announcement is over.

In 2015, one of the few studies on the effectiveness of voluntary business measures found most schemes set unambitious targets and then fail to achieve them. At Feedback we’ve seen this play out in food waste, where years of collective action has resulted in minimal progress, which is why we’re strongly urging the government to stop delaying its long-awaited proposals on mandatory food waste reporting and targets.

The second problem lies in the fact the right long-term decisions will often involve short-term pain. If the policy and corporate world had woken up to the realities of climate change and nature loss several decades earlier, this transition might have been gentler. But we’ve left it until the 11th hour, and as such there are sharp course corrections needed.

As one example, reducing meat and dairy sales by at least half doesn’t sound like something any retailer would want to do. It is, however, necessary if retailers are going to seriously slash their product and supply chain emissions, which represent around 85-95% of their overall emissions burden. A recent Feedback report focused on retailers in the Netherlands found around a third of retailer emissions come from their meat and dairy sales. Reaching absolute 1.5 degree science-based targets means facing this reality.

A third problem with voluntary action is the temptation to play ‘get out of jail free’ cards. Iceland made the unusual move this week of admitting it wouldn’t reach its own target on plastics. The solution the retailer reached for – a proposal to ‘offset’ its remaining plastics to reach its target – is typical of the challenge of squaring profit priorities and environmental realities.

Carbon offsetting, on which Iceland’s plastics solution is based, has been widely discredited as one of the riskiest corporate sustainability trends: a ‘have your cake and eat it’ situation which fails to put us on a real pathway to decarbonization and instead bakes in false solutions.

Ultimately, the real solution is regulation. Only hard and fast rules across the industry can level the playing field and solve failures of collective action and low ambition. While the government ties itself in knots over the agricultural and food transition, it’s up to civil society, media and the industry to keep asking difficult questions about business action, because it’s all too easy to grow complacent in the face of a barrage of pledges and promises.

So much is at stake: the beauty and diversity of our natural world, the existence of thousands of species, the lives, livelihoods and rights of millions of people. Already, a climate-induced famine is occurring in Madagascar and climate disasters cause more displacement than wars. The true measure of any corporate commitment or action is not ‘is this more than has been promised before?’ but ‘is this enough for the challenge we face?’