How Charities Can Do More to Combat Climate Change

In October 2018, the UN’s IPCC Report on Global Warming pulled no punches. The world ‘has just 12 years to limit climate change to 1.5°C.’ And in November 2019, a global study by 11,000 scientists declared climate change to be a “clear and unequivocal emergency”.

In the words of Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, ‘The decisions we make today are critical in ensuring a safe and sustainable world for everyone, both now and in the future.

Whether it’s Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion or competition between the main political parties to be seen as the lead on this issue in the 2019 UK General Election—there’s no doubt that the climate change crisis is the global issue of our time.

The fight to cut the speed of global warming requires vast societal changes, as well as never-seen-before levels of international cooperation. The measures taken by governments and global corporations will have the greatest effect, but all organisations have a responsibility to act. Including charities.

every day is earth day - charities and climate change

Moreover, people expect charities to take a lead

Recent articles in Charity Times and Third Sector highlight this; how the public are looking to charities to take a decisive role here.

As Professor Nicholas Stern (Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment) is quoted as saying in Charity Times, ‘charities exist for public benefit, and it is “entirely logical” that their investment decisions should also promote public benefit… Charities can and should lead by example.’ 

And this applies to all charities—whatever their purpose, environmental or otherwise. It doesn’t matter what your organisation does; we all leave footprints.

“ We cannot pretend that each charity operates within a vacuum, solely focused on its own cause. ”

Hayley Gullen, Third Sector

But where do you even begin?

There are lots of different ways in which organisations have an impact on the environment, and it can be bafflingly hard to know where to start. As an individual, you can easily feel as though you’ve overslept and missed out on some of the key lectures when it comes to climate change—while others, more informed than you, are racing ahead.

So, prioritise. Focus on the key changes your charity can make that will have the greatest impact.

There are things you can do to have an immediate, material effect (like switching to a zero-carbon energy provider).

And others that have a less quantifiable, but still significant impact:

  • Provide reusable water bottles
  • Go paperless
  • Lay off the thermostat
  • Encourage things like ‘Meatless Mondays’
  • Turn off power points at the end of the day
  • Get plenty of office plants

In a recent article on his blog, Attention to Attention: Sustainability, ethics, society and effective altruism, Louis Dixon (Operations Specialist at the Centre for Effective Altruism) discusses this dilemma; exploring some of the research that can help you prioritise actions based on their effectiveness. He argues that what really matters is high impact—we need to use evidence and analysis to work out what makes the biggest difference.

Look at plastic bags. While it’s undoubtedly good to cut back on the number of them we pick up, research from the Environment Agency, highlights that it’s not what the bags are made of, but how much they’re used, that’s important. So, ‘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.

That means there’s no merit in having lots of eco-friendly cotton bags gathering dust at the bottom of your stationery cupboard.

Dixon talks here about the danger of ‘greenwashing’; when organisations take steps to look like they’re doing something sustainable or ‘good for the environment’—while actually papering over the cracks and failing to prioritise actions that will have the most significant impact.

sustainable changes in the office - charity climate change

First, set up a sustainability team

If your charity is too small to have a dedicated person in charge of sustainability, then create a team that brings in a representative from all areas of the organisation. Then invest in this team so that they have the time and authority to research and decide which areas will have the most impact.

Some of the key decisions are clearly for the charity to make at a board/leadership level—and others are about creating a community of people within the charity to build enthusiasm and encourage new ideas.

Then get your leadership/trustee board involved

In all sorts of ways, this is what it’s really about. It’s the opposite of greenwashing. It’s about taking bold actions to change how your organisation operates to reduce your environmental footprint.

Consider every aspect of your organisations, from the supply chains to the projects you run. Are they all working towards the same goal of sustainability?

Here a few ways you can start changing your in-office practices.

talk to leadership - charities and climate change

Review your supply chain and green procurement

Draw up sustainability criteria that all purchasing-managers must stick to when sourcing goods and services.

Have also a policy on electronics and whether they can be recycled.

Do you have the funds to invest in an eco-friendlier office building?

The World Wildlife Fund sets the standard here in the most inspirational way, with their award-winning new HQ, the Living Planet Centre. Built on a brownfield site in Surrey, this stunning building has been designed to reduce their carbon footprint to a minimum. It’s so good, you can even sign up for a tour!

Clearly, most charities won’t be able to do anything like this, but there are still many energy-saving measures you can take with your existing building, like:

  • Insulation
  • Double/triple-glazed windows
  • Switching to zero-carbon energy providers—like Ovo, Bulb or Ecotricity
  • LED lighting
  • Install motion-activated light switches

Eco-friendly alternatives - charities and climate change

Think about the impact of your facilities

From more efficient toilets to reduce wasting water, switching to eco-friendly cleaning products, providing re-usable cups, plates, etc., as well as recycling bins, there’s lots you can do here.

Encourage eco-friendly travel alternatives

Provide incentives for staff to take the train, bus, cycle or walk—rather than driving. Look at things like subsidised ticket loans, car-pool and cycle-to-work schemes.

“ Transport is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, so anything that makes it easier and more practical for staff to walk, cycle or use public transport to get to work is a much better alternative to having to rely on travelling by car. ”

Gareth Redmond-King, Head of Climate Change and the World Wildlife Fund

Make sure you’re consistent and lead from the top. Cut back on unnecessary air travel and encourage remote working where possible.

cycle to work - charities and climate change

Every little helps—or does it?

This is something Dixon discusses in his article. It’s true that some recent ‘eco’ measures, like banning plastic straws, have probably gained more publicity than they deserve. Plastic straws account for a tinier amount of plastic pollution in our oceans than say fishing. 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 are ways to make a truly outstanding difference.

But that doesn’t mean you reject the idea that ‘every little helps’. It’s all about changing behaviour and starting small can lead to bigger adjustments down the line. It’s critically important to keep momentum and enthusiasm up among your staff.

Young people, in particular, are increasingly informed and committed to sustainability and you should tap into this by encouraging communities that share ideas (large or small) and publicise what you’re doing across the organisation.

So start small to make a big change. The more charities that do it, the more impact we’ll have.

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About the author

Jean Merrylees

Jean Merrylees is a freelance content writer and editor who has previously written for the BBC. Jean is now taking her first steps into the charity sector after spending some time writing for both Diabetes UK & CharityJob.