By JEFF SWARTZ |
As leaders around the world grapple with how to craft policies to protect the environment, a new report from the United Nations shows what’s at stake for Asia. Recently, the U.N. Environment Program released a study of the effects of “black clouds” — particulate matter and other pollutants released by industry — and the results are sobering.
According to the U.N., this type of smog blocks between 10% and 25% of the natural sunlight that would otherwise shine on Beijing’s crowded streets. Wind and rain “washes” a portion of that smog onto the surface of the Himalayan glaciers, the water source for billions of people in China, India and Pakistan. Respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are on the rise; rice harvests are declining. Billions of people are living their lives literally and figuratively under a pervasive brown cloud. This is an environmental crisis with no bailout plan in sight.
This situation poses a serious challenge to policy makers and businessmen alike. If we expect the government or the self-regulating global business community to address the problem alone, we will be disappointed. Everyone has an oar to pull here.
Rather than necessarily being the “enemy,” for-profit business can be a force for good in the effort. Not only are many polluting activities directly under their control, but many businesses today buy and sell along a value chain stretching from developed economies to developing economies — giving every company the responsibility to contribute to a solution and also the reach to do so.
I’m not an environmental scientist or a meteorologist. I’m a third-generation, U.S.-based bootmaker. Why does an American bootmaker care about black clouds and deteriorating environmental conditions in China? I care because my company directly and indirectly employs about 160,000 people in stores, offices and factories in China, and we continue to expand our presence there by opening more and more stores. Environmental degradation negatively affects the lives of our employees, vendors and consumers.
CEOs can and do have a huge impact on climate change, in the way they run their businesses, in the choices they make about materials, energy use, chemical use and transportation. A few years ago, Timberland helped to convene a multicompany working group to address pollution from tanneries. Together we developed a streamlined method for auditing their environmental effects and created a forum for sharing data and best practices. Over the past five years, Timberland has also planted more than 700,000 trees in the Horqin Desert in Inner Mongolia in an effort to slow the rate of desertification and restore the barren area to the grassland it once was. The erosion of desert is causing severe drought and sand storms every spring, affecting hundreds of millions of people in northern China, some of whom are our customers.
Consumers also have a role to play here. “Citizen consumers” — individuals who vote with their dollars, every day — are in the best position to influence companies’ environmental choices. Consumers need to demand tangible change by holding the business community accountable using their wallets.
This is all a tall order at a tough time, when people are losing their homes, their jobs and their optimism. Understandably, the focus is largely on needs much more immediate than solving the climate crisis. However, the need to act for common good doesn’t go away when we’re facing multiple disasters, because the hovering smog and brown cloud over Asia won’t stop growing while we tend to other issues.