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This House Believes Too Many Companies Are Only Paying Lip-Service to the Green Agenda

Posted: 27/09/2012 09:28

On Thursday 27 September, the Cambridge Union, in conjunction with Deloitte, are hosting a debate on the green agenda and corporate social responsibility. Here, two of our members write on the subject.

Natasha Kudryashova, Co-Chair of Ethical Affairs at the Cambridge University Students Union, writes in favour of the motion:

The recent years have seen considerable achievements in businesses becoming or aiming to become more environmentally responsible, as an alternative to heading into darkness of destroying our own habitat. But are we achieving enough?

On the face of it, the progress in companies proclaiming good environmental practices is enormous. Nowadays it is unthinkable for any company aiming to position itself as a respectful player on the market to openly deny the importance of pursuing a green agenda. Most companies have in place policies to develop and establish a reputation for being green. In some industries it seems 'compulsory' for the companies to widely promote their investment into 'going green' portfolios.

For instance, all major UK energy providers, as well as regular airlines, invest one way or the other in some kind of a green scheme. In addition, there are also substantial; achievements in terms of friendliness to the environment of the actual products we consume. For example, substantial number of products sold and bought everyday in the UK can be at least partially recycled or made of recycled material. Nevertheless, the impacts of human activity even within the UK seem to substantially grow rather than decline. Most energy we consume still comes from unsustainable sources. Mountains of garbage grow higher and higher every day. Problems of limited land fill space for house hold waste has seen rubbish exported to developing countries for exploitation and recycling by poorly paid workers. The amount of household waste produced by countries in the advanced economies could be built higher than the Himalayas. Does this mean that far too many companies are hypocritical with respect to pursuing green agenda?

It is certainly the case that the companies are restrained in pursuing green agenda by various technical, economical, as well as other constraints. However, the question that still remains is if the companies are doing enough and are sufficiently serious about becoming greener even if we suppose these constraints cannot be overcome.

It cannot be forgotten that business is about making money. One of a possible range of approaches a company may take is to deliver a product which is promoted as'sufficiently environmentally friendly' to secure an advantage in their market. Even when there are alternatives the company with such an approach may not select the best solution for the environment, but go for the one that will maximise the profit margin by increasing sales. It is evident that in order to be in business a for-profit company has to create profit and create value to its investors or at least not to bring them loses.

Are all the products advertised as green alternatives are indeed such? Are all the companies that present themselves by the state of art marketing campaigns as having genuine concern for the environment are indeed such? Are all the extensively advertised 'green schemes' actually do any good to the environment?

One of the famous proverbs says that not everything that shines is gold. The example of containers of household waste from the South East of England being exported to Indonesia and other such countries to be recycled has just moved the problem to a poorer parts of the world where there are fewer resources to manage the problem as it was reported by BBC Panorama already a few years ago.

Nevertheless, there are many examples when actually reducing negative impact on the environment brought extra revenues to companies as well as helped to create jobs. For example, developing a waste recycling industry. Are there possible extensions to this?

Can domestic waste be better used to generate local electricity supply? Can improvements be made in reducing packing and recycling of plastic waste?

There are many green avenues to be explored, but are we keen enough to do it? In times of austerity what is the appetite for the initial costs of making these changes?

Charlotte Alfonsi writes in opposition to the motion:

As a finalist looking to apply for a job for after graduation, I've been perusing lots of companies' websites in trying to ascertain what I would like to do post-Cambridge. Each firm's page has a different focus: some may push a snazzy video about their work, others are more statistics-based, and a few highlight the fantastic testimonials they've had from their household name clients. Almost all of them have one element in common, however: a section on CSR. Whether it's photos of employees saving turtles on the Galapagos Islands on sabbatical, or an article about pro-bono legal work in an inner-city slum, or a host of promises on reducing carbon emissions, every firm seems to want to prove how very ethical it is. Of course, with all the current fears surrounding climate change and global warming, the green agenda is at the top of the priority list in showing corporate social responsibility.

To put it frankly: this is nonsense. As a follower of Friedman, I would argue that a company's sole purpose should be to maximise its returns for its shareholders. Whether a firm is "socially responsible" or not is therefore of no consequence whatsoever. Although companies should clearly follow the laws of the countries in which they operate, beyond this they have no other obligation to society. So beyond any government legislation concerning the green agenda, firms have no reason to concern themselves with the environment whatsoever. Their only job should be to make sure that their shareholders receive the highest possible returns.

Indeed, corporate social responsibility is not compatible with the very nature and purpose of business. It is an obstacle to free trade, which, contrary to what some might say, has in itself created positive social effects through the economic growth brought about by enterprise. Where the free market has been allowed to flourish, there have been major improvements in health, longevity and infant mortality.

While I agree that as individuals in society, people have an obligation to be socially responsible, which includes respecting and protecting the environment and our planet, the green agenda is not something which companies should care about. I would therefore argue that instead of too few companies committing themselves to the green agenda, there are rather too many!


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