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How Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations Can Support Corporate Climate Change Initiatives


Corporate climate change action has become increasingly important, yet many large companies continue to face challenges in reducing their environmental footprint and transitioning to more sustainable practices. At the same time, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) have a long history of promoting climate action and holding companies accountable for their impacts. With shared goals of mitigating climate change but different approaches, ENGOs and corporations now have an opportunity to work together constructively.


Today we will explore how ENGOs can play a supportive role in corporate climate change efforts through collaboration, technical expertise, and help navigating stakeholder pressures.


Research Foundation

Scholars have found that collaborative partnerships between corporations and advocacy groups can lead to mutual benefit when goals are reasonably aligned (Austin, 2000;den Hond & de Bakker, 2007). At the same time, others warn that ENGOs risk losing credibility or independence by becoming too close to industry (Rowell, 1996). A balanced approach is needed.


Providing Expert Guidance on Setting and Achieving Ambitious Targets

Setting science-based greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets is an important first step for companies addressing their climate impacts. However, the complexities of quantifying emissions across global operations and scopes presents challenges that some firms may lack internal expertise to fully address. ENGOs can play an advisory role by sharing leading practices on target-setting methodologies, baseline inventories, and transparent reporting. For example, environmental non-profits partnering directly with companies have supported targets validated through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi, 2021).


Navigating Supply Chain Engagement

Extending climate action beyond a company's direct operations to include upstream and downstream partners is critical but often daunting due to the breadth and complexity of modern supply chains. ENGOs with deep knowledge of industries and geographies can help identify high-impact areas for engagement. They may also understand local issues and stakeholders that companies need to consider when developing collaborative programs. As an example, The Nature Conservancy worked with McDonald’s to map the company’s climate and water impacts globally and identify priority commodities and regions for partnership (TNC, 2021).


Mobilizing Stakeholder Support and Managing Reputational Risks

External stakeholder pressures from consumers, investors or communities concerned with climate impacts present reputational risks for companies. At the same time, stakeholder buy-in is important for building long-term strategic support. ENGOs have longstanding relationships with local groups and a broader constituency that trusts them as advocates. They are well positioned to facilitate inclusive multi-stakeholder processes that balance competing interests, manage tensions, and build consensus around corporate climate plans. For instance, the Environmental Defense Fund partnered with Walmart to engage investors, suppliers, and grassroots organizations in developing the retailer's ambitious emissions reductions strategy (EDF, 2021).


Technical Support for Decarbonization Pathways

Transitioning operations and products to low-carbon alternatives requires intricate analysis of technological options, infrastructure needs, and business model transformations. Corporation-ENGO collaborations could see environmental non-profits providing subject matter expertise to map pathways toward net-zero goals. They may evaluate prospective carbon removal and renewable energy solutions. Assess charging infrastructure requirements for fleet electrification. Or model impacts of zero-waste packaging redesigns. In healthcare, The Climate Group supported Johnson & Johnson's efforts to develop science-based targets and roadmaps across its value chain (The Climate Group, 2020).


Piloting Sustainable Business Models

Some companies may reach innovation frontiers more quickly by testing new low-carbon business concepts through localized pilots before deploying at scale. ENGOs are well-suited partners here due their grasp of niche technologies and local conditions. For example, non-profits partnered with Patagonia to trial closed-loop textile recycling programs in select communities before scaling globally (Patagonia, 2021). Or worked with IKEA to conceptualize and demo circular “ furniture as a service” rental models in test markets as an alternative to traditional retail (IKEA, 2021). Pilots explore feasibility while managing risks to brands from premature large-scale implementations.


Validating Progress and Verifying Impacts

Independent verification of climate actions and reporting builds trust with stakeholders. ENGOs perform this role well through technical auditing capabilities and distance from corporate influences. They can quantitatively assess emissions reductions from efficiency projects or renewable investments. Qualitatively evaluate if stakeholder engagement programs have intended effects. Or check if supply chain programs are on track to meet intermediate targets. This helps companies address the “greenwashing” critique and reassures the public that ambitious commitments are followed by real reductions. For example, the Carbon Trust assisted Primark in assuredly reporting against science-based scope 3 goals (Carbon Trust, 2021).


Conclusion

Mitigating climate change demands unprecedented coordination between all sectors. While ENGOs and corporations do not always see eye to eye, they share the overarching goal of preventing catastrophic warming. By embracing a collaborative instead of antagonistic approach, environmental non-profits are well positioned to support businesses navigating the transition to sustainability. Their deep issue expertise, relationships, and accountability to citizens as advocates can aid companies accelerating decarbonization, managing stakeholder dynamics, and boosting credibility of climate actions through independent oversight. With advancing partnerships, both non-profits and corporations gain capacities to realize climate solutions at the pace and scale urgently needed.


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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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