Creating Accountability on Climate Change

Yesterday, President Elect Obama vowed to place climate change at the top of his agenda – a move I applaud.  His strongly-worded remarks were both refreshing and reassuring, a sharp contrast against the refusal of administrations, Democratic and Republican, over the last several decades to address climate change in any meaningful fashion.

Impacts of climate change can be felt across borders and across every sector of civic society.  We are living through the dreadful awareness of what happens when we try to manage inter-connected systems with conventional, unconnected governance models.  Who knew that American real estate speculators could help unravel the world’s banking system?  “Environmental crisis” is poised to replace “economic crisis” in news headlines around the world; and for this crisis, no “bail out” plan will rescue us, or future generations, from the real damage being done to our physical environment.

In addition to Washington putting climate change at the top of its agenda, another complementary, yet elementary, part – if you want a real solution to climate change – is at the cash register you visit every day. As powerful and relevant as the government is, for-profit business has a huge, even outsized impact on the question of climate change. CEOs – yes, that demonized group characterized by greed and self dealing – have the potential to foster huge, positive impact on climate change.  Businesses buy and sell along a value chain that stretches across the globe, from developed economies to developing economies. 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, transportation. And if you want to influence those choices – you, the citizen consumer – can.  Imagine if you insisted on organic content in the food you purchase.  Lo and behold – an entire industry springs into action, to deliver organic produce.  Imagine if you demanded that Timberland or Nike or the Gap use organic cotton, rather than pesticide laden factory-farmed cotton.  Just imagine.

I am not saying government doesn’t have an important role in solving climate change – clearly it does.  But if we expect President Elect Obama or Congress to solve the issues facing the environment alone, we’re fooling ourselves.  It will take more effort to reverse the damage being done to our environment worldwide. Citizen consumers have the power to force change, by holding brands and businesses to a higher standard – and in turn many businesses must change they way they currently operate.  With everyday “votes” on what goods and services you buy, you can create a different kind of accountability on climate change.  Consumers can use their purchasing power to hold corporate America responsible for doing more than “working on” climate change.

Jeff Swartz
President & CEO, Timberland

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