Saving our planet: What your charity can do to help the climate

Climate change is threatening life on earth and humankind is running out of time to reverse its damage. But we are the first generation to recognise it, and charities can't afford to be complacent in their impact.


“If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the life of a teenager today,” David Wallace-Wells wrote in his book, The Uninhabitable Earth.

The facts are as follows: global warming means our planet is getting hotter. We’re experiencing more rainfall, changing seasons, shrinking sea ice and rising sea levels. Sure – we had a brief summer in February and it felt glorious, but the unpredictable conditions are far from pleasant. They are a threat to both wildlife and humans.

According to Wallace-Wells, the climate window that has allowed for human life is ‘extremely narrow’, and at 11 or 12°C of warming, “more than half of the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat”.

But we are currently the first generation of humans to ever recognise the damage humankind is having on the planet, and to be actively fighting against it. A report published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found limiting man-made global warming will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, and at this stage, it is entirely possible. According to the IPCC, the world has just 12 years to limit climate change to 1.5°C.

Public expectations

These facts are overwhelming, particularly for the average person who is attempting to make a dent on societal changes alone. But for large organisations, the potential impact is huge, and the public knows it.

A report, published by New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) on public trust, revealed the public is increasingly looking to charities to be more transparent about their spending in the arena. Whilst this largely revolves around executive pay, the public is also becoming more expectant of charities to be clear about how much money is being spent on the cause, and furthermore, how much money is being spent on wider-societal impact.

Some charities are already recognising the power they have in making a difference, and are beginning to use their platforms as an opportunity to push climate change up boardroom agendas.

In March, a coalition of charities, green groups and faith organisations called for the Charity Tribunal to provide clarity on their fiduciary duty with regards to climate risk. The charities, including RSPB, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Nesta, Ashden Trust and ClientEarth urged the Charity Commission and Attorney General to make it a legal duty for charity trustees to ensure their investments support their charitable aims and their duty to provide public benefit. But more notably, the coalition also requested specific legal guidance on whether charities should invest in companies that contribute to dangerous climate change, noting that temperature rises above the UN target of 1.5 per cent “present substantial risks to the overall economy, as well as to individual investment portfolios” and may undermine the aims charities exist to achieve.

Professor Nicholas Stern, chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment highlights that charities exist for public benefit and it is “entirely logical” that their investment decisions should also promote public benefit.

“Over the coming decades, the world will make massive investments in the global economy, particularly in infrastructure and productive capital. How we make those investment decisions is critical for the future of our planet,” he explains.

“We will either lock in sustainable prosperity or follow something like current paths which would involve unprecedented environmental risks for our children and grandchildren.
“The new and cleaner form of growth will be sustainable and inclusive, and very attractive, and the associated investments are likely to show a better risk-return profile for charities than those in old-fashioned, dirty and risky activities. Charities can and should lead by example, and need stronger and clearer guidance on their investment decisions.”

Eco-friendly workspaces

While investing in greener assets is essential for charities moving forward, there are some more direct steps organisations can be making to showcase an active attitude towards tackling global warming.

Large environmental, wildlife and conservation charities naturally have the environment at the forefront of their workplace culture already. For example, WWF UK resides in its very own Living Planet Centre – an eco-building, designed by Hopkins Architects and based in Woking, Surrey. The charity’s HQ is designed to help the organisation reduce its carbon footprint, making it one of the greenest buildings in the world.

“We’re proud to be based in the award-winning Living Planet Centre, which is a great place to work. Its renewable energy, rainwater harvesting, smart energy efficiency and sustainable building materials make it one of the greenest offices in the UK,” Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at the charity said.

Baby steps

But for smaller organisations, the prospect of owning and working in such a building will feel far from reality. So what smaller steps can charities of all sizes take to reduce their carbon footprint and show their impact on climate change?

WWF’s Redmond-King points out that charities “don’t need to build themselves a shiny new office to make their charity a greener place to work”. “There are lots of simple actions that cut the impact your workplace has on the world,” he explains.

“Reducing single-use plastic, recycling, composting and using recycled products all help, as well as making sure that you are using energy efficient lights and appliances, turning lights and computers off when they’re not needed, and buying eco-friendly cleaning products. It’s always worth checking who supplies your energy too – is the building on a renewable tariff?” he notes.

“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.”

And being sustainable in this manner doesn’t have to be expensive, or difficult. Chris Todhunter, founder of StudioRepublic, a sustainable design agency explains that adopting a sustainable approach to decisionmaking can lead to reduced overheads in the process.
“Each small step makes a difference,” he says. “The combined change over a course of a year can be huge.” “No matter what your organisation is and what your objectives are, being ethical can very easily become one of them.”

Some sustainable choices can be easy to implement and create huge savings in the long-run, such as switching off all devices at weekends, rather than allowing them to stay on standby, or encouraging ‘meat-free Mondays’.

“By turning off devices that were previously left on standby we saved the equivalent of boiling our kettle 10 times each weekend,” StudioRepublic’s Todhunter says. “And eating one less burger a week is the same as taking your car off the road for 320 miles. Multiply that by the number of employees in an organisation and the impact can be huge.”

“As a collective, embrace the Good Life Goals,” he continues. “These are a way of contributing to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in everyday life. They’re simple changes we can make as individuals to lower our impact.”

Employee retention

Climate change has become such a global issue, that not only do the general public expect businesses and charities to act, but employees expect their own employers to join in, too.

In July 2017, a group of researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US, published a paper looking at the impact of employee benefits related to climate change on employee attitudes.

It found a number of organisations already offering these kind of benefits, such as cycle to work schemes, or paid leave during or after periods of extreme weather related to climate change.

“[These kind of benefits] lead to better employee retention as people, particularly millennials, want to work for organisations that care,” StudioRepublic’s Todhunter says. “It also feeds into more effective customer/donor engagement as people engage more with caring brands. If your team are motivated and share in this vision, it improves motivation and productivity and reduces staff absence.”

Setting the tone from the top

But to make some of these changes, it’s important to set a new, greener tone from the top of the organisation, that transpires right down to the front line.

However, dictating how an organisation is run isn’t always the most effective method for change, and encouraging all members of staff to get involved can be much more effective.
A new tool, commonly used by organisations with a particularly large employee base, is Workplace by Facebook, which offers employees with a safe space to share best practice, generate creative ideas and create meaningful connections across the business.

Kathy Vozella, director of marketing and external relations at Australian Catholic University claims collaboration tools like these give staff “an edge and make a real difference”, particularly to an organisation’s environmental stance.

“For example, our national sustainability manager, Mark Doggett, posted a message about disposable coffee cups onto his news feed. It was seen, shared and commented on by staff members, which resulted in a campaign that cut plastic consumption on campus,” she says.

“Within two and a half months, the university was able to convince all café operators on campus to offer people a discount on using reusable cups, instead of their environmentally-harmful counterpart.”

Jo Morely, head of marketing at plastic pollution charity, City to Sea agrees, explaining the whole team needs to be able to buy into the changes that are being made, and they need to understand why. “Change doesn’t happen overnight and it needs to be authentic – make sure your organisation understands why you are making changes and reward and incentivise behavioural change,” she adds.

“Have a clear vision for where you would like to be as an organisation and set a road map for how you will get there. Start small and take one step at a time so it doesn’t become unmanageable. Most importantly try to have fun along the way.”

It takes a village

It’s often easy to get caught up in the wider, long-term impacts that we as individuals, and as organisations, can have when it comes to climate change, but arguably, the biggest changes happen when people collaborate on a smaller things, across a much wider scale. For example, if everyone ate less or no meat, Co2 emissions would be halved, and if we all gave up our cars and opted for cycling or walking, we’d be reducing our Co2 emissions by 2.5 tonnes, figures show.

“Climate change is threatening life on earth, plastics are choking our seas, and wildlife is struggling at home and abroad. The UK’s emissions must reach net-zero by 2045 if we are to stand a chance of protecting and restoring our precious planet for nature and people,” Redmond-King concludes.

“Government must lead and make the policy and resource available to drive this. But organisations and individuals are critical as well – both cutting our footprint, and making a noise about it to help others do it too.” ■

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