Why Climate Change Will Matter to Every Company

 BSR has recently fielded inquiries from a range of member companies asking how climate change is relevant to their business. 

The timing of these questions is obvious: With prospective climate change legislation and policy discussions in the United States and elsewhere, intensive international negotiations culminating later this year, and ongoing stakeholder interest, companies are scrambling to develop or boost their climate change strategies, assess their internal and supply chain emissions, and examine the potential risks and opportunities throughout their operations, value chain, and industry. 

For energy companies and heavy manufacturers, it has long been clear that climate change regulation would have a significant impact on business. And while some representatives from other industries still insist climate change is not relevant for them, the best available research indicates it is material for virtually every company, both in the traditional accounting sense and the sustainability context, which incorporates wider stakeholder concerns. Unlike issues such as animal welfare or toxic waste that may be irrelevant to some firms, climate change is never off the playing field for any company.

It’s About Owned Operations 

For companies that generate large quantities of greenhouse gases or purchase large amounts of energy, climate change regulation is clearly a significant issue that is likely to affect future costs. As recent negotiations in the U.S. Congress have shown, however, climate change regulation is not just about greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. It has significant implications for international trade, agriculture, transportation, and other areas.

In addition, physical risks and opportunities presented by climate change are already becoming manifest. Companies need to think about how a changing climate affects things such as heating and cooling needs, water availability, and emergency preparedness for catastrophic weather. An extended drought in Australia, for instance, has forced the food company Heinz to curtail production of tomato paste there, and to consider shifting other production out of the country. Meanwhile, nations and industries have begun to discuss the possibilities presented by expanded shipping through the Northwest Passage

Taking action in a company’s owned operations can also lay the foundation for business opportunities and reputation building through engagement with peers, suppliers, and customers. Although the retail industry is responsible for only a small amount of greenhouse gas emissions, for example, some retailers such as Walmart and Tesco have been applauded for addressing climate change throughout their value chains -- efforts that are founded in part on efficiency and renewable energy programs in their own stores. 

It’s About Supply Chains

For many companies, the most important climate change risks and opportunities may lie outside of their owned operations. As a 2008 McKinsey study noted, between 40 and 60 percent of manufacturers’ carbon footprints often lie in their supply chains. BSR has worked closely with food-processing companies and retailers whose supply chain emissions are more than three times larger than those represented by their own facilities and purchased energy. It’s important for companies to realize that climate change regulation may have significant implications for supply chain costs in carbon- and energy-intensive industries.

Greenhouse gas emissions and physical climate change impacts also have significant implications for logistics and transportation choices in the supply chain. Companies that have “Just-in-time” inventory systems may rely heavily on air transport for rapid shipment of goods to keep inventories low. However, air transport -- which contributes more than 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions -- has a much larger climate change impact than trucking, rail, or ocean cargo shipping. Increasingly, aviation is brought up as an area for regulation. In effect, climate change is a material issue for companies that have intricate supply chains or otherwise rely heavily on air travel and transport.

Climate change will also have significant physical impacts on supply chains. At BSR, we have seen more companies focus on this area, including Kraft, which is addressing growing climate and other risks to high-value tropical crops like coffee and cocoa by working with organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support its suppliers and encourage sustainable production.

The supply chain also presents climate-change-related opportunities. The confectionary company Cadbury, for example, is working closely with dairy suppliers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such actions benefit companies like Cadbury by strengthening the firm’s supply chain understanding and relationships and by improving its reputation for addressing climate change. It’s also possible that these efforts will provide financial benefits if the company is able to obtain carbon credits for use or sale. 

It’s About Customers and Consumers

In addition to “upstream” supply chains, climate change has growing implications for companies through their “downstream” customers and consumers. Nearly a decade ago, Ford Motor Co. was one of the first large companies to publicly address this issue through its corporate citizenship reports. Information technology companies like IBM and Cisco are touting the benefits of lower climate change impacts from their energy-saving products, while apparel companies such as Levi Strauss and Co. have begun using garment labels, promotions, and store staff to encourage customers to adopt reduced-energy washing practices.

Companies whose products generate substantial greenhouse gases during use aren’t the only ones for whom consumer climate change issues should be important. There are growing efforts to encourage consumers to select products with a smaller total greenhouse gas footprint (such as peanut butter rather than lunch meat), while physical climate change itself may shift customer preferences and needs. Farmers may begin planting more heat- and drought-tolerant crops, for example, while the spread of dengue fever and other diseases (PDF) is likely to significantly affect pharmaceuticals markets. Companies that understand and are prepared to meet these trends will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t.

It’s About Industry Dynamics

Physical climate change and related regulation will also lead to long-term changes in industry structures. Climate-related regulation, market incentives and other factors may encourage new competitors to enter an industry, as we see in the auto and energy fields, while climate change reporting and compliance requirements may increase barriers to entering other industries. 

It’s clear that climate change is one of the largest and most persistent sustainability megatrends of this generation -- and for many companies, the pinch points are obvious. For others, climate issues are more subtle, affecting the company indirectly through the vulnerabilities of its partners. And for others still, climate change may affect the company in such broad but low-intensity ways that is hard to know where to begin.

In any case, although some companies may not identify climate change as the most pressing issue they face today, these examples should demonstrate that the breadth and magnitude of the likely physical and regulatory impacts -- from owned operations and industry dynamics to supply chains and customers -- mean the issue is relevant for virtually all companies. It presents a wide range of risks, as well as new opportunities to reduce costs, differentiate products, and work with suppliers and consumers.

Marshall Chase is associate of advisory services, and Ryan Schuchard is manager of environmental research and innovation at BSR.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user loop_oh.