20 years of E Co. this year: In response to climate change – musings by Dr Grant Ballard-Tremeer
Photo: Grant Ballard -Tremeer pictured in Nelson Mandela’s backyard, published in ‘Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela’ (1995)
Where it all began: facing the existential climate threat
In the face of the climate crisis, corporations are often pressured to contribute to the public good. In 1999, our planet and society were already vulnerable to increasing levels of greenhouse gases and rising sea levels, and the threat of climate displacement, but the role of business in addressing these issues were vastly different. I started E Co. at a time when climate change was very much a side issue. The Kyoto Protocol had recently been signed, and the big focus in climate finance was in using transaction-based instruments like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) to finance projects in development countries. I started E Co. with the ambition to accelerate progress in the sector through focusing on systemic change built on deep understanding of the barriers to change, not just the financing of individual projects. I anticipated challenges but it was a start. Twenty years later, the challenges keep coming – but there are more of us working together, and the focus of climate finance has shifted more towards our approach and point of view.
No man is an island
Starting out as a lone professional was both liberating and lonely. I loved the freedom to set my own broad direction, but soon learned that compared to being an employee where I might have one boss, I now had many clients who all were the ‘boss’ for their own assignments. At times, when I saw the apparent successes of companies developing CDM projects, I also questioned whether my somewhat solitary path was the right one. Over the years, as the company grew, I met more like-minded people who were just as passionate about creating change in the institutions and systems around us, thinking deeply about how to bring about that change.
Climate change appears as a large, insurmountable problem, and while it may certainly be large, it was the result of decades of incremental actions. My background in engineering and environmental management stood me in good stead for this work. This, coupled with a passion about understanding what people are doing in their day to day lives, and why they make the choices they do was a firm foundation for the type of multi-disciplinary work that is needed to understand how markets work and how to make them better for people and the planet. As a consultant in a small-independent-business that was largely swimming upstream it was sometimes disheartening. And yet, eventually, I met people who were curious enough about the work, who also had their own set of skills and came from a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds who were motivated and curious enough to try to find out how to make lasting change, one assignment at a time.
Facing the climate crisis together
Our goal at E Co. is to transform lives through reduced emissions and increased resilience of the most vulnerable people. How do you start addressing a global problem? Incremental action built on deeper thinking, it turns out, can go a long way. For example, our work recently took us to Guatemala and to Haiti to help our client to strengthen their agricultural sector as climate risks are jeopardising the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. We’ve also worked across the world on energy efficiency projects; from designing market creation projects for low energy buildings to advising on policy to transform markets for consumer goods. None of this would be possible without the collaborative work of our international team, all of whom specialise in a variety of areas, such as renewable energy, agriculture, waste management, urban transport, and much more.
As professionals driven by the positive environmental and human impact we can make, we also have conversations during team meetings and dynamic discussions between ourselves about what it means to be a sustainable business, not just in terms of the work we do, but the way we conduct our day-to-day operations. B Corp. certification was a great stepping-stone in terms of publicly communicating our values in meeting high social and environmental performance standards – a parallel step was solidifying our environmental policy. Developed by our own consultants, our environmental policy aims to improve the sustainability of our operations, from reducing emissions to carrying out voluntary service for local communities. It’s not just a way of keeping ourselves accountable – it also provides a blueprint for others to follow, and even do better.
Bridging the knowledge gap
Access to knowledge and information is one of the biggest barriers in our sector. At E Co. we see managing and communicating that knowledge as a key task. Internally we strive to be a learning organisation, and we see our worldwide role as a blend of a media company and training institute. We don’t hold our knowledge close to our chests as if it were secret proprietary information – we are impatient to make a difference throughout the world and we see spreading our knowledge widely within the countries in which we work as an essential ingredient. In addition to conducting training workshops and providing coaching services (for example we are supporting the government and local organisations through face to face and remote training and coaching in Indonesia), we publish quarterly reports based on primary research conducted by our consultants – on issues related to the Green Climate Fund (commonly referred to as the GCF), the largest climate fund run by the UN, for instance, in order make this knowledge more easily accessible to those who need it. One significant difference between the climate change landscape in 1999 and 2020, is the proliferation of the Internet and the way media has the power to spread these urgent messages faster and to a much more wide-reaching audience.
The climate action trajectory, within the business community
The growing business movement combating the climate emergency isn’t slowing down anytime soon. At the very least companies will be forced to adapt in order to survive. However, I believe there are more and more people out there leading businesses with the intent of more than just surviving; the B Corp. community is proof of the rising movement of corporations committed to serving the public good. As for what’s next? Over the years I’ve discovered that the foundations of empathy and common understanding on which I have built E Co. are, if anything, even more relevant today than when I established the company. Deeper thinking is needed now more than ever: understanding how any why people do things today means we can help them improve their lives and deliver the change in the world we so desperately need.