When you’re a business owner – whether your business is virtual, bricks and mortar, or somewhere in between – one thing will always be true: you can’t run a business on an unlivable planet. It can’t be done. That means combatting the climate crisis is a core part of every business, whether the people behind a business acknowledge it or not. And there’s no bigger impact most businesses can have on the climate crisis than by tackling the daily commute.
In March 2020, just as COVID-19 began to shutter businesses across North America, the BBC published a piece about the impact of transportation on the planet. The piece included the stunning statement that the transportation sector emits “more greenhouse gases than any other”. It goes on to say that “road vehicles – cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes – account for nearly three quarters of the greenhouse gas emissions that come from transport”. Commuting, then, is playing a huge role in the deepening the climate crisis.
What this all means is that the single biggest thing a business of any size can do to protect the planet is to cancel their commute. We know this once unthinkable idea is possible after it was piloted around the globe as the pandemic took hold. While the sudden and unexpected switch to remote work may not have rolled out perfectly, we know treating it as the new normal doesn’t have to come at the cost of productivity and can help create a healthier planet.
It’s a choice I made for my own business mid-way through the pandemic. Before COVID-19, I travelled to almost all my in-person meetings by public transit – admittedly a perk of living in a major city not afforded to all of the world’s workforce. Then the virus made meeting clients in person temporarily impossible. It also made me re-think whether in-person meetings were even necessary given the powerful digital tools now available. Now, Lubowitz Consulting is 100% virtual and business is still booming.
That probably has a lot to do with the fact that the virtual workplace isn’t a new idea. Telecommuting has been a workplace practice for 50 years. As early as 2012, one in five global workers already telecommuted. ‘Hot desking’ or sharing desks is growing in popularity, with modern office footprints prioritizing meeting space and private call rooms over permanent, employee-specific offices. Statistics Canada estimates that around 36% of Canadian workers were already potential teleworkers before the pandemic. Allowing them to work from home permanently would save them time, improve remaining traffic, and reduce carbon emissions.
If the workplace is increasingly just a space to meet, and virtual tools allow workers to meet from anywhere, is it even a smart business decision to keep up the expense of a physical workplace? Warren Buffett, the famous billionaire, has said “do not save what is left after spending, but spend what is left after saving”. Most business owners know the best way to ensure a profit is to limit your costs. In 2021, paying for a physical workspace, if you don’t require it to manufacture or direct-sell your product, is an unnecessary way to cut into your profits.
Virtual work isn’t perfect and is not without its environmental trade-offs. The energy required to power the entirety of the internet, including the work we do online, is responsible for nearly 4% of total emissions – or close to the environmental impact of the entire global airline industry. Of course, with the internet now playing a starring role even in traditional office spaces, using the internet at home instead combined with the elimination of a daily commute is clearly a more environmentally friendly option.
Beyond making more environmentally friendly choices in day-to-day business decisions, owners can catch up by investing in the planet, which is in turn an investment back into their own businesses. Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia and another billionaire businessman, has brought together a global network of environmentally committed business people who do just that. Through the non-profit 1% for the Planet, members commit to donating one per cent or more of their total sales to environmental causes. These donations are then certified against financial documentation to eliminate any chance of greenwashing.
Chouinard doesn’t see this effort as philanthropy. To him, funding environmental causes is just the cost of doing business on a planet each of us will only occupy a small space of for a very brief period of time. Chouinard calls this “paying rent for our use of the planet”. That rent is something every business should feel obligated to pay.
Earlier today, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a doomsday report that detailed how we are nearly out of time when it comes to paying our planetary rent. To keep the environmental status quo in place – that every business relies on for its success – carbon emissions must be cut in half over the next nine years and reduced to net zero by 2050. Greenwashing won’t cut it.
We are running out of time to address the climate crisis. No amount of wealth, or even access to private spacecrafts, can change the fact that there is no planet B waiting for any of us. This planet is all we have and it’s time we started acting like it. As the founder of modern environmentalism Henry David Thoreau once said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it”. No profit is worth exchanging for our lives.