That the digital age has helped democratize the availability of information has become an idea as accepted as gravity. Searching and sleuthing are today as routine as showering or eating, rendering informed decisions – be they in the voting booth or checkout line – as easy for the individual as they are bracing to the powers that be.
Still, such ease of informational access isn’t without its pitfalls, a reality that few at the forefront of green issues understand better than Mike Bellamente. As the Executive Director of Climate Counts, a nonprofit organization housed within the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, Bellamente has spearheaded efforts to bring citizens and high profile companies together, in the hopes that improved information on both sides can elicit substantive action on the issue of climate change.
The brainchild of Stonyfield Farm chairman and co-Founder Gary Hirshberg, Climate Counts was launched in 2007 with the idea of providing consumers a transparent look – by way of a comprehensive report card – into what the world’s biggest brands are doing to curb their carbon footprint. Using a 100-point score sheet, Climate Counts levies a set of 22 criteria and four resulting categories – “stuck,” “starting,” “striding,” and “soaring” – to measure a company’s environmental progress.
Nike, Toshiba, Canon, Hewlett-Packard – Climate Counts has scored them all, lending more than a modicum of transparency to traditionally secretive sectors. Eschewing the kneejerk combativeness he sees as poisoning the national debate on climate change, Bellamente embraces instead a strategy of mutual cooperation, one where due credit is as crucial as effective critique.
“With how political the climate change debate has become, we’ve found that the more productive way to drive change is by showcasing some of the big name brands that are truly ahead of the curve on sustainability,” says Bellamente. “We believe it’s necessary to develop tools that help consumers vote with their dollar and reward the companies that are doing their part.”
By sidestepping doom-and-gloom, Bellamente has steered Climate Counts to advance a more optimistic outlook, forging partnerships where every side has a stake in pursuing genuine, long-view solutions. Their latest project, a collaborative effort undertaken in conjunction with the Vermont-based Center for Sustainable Organizations (CSO), will lend Climate Counts an even deeper cache of data through which to challenge some of the country’s most emblematic companies.
“Because CSO looks at sustainability metrics through the lens of science, it gives us a better idea of whether a company’s carbon-reduction targets are really up to par,” explains Bellamente. “So it’s really going to help put companies to the test about how sustainable they really are.”
Bellamente says the analysis – which compares emissions to science-based thresholds for sustainability – will initially be applied to 100 companies from across the consumer products spectrum. The resulting data, Bellamente notes, will provide a “context-based way” of assessing an organization’s carbon-reduction performance.
For his part, CSO Founder and Executive Director Mark McElroy sees in the partnership a chance to not only redefine corporate sustainability metrics, but how the public holds those companies accountable as well.
“Our goal is to reinvent and promote better metrics,” explains McElroy. “Most of what passes for sustainability measurement today is really nothing of the sort. A company can provide you with data as to how they’re striving towards sustainability, but unless you can put that information into proper context, it’s not of much use.”
According to McElroy, most companies measure and report their sustainability performance using metrics and indicators that are context-free, which is a little like trying to figure out how fast your car is going by reading the fuel gauge. Context-based measures solve this problem by bringing contextually relevant circumstances explicitly into play, such as how much water is available in a watershed.
“The idea is to be able to put a company’s metrics and our, more context-based metrics side by side, to see whether and to what extent they jive with one another,” says McElroy. “Our partnership with climate counts is meant to provide that framework.”
Bellamente has also sought to trumpet the Climate Counts cause to the next generation of eco-conscious citizens, working closely with the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute in an effort to bolster the campus initiative’s long-term plans. Headquartering Climate Counts in one of the Northeast’s most forward-thinking college towns was no mistake; Bellamente sees in the UNH community the kind of intellectual critical mass capable of lending his organization even more informational fodder.
“With some of the brightest academic minds in sustainability – from Chief Sustainability Officer, Tom Kelly, to climatologist Cameron Wake – UNH is really at the forefront of higher learning in this space,” says Bellamente. “We recognize that and want to be a part of what they’ve got going on.”
Lack of corporate transparency and “green-washing” – the nefarious practice of making products or services appear more earth-friendly than they actually are – remain very real impediments for Climate Counts and the environmental movement writ large. As such, there exists something of a tension between maintaining civil discourse with the world’s most high-profile polluters on the one hand, and speaking truth to power on the other. It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure, and one Bellamente believes must be struck if climate change is ever going to demand human change.
“We’re lucky in that we’re able to get on Twitter or Facebook and with a simple hashtag reach people from all over the country and all over the world, and to that extent there’s the possibility of piercing through the static and the noise,” he says. “So it becomes a matter of making sure you’re staying vigilant and doing your best to rise above the fray.”
Learn more about Climate Counts at www.climatecounts.org
For more information on CSO, go to www.sustainableorganizations.org
Learn more about Green Alliance at www.greenalliance.biz