For all the talk of the challenges that the recent credit crunch and economic crises have bought to the corporate world, the greatest issue in relation to corporate responsibility has, perhaps, been, repetitively, ignored. Environmental complacency is not isolated to the corporate world, but undoubtedly the corporate world is amongst the guiltiest parties in terms of environmental irresponsibility in society today. Not only is the corporate world irresponsible in regard to the environment in deference to its greater concentration on profit-maximization, but the profit-maximization of the corporate world has in fact acted as a hindrance to wider environmental causes and campaigns.
Environmental anthropologists, including James Carrier in his ethnography in Jamaica, have pointed out how many environmental causes are directly affected by the world of commercial gains and profits. Carrier, for example, writes about how in Jamaica, coral protection efforts in Montego and Negril Bays have had to prove commercial viability for international aid organizations to invest in their conservation efforts. So deeply embedded are profits and commercial viability in society that even the immensely pressing concerns that global warming has wrought upon society, indeed all species on earth, are somehow conceived of as being less important, not a priority over and above commercial ‘needs’.
It is evident that governments need to impose regulations exterior to the neoliberal profit-making game so that businesses have to ensure better efforts towards environmental sustainability, though economic recessions have made this difficult for governments to do. Either way, governments and international bodies have put some (though arguably not enough) restrictions and regulations in place, and you’d have to think that they will only put in more in the coming years. One can only hope that being environmentally clean/friendly/conscious is going to become more a matter of compliance than of PR or altruism for businesses around the world.
As such, in-house lawyers will have an increasingly important role in ensuring companies comply with environmental legal issues, as well as all the other compliance companies have to do today. Sustainability is already important to some extent of course – resource security for one, as well as ensuring a motivated and ethically conscious workforce, and the fact that environment-related products already possess commercial viability with the market becoming increasingly environmentally concerned. But in-house lawyers also have a responsibility in terms of the ethics and legal complicity of their companies today to instill sustainability as a prominent company aptitude.
In-house lawyers are well aware of this corporate, as well as environmental, aspect of their role, as Bond Dickinson’s new repot ‘Beyond Responsibility: The emerging role of legal counsel in sustainable business‘ suggests. The report suggests that the sustainability motif has in fact become an important means by which in-house lawyers can become more influential on company strategy, such are the legal ramifications that inevitable regulatory and cultural changes in regard to environmental issues will have. According to the report, in-house lawyers need to be involved in anticipating future legal and regulatory obstacles, influencing government policy and leading innovative legal solutions to the challenges wrought by making business more sustainable. Sustainability has, in effect, become an organizational risk factor – what risks will potential regulatory and legal changes relating to sustainability bring to the organization? It’s the in-house lawyers job to answer this question.
Furthermore, as part of the GC’s role in relation to company ethics, as well as PR and ‘moral capital’, GCs can also help companies do what is ‘right’, as well as what’s ‘legal’, and this will involve efforts to lead sustainability strategies within the company. If GCs make an effort now, they will allow companies to get a head-start in regard to future regulations while also gaining moral and cultural capital with the public, customers, future partners, regulatory bodies and even judges.
Ultimately, the reasons to become more sustainable and environmentally green will have to be laced or mitigated by the need for financially ‘green’ health as well, but the role of in-house lawyers is to ensure companies mitigate against financial, legal and environmental risk. In-house lawyers should help make the company green in all senses.