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Navigating leadership: climate change and business in the Australian outdoors

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

In Australia, we're already seeing the profound impacts of climate change on the places we love. From longer and hotter heatwaves, worsening drought conditions, longer and more severe bushfire seasons, shorter snow seasons, rising sea levels, to more intense and damaging storms, and extreme rainfall, and significant losses to biodiversity.

And as the crisis continues to escalate, our ability to access the outdoors in our personal and professional lives will become increasingly limited.

For outdoor businesses, the case is clear: climate change is bad for business. Extreme climactic events like droughts, floods, and bushfires don't just affect our farmers and agriculturalists, but all families, communities, and businesses who rely on the outdoors to make an income. So, when natural places are impacted by extreme weather events and national park closures, outdoor education and tourism providers suffer.

We're not simply making a logical leap here; the money speaks itself. Outward Bound Australia, a major outdoor education provider based near Canberra, has estimated that the 2019/20 bushfire season caused a loss of over $500,000 in business revenue, with the bulk of their summer programs relocated, postponed, or cancelled.

Traditionally, outdoors businesses have been stewarded by keen outdoorsmen and women who are heavily invested in looking after the environment. The principles and philosophy of Leave No Trace have been a guiding light for outdoor culture, adventure, and business for decades. Leave No Trace has informed the adventures, practises, and policies of individuals, outdoor clubs, national parks, and the outdoor tourism and education industries. The principles are taught in schools, technical further education (TAFE) facilities, and universities, and appear in the Australian Adventure Activity Standards (AAAS).

Many outdoors businesses are already going further, and proactively caring for the climate and future-proofing their livelihoods. Leading the way in the outdoor education, tourism, and retail industries are businesses focused on innovating and adapting to enhance sustainability, from program design to product design. In outdoor education in Australia, the Crossing Land Education Centre teaches participants hands-on permaculture design and emphasises the importance of conservation, having planted more than 19,000 trees to date. In outdoors gear and apparel (recognising that the clothing industry is responsible for an eye-watering 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions), Patagonia has shifted to more earth-friendly materials such as organic cotton and recycled plastics, while helping and encouraging customers to mend their aging or damaged gear and to carefully consider any new gear purchases.

Now more than ever, as the climate crisis escalates on our home soil, it is essential for all outdoors businesses in Australia to firmly engage with sustainability to ensure their survival.

What does it mean to be a sustainable business?

Sustainability can be defined in many ways. One way suggests that to be sustainable is to implement practices and systems that meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

Sustainability can be described as meeting the needs of the present generation, without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

In all manner of global businesses, paying attention to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns (also known as corporate social responsibility [CSR] initiatives) has been gaining traction, and with good reason. Businesses with strong ESG programs simply perform better: strong ESG can help to attract and retain customers, lower costs of energy and water consumption, avoid penalties, boost employee morale, and allocate capital to create positive long-term business outcomes. Companies whose point of difference is a strong climate or sustainability focus - for example, toilet paper B-corp, Who Gives a Crap, or the superannuation that doesn't invest in fossil fuels, Future Super - are on the rise.

It appears these climate-focused companies are not just a passing trend, having found a prominent and permanent place in the market. Research suggests that nine in ten Australian consumers are more likely to purchase ethical and sustainable products and that 85% want retailers and brands to be more transparent about the sustainability of their products. As for climate action, polling in 2020 showed that 82% of Australians worry about climate-driven bushfires, 79% hold views in line with the best available scientific evidence, and 68% support an ambitious climate target.

Consumers of all kinds of goods and services are supporting those businesses that take climate action and strive for sustainable practices: so, what does this mean for outdoors businesses in Australia?

Tackling environmental sustainability in an outdoors business

In engaging with climate change and environmental sustainability practices, outdoor businesses in Australia face unique challenges and opportunities. Many outdoors businesses are small and may have limited time and money to invest into sustainability measures, regardless of their long-term benefits. Many outdoor education businesses are not-for-profit organisations, and 'for-purpose', full of passion and drive to make the world a better place, usually involving more people benefitting from a connection with and quality time spent in nature, as well benefits to health, strength, and fitness. Outdoor education, tourism, and even retail businesses are commonly engaged in educating participants and customers about the outdoors, ecology, and environmental issues.

The strength of outdoors businesses lies in part with their employees, who are typically aware of sustainability and climate care practices and motivated to see positive action for the environment, if not driving that change directly. Outdoor businesses should consider what their strengths are and what opportunities exist, as they enhance their environmental sustainability and climate action practises.

Turning global attention to the climate

Conceived in 2015, the Paris Agreement is a legally binding, international treaty on climate change with a clear objective of limiting global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To date, 189 countries have joined the Paris Agreement.

Recent political events, heralded as a "new era of international cooperation on climate change", have been led by the United States under the Biden administration. The nation, which is currently the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has committed to cut its emissions to less than half of 2005 levels by 2030 and is eliminating oil and gas subsidies. In all, more than one hundred countries have pledged to reach net zero emissions within the next 30 years. In Australia, the Climate Council advises that we must reduce emissions to less than 25% of 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2035; however, the political will in Australia is lacking. On the world stage, Australia lags far behind in climate policy, ranked by the Climate Change Performance Index as last in 2020 and second last in 2021.

Despite growing political attention, the world is not on track to meet the Paris Agreement, and the urgency required to tackle the climate crisis is only increasing. Scientists predict that the rise in global average temperatures will exceed one and a half degrees during the 2030s. It is vital and urgent that any warming that can be avoided or delayed is aggressively sought.


The nitty gritty for outdoor businesses in Australia

The good news is that there is so much we can do to help address the climate and ecological crisis. Businesses have a bigger footprint and a louder voice than individuals. The climate crisis is a potent opportunity to lead change in society. It's up to all of us to do what we can to secure a better future.

Outdoors People for Climate Action is here to support outdoor businesses in Australia in tacking climate action. We believe that businesses that operate in and for the outdoors will play a key role in creating a better future for the outdoors and all its inhabitants.

Reducing our harm, shrinking our footprints

A 'footprint' refers to the negative impact that we are having on the environment or climate. One such measure is the ecological footprint, which looks at how much of the biological capacity of the planet is required by a given human activity or population. A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases generated by an individual or specific group, business, event, or product. To put our shared challenge into perspective, the average Australian's carbon footprint has been estimated to be around 15.5 tonnes and would need to fall to two tonnes by 2050 to limit global warming in line with the Paris Agreement.

To avoid catastrophic global warming the world needs to reach net zero before mid-century. Net zero emission refers to achieving an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

There are five major sectors in society that will all need to be 'decarbonised' to achieve net zero emissions, including electricity, buildings, transport, industry, and agriculture and land. Businesses can consider these sectors when deciding how to mitigate their harm by reducing their carbon footprint:

1. ELECTRICITY: Where does the company electricity come from? How can the business switch to renewable sources of electricity?
2. TRANSPORT: What vehicles is the business using to transport goods or people? How do employees travel to work? How can the business reduce its overall mileage?
3. BUILDINGS: How can the facilities and offices of the business be more energy efficient? Does the business use gas for cooking and/or heating, and if so, can this be swapped to renewably powered electricity?
4. INDUSTRY: What products does the business buy? How can the business make sustainability part of its procurement process? How does the business manage waste?
5. AGRICULTURE and LAND: If the business caters, what food is provided? How much food is wasted? How much of this food is plant-based?

Navigating emissions as a business

Greenhouse gases, GHG, CO2, CO2e, or carbon? A greenhouse gas - sometimes referred to as GHG - is any gas in the atmosphere which absorbs and re‐emits heat, keeping the atmosphere warmer than it should be. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and specified kinds of hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons. CO2 is the most common greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) represents different greenhouse gases in a common unit, signifying the amount of CO2 which would have the equivalent global warming impact.

What are scope one, two, and three emissions? Business emissions can be considered in several different spheres, or 'scopes'. Scope one covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, including fuel combustion. For outdoor businesses, examples of scope one emissions include the gas burned in cooking stoves at the workplace, and the emissions produced by company vehicles. Scope two covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling consumed by the reporting company. This includes the electricity supplied to the business's office or facilities from the grid.

Scope three, also referred to as value chain emissions, includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. Scope three emissions typically constitute the bulk of an organisation’s total emissions and will consist of the scope one and two emissions of multiple other companies. Examples of scope three emissions include the food bought by the business for catering, products purchased, employee commuting, waste disposal, and financial investments.

What are upstream and downstream emissions? Upstream emissions are those generated from cradle to gate. This means all the emissions that were produced before a product or service reached your business. This includes all emissions involved in the creation, production, transport, and sale of all of the goods and services that your business purchases, including equipment, electricity, and food. Downstream emissions are emitted after a product or service leaves the company’s control or ownership. This can include what happens to the products after they are sold to a customer.

Measuring our emissions. Carbon Neutral offers a free, online Carbon Calculator designed to help Australian businesses estimate their carbon footprint including the make-up of scope one, two, and three emissions. There are many organisations that can help businesses calculate their carbon footprint and work to reduce it.

Tackling our emissions. Every business has different circumstances. An individual business might want to start to begin reducing emissions by first focusing on a specific area - such as installing renewable energy or cutting down on staff flights. Consider areas that are easy to tackle and have an immediate positive impact on the climate and the business.

For businesses wanting to achieve carbon-neutrality, the federal government offers the Climate Active certification. Businesses calculate their emissions, reduce these emissions as much as possible, and offset any remaining emissions by purchasing carbon offset units.

Another useful resource is Science Based Targets, which provides a clearly defined path for businesses and corporations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. You can learn more and set a net zero target for your business by visiting their website.

Growing our positive influence, expanding our handprint

While various definitions exist, the term handprint can refer to the positive impacts we can have, in addition to reducing our footprint. Outdoor businesses have many opportunities to have a positive influence:

Educate and empower yourself, employees, clients, and participants. This could include workplace initiatives like plastic-free lunches, trail-side interpretation, and even being transparent about your sustainability practises on your website.

Speak up for the outdoors. Show that your business wants climate action. This might mean authoring an article for a newspaper or magazine, signing an open letter calling for action, declaring a climate emergency, or getting politically active in your electorate.

Take the lead and be a role model in the outdoor sectors. Help other businesses and professionals to take action. Share your learnings and insights through your networking and at conferences and other professional gatherings.

Support climate and environmental action. What can the business offer to groups that are making a difference? Can the business provide financial support or sponsorships, or otherwise help organisations and individuals that are making a difference?

Engage in conservation. Does the business have land that can be used for tree planting or restoring native habitat? Can staff or participants participate in conservation activities?

Other useful tools and frameworks

Another useful way to assess the sustainability of your business or organisation is to become familiar with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. The UN SDG Action Manager is a free, online tool that helps you to understand how your organisation aligns with the seventeen SDG’s and to identify areas for improvement.

Certified B Corporations, or B-corps, are businesses that are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. B Lab provides the B Impact Assessment, another free online tool to help you measure the social and environmental impact of your organisation.

Taking climate action and making a positive difference

Every business is unique. Consider what actions your business is already currently taking to mitigate its greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts to the environment. For example,

  • Is the organisation already reducing its waste?

  • Is the organisation already conserving energy?

Consider what actions are already being taken to have a positive impact. What is the organisations handprint? For example,

  • Does the organisation engage in conservation activities?

  • Does the organisation have strong environmental education or interpretation?

What areas can the organisation improve on?

  • Measure the organisations footprint. Where can emissions be reduced?

  • How can the organisations handprint be strengthened?

  • Which actions would be easiest, quickest, or most impactful or provide the most benefits to the organisation?

Identify your priority areas and targets. Generate an action plan that's SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). Consult with your staff, clients, and other stakeholders. Communicate your plan effectively when finalised and provide necessary education and training.

As businesses that rely directly on natural environments for their work, outdoor businesses are already feeling the effects of worsening climate change. To continue to work successfully in the outdoors, climate change must be addressed - otherwise the compounding impacts of the climate crisis will only continue to worsen.

Nature-based businesses have the power to take a lead on climate by educating themselves, their employees, and clients about the impacts of climate change and climate solutions; taking action to reduce their footprint and increase their handprint; working with and empowering employees; role modelling climate action within the outdoor sectors; and speaking up for effective climate action.

It's up to all of us to protect the places we love.


We'll have plenty of blog posts to follow-up from this one, where we'll focus more closely on specific actions that outdoor businesses can take for the climate and environment. If there's a particular topic you'd like us to cover, please get in touch.

Along the way, we'll be celebrating the Australian outdoor businesses that are already taking action. Do you work at a business that's taking action? We'd love to hear your story.

Join our growing community of climate-engaged Australian outdoor businesses, here.

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