The Most Powerful NGO You've Probably Never Heard Of

By Andrew Winston

When you think about
non-governmental organizations focused on environmental issues, you
might think of target=”_blank”>Greenpeace, href=”” target=”_blank”
title=””>Sierra Club, href=”” target=”_blank”
title=””>World Wildlife
Fund, title=””>Environmental Defense, href=”” target=”_blank”
title=””>The Nature Conservancy, href=””
International, or the target=”_blank” title=””>Natural Resources
Defense Council

For decades, these powerful organizations have launched global
pressure campaigns, attracted many millions of members, and in
recent years, they have even worked closely with former enemies
(large corporations) to change business as usual.

But by wielding a tool more powerful than legal action,
protests, or even partnership, a relative upstart - the href=””
Disclosure Project (CDP) - has rapidly become the NGO to

CDP and its backers are basically demanding transparency–
that’s the powerful idea that makes the NGO so strong.

The UK nonprofit began in 2000 with a simple idea: ask the
world’s largest companies to publicly share information about their
carbon emissions and the actions they’re taking to manage them. I
spoke recently with CDP executives and then attended the recent
launch of their href=””
2010 annual report to find out just how far they have come.
It’s pretty far: of the 500 largest companies in the world, an
astonishing 82% now answer the CDP’s questions.

But since some corporate executives might find it unwise to
share so much data, why do they answer CDP when it comes calling?
Well, it’s not just CDP that’s asking. CDP ‘s “members” include 534
of the world’s largest banks and institutional investors,
representing $64 trillion under management. This smart NGO was
always intended to give voice to concerns about climate risk
stirring within the investment community.

Stepping away from the old-style NGO approach to companies, the
CDP and its leaders are both optimistic and relentlessly
pro-business. At the core of the organization’s mission is a
commitment to the power of data to improve business performance (
which I wholeheartedly agree with), and a strong belief that
for companies that tackle climate change, the opportunities far
outweigh the risks.

The latest report bears this last point out: large companies are
moving from an emphasis on risk management to “one that now also
embraces opportunity.” Over one quarter of respondents are
developing products and services to help their customers cut
emissions. “Corporations are critical to the delivery of solutions
to climate change,” CDP founder Paul Dickinson summed up.

CDP also plays a critical role in driving transparency on carbon
emissions globally. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s Climate Secretary
said at the launch, “CDP is to the future of business what the
X-ray was to the then-future of medicine - without it, we would
never have seen the insides of the patient’s health.”

The insight into corporate carbon practice that CDP provides
would be enough of a reason to watch the organization closely. But
recently CDP has made some interesting bids to expand its influence
further, including:

  • Highlighting performance, not just disclosure: CDP created a
    new Carbon Performance Leadership Index and praised 48 companies
    that demonstrate a commitment to strategy, governance,
    communications, and actual emissions reductions.

  • Driving transparency up the supply chain: The CDP Supply Chain
    group organized respondents such as HP, Pepsi, P&G, and Tesco
    to prod their suppliers to answer the questions.

  • Advocating specific solutions for combating climate change: CDP
    issued a report earlier this year, “href=””
    Telepresence Revolution,” on the substantial carbon and cost
    savings from connecting virtually (they then walked the talk, using
    Cisco’s Telepresence to seamlessly connect 5 continents during the

  • Providing advisory support: The new CDP Reporter Services, in
    conjunction with Accenture, Microsoft, and SAP, helps companies to
    report emissions.

  • Extending the issue list: Earlier this year, CDP launched its
    title=””>Water Disclosure
    , modeled closely after the original.

Although things could get muddy when the organization asking for
data and transparency also advises companies and promotes
particular solutions, CDP seems to be staying true to its overall
mission with these brand extensions.

So keep an eye on this group that has managed to take a
proactive, pro-business approach to a tough issue. Both CDP’s
report and website are quickly becoming core hubs of information on
carbon performance and best practice. And investors and key
customers are increasingly using this data to rate and judge
companies - and to determine how they invest and with whom they
even want to do business.

Andrew Winston works with
leading companies to drive growth with environmental thinking. He
is a globally recognized expert on sustainability and is author
of target=”_blank”>Green Recovery and co-author
target=”_blank”>Green to Gold, the best-selling guide to what
works - and what doesn’t - when companies go green.
This post
first appeared at target=”_blank” title=””>Harvard
Business Online

You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.