Anyone who engages critically with the topic of environmental sustainability knows that corporations, from sourcing raw materials right through to end-of-life of products, have a massive impact on the environment. This means that in the conversation of work needed to protect the environment, corporates have a duty to contribute – their contribution is known as corporate social responsibility (CSR) and I got to intern for 6 months in a corporate to see how environmental and resource management is planned for and executed.

Global goals have been captured in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), all with targets to be met by 2030 and indicators to be used to monitor progress. CSR in companies is guided by ISO 26000:2010 – a guideline for social responsibility for all types of organisations, regardless of their size or location. The guideline outlines, among other things, ways in which corporates can integrate, implement, and promote socially responsible behaviour throughout the organisation and, through its policies and practices, within its sphere of influence.

With the rise of “sustainable investing” and the fact that corporates are profit-driven, it is rather simple for corporates to do environmental work to comply with the governance organisations to which they are members. Without a committed team that prioritises making science-based targets and is concerned about the actual impact of projects, companies stand to do environmental work that has no value beyond reports that appease and attract shareholders, leaving behind communities and ecosystems that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. I was fortunate enough to be in an environmental team that is critical of the validity of the claims made from environmental work, which then also affects the conceptualisation of projects to consider the environment with the necessary complexity and in a holistic manner. This approach offered me the room to have available scientific knowledge lead my contributions, and to account properly for impact with the help of IT-driven tools like geographical information systems (GIS) in the planning and monitoring of projects.

GIS has the dual role of allowing location of features and spatial analysis. In Figure 1 you can see the process environmental projects from planning through to monitoring and reporting, with the computer icon showing stages where in GIS can be used. Corporates can locate their areas of operations with collected coordinates and decide on weightings for key environmental resources to inform projects within reasoned spatial buffers to form impact zones.

Figure 1: Step-by-step process for planning and monitoring impact on environmental resources. The computer icon shows the stages at which you can use GIS.

GIS, however, is not a silver bullet for environmental management – inasmuch as map layers can be sourced for environmental resources, with data sourced through remote sensing and some area-specific studies, ground-truthing remains a necessity for monitoring. Some data may be time-sensitive or be difficult to acquire with accuracy for to build map layers that can be used in GIS: for example, a layer giving the risk of groundwater level decline can be available, but the collection of representative groundwater level data is still necessary to decide on projects and to create and revise monitoring plans. The risk assessment, monitoring action and progress tracking part of a project therefore requires GIS to be used alongside on-the-ground assessments that are necessary to quantify impact accurately and for continuous improvement informing the relevance of projects.

Corporations can look at environmental impact just as a threat to financial gain, and there are methodologies and tools that can quantify the financial impact of a deteriorating environment. However, environmental teams in companies need to be afforded the room to be honest about current impacts throughout the supply chain and the failures of previous environmental work or the ways in which benefits were accounted for. In this way, strategies can be made to answer to not just the survival, but the thriving of communities and ecosystems affected by a corporation’s operations. This will hopefully mean that corporations will have adequate data to map innovation needs towards a sustainable future and moving the globe closer to the 2030 SDG targets.

Cover image credit: “Geographic Information Systems” by Illinois Springfield is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0