What do you get when you cross an experienced American environmental professional with a young environmental NGO in China?

What do you get when you cross an experienced American environmental professional with a young environmental NGO in China? 

By Linda Greer, LGT Impact Fellow for the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Beijing, China

Can such a person meaningfully accelerate reductions in industrial pollution from some of the largest factories there? Or this: can any American work successfully in China nowadays, given trade tensions and the rest between these two countries?

The surprising answer is YES, it has worked just great! For starters, the same pollutants are emitted from the same types of factories in America and in China, and engineering principles for controlling them don’t vary based on geography. The pollution causes the same type of health and environmental effects, too, no matter where emitted. All helpful.

More importantly to my ability to contribute, however is this: a key player causing so much of this industrial pollution is multinational corporations. These companies, which manufactured responsibly for decades as required by law in the U.S. and Europe, should be equally responsible for their environmental impacts wherever they manufacture today, don’t you think? They should be accountable to their customers around the world and local residents alike for controlling their use and release of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases. I know what their operations should look like from their decades here in the U.S., and I also know that THEY know what they should be doing, based on their own history of operations in the developed world. And yet too many companies are falling far short on the environmental responsibility scale in China, looking the other way when their suppliers are violating their permits and hoping that no one will notice.

It is a globalized world we live in today, and the 21st century offers opportunities for radical transparency of these industrial operations at unprecedented levels via the internet. Thus, the prospect for a global NGO effort to drive greater responsibility with greater transparency and accountability for pollution problems is enormous.

As by now you might be guessing, the focus of my LGT Impact Fellowship at the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) in Beijing, China has been to drive multinational corporations to take greater responsibility for the environmental impacts of their suppliers in China. In true “east meets west” fashion, I have toggled between applying U.S. advocacy and analytic skills with improving my understanding of the situation on the ground in China in order to expand corporate participation in IPE’s amazing work. The primary goal of my fellowship has been to accelerate the pace and direction for supply chain oversight in the private sector operating in China.

And now, a few words about the small but mighty organization I have called home for the past nine months of my fellowship. IPE is the leading environmental NGO in China. Founded in 2006 by Mr. MA Jun and powered by a highly efficient team of 40, the organization uses information transparency to hold thousands of factories across the country publicly accountable and to motivate resolutions for their pollution. The cornerstone of IPE’s efforts is a comprehensive pollution information database with more than 1.5 million government non-compliance records for factories, along with its Blue EcoChain tool that automates supplier oversight and provides real time notification to brands when pollution problems arise. More than 50 multinational corporations have driven more than 8000 factories to take responsibility for their compliance problems under the IPE program to date. More on IPE and this program can be found at http://wwwen.ipe.org.cn/GreenSupplyChain/Main.html.

My fellowship was designed to drive more companies and factories into the IPE system, helping the organization bring to greater scale the impacts that its database and oversight tools were delivering. And in fact, my work has contributed to a banner year of success for the organization– more multinational retailers and brands enrolled, more factories provided public explanations and rectifications for their compliance problems, and more companies signed onto the IPE “green supply chain map” that links their brand logos to their high impact suppliers – enabling easy access to real time monitoring data that these factories are required to provide to the public by Chinese authorities. I have reached out to many companies in the U.S. and Europe to participate, crafted descriptive materials about the work with a “western” eye for persuasion, created a press-and-influential outreach list of more than 200 interested parties, directed analysis of the database to glean important insights about sectors and pollutants of greatest concern, and more. In late October, at IPE’s annual green supply chain conference, we will reap some benefits of what we have sown together. With nearly 200 participants in attendance, we will have presentations on best practices in supply chain oversight by leading brands as well as small group discussions for feedback on how to improve our tools for greater collaboration in the coming year.

Looking back upon my year, did it help to have a Ph.D. in the science behind this topic (environmental toxicology)? Did my many years of experience in environmental law, regulation and policy elsewhere in the world to reduce industrial pollution come in handy (Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the US, REACH in Europe, etc.)? Was it useful to have active working relationships with CSR staff from various multinational corporations based in the west?

These are likely the credentials that caught the eye of LGT Venture Philanthropy staff when they selected me to be a fellow with IPE. And yes! These credentials and years of experience absolutely proved helpful.

But there is a more subtle reason that my fellowship has been so successful, and this ingredient is likely important to successful placement of so many fellows in the lucky organizations that LGT Venture Philanthropy awards around the world: it is the key importance of the values I shared with this amazing organization:

  • The urgent need for basic environmental responsibility by the many powerful corporations operating inadequately around the world in this regard.
  • The strong commitment to honesty and integrity when collecting and communicating information about industrial polluters.
  • The strategic importance of focusing where it matters the most to impact change as quickly as possible.

And most importantly, the shared commitment to enabling ordinary people at the grass roots level to leverage the changes that they seek to protect themselves and their families from environmental harm, no matter where they live.

Thank you, LGT, for the amazing opportunity to serve as a fellow for IPE. It has been a career highlight for me, and I can only hope that I “gave as much as I got” from the experience.

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