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Cool Earth: Corporate Partnerships and the Perils of Greenwashing

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On Thursday 2nd November, the Oxford Sustainable Business and Entrepreneurship Society were delighted to host Martin Simonneau, Senior Manager at Cool Earth, for a discussion about the organisation’s journey and its people-powered approach to combatting climate change. Cool Earth is a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to help indigenous peoples and local communities to protect the rainforests and fight the climate crisis. Since it was founded in 2007, Cool Earth has backed 40 projects to fight deforestation, spanning areas as diverse as the Amazon, Papua New Guinea, and the Congo Basin. These projects involved over 31,000 people from local and indigenous communities, whose efforts helped to prevent an estimated 177 million tonnes of carbon from being lost to the atmosphere through deforestation.

The evening began with a presentation by Martin, in which he elaborated on Cool Earth’s “people first” approach to protecting the rainforests. The rationale for this approach is simple: indigenous communities have lived in the rainforests for hundreds of years, learning over many generations how best to maintain these ecosystems. The best way to fight the climate crisis is therefore to empower residents of the rainforests by providing them the funding and resources required to manage their land sustainably.

Here lies a key challenge. As Martin highlighted in his presentation, less than 1% of climate funding trickles down to indigenous peoples and local communities who live in the forest (Source: Rainforest Foundation Norway 2021). While generous donors may believe their donations are directly contributing to conservation efforts, this is rarely the reality. Instead, climate-related funding is often misallocated by bureaucrats far removed from the rainforests. This is why one of Cool Earth’s primary objectives is to ensure that it is the people on the ground who are the direct recipients of climate funding. A project currently being spearheaded by Martin is a cash transfer programme whereby village residents are provided with a basic income. This basic income would mean that the villagers can afford to devote their efforts to conservation projects while still making a living.

After an eye-opening and deeply informative presentation, it was time for the audience to ask their questions about Cool Earth. Ollie Nicholls, OSBE’s Events Director, opened the Q&A session by asking Martin whether Cool Earth had ever been approached by businesses who care more about their corporate image than about protecting the rainforest. Martin answered in the affirmative, explaining that many companies now feel pressured to appear environmentally responsible. This, he said, has led to a significant increase in corporate greenwashing, with businesses presenting false claims about their “green” credentials to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. Cool Earth has done well to steer clear of such firms by partnering only with businesses that share the organisation’s “people-first” culture.  For instance, several of Cool Earth’s business partners are actively involved in the charity’s initiatives, either by supporting rainforest communities on the ground or by running training workshops for Cool Earth’s team. Martin's message was that charities and members of the public can navigate the perils of greenwashing by seeking companies who can demonstrate their commitment to driving positive social and environmental change.

OSBE would like to say a huge thank you to Martin for delivering such a thought-provoking presentation, and to everyone who attended for making this such a special event!

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