By making small changes in their operations, firms can make a big difference to their carbon footprint. Catherine Baksi reports
Climate change and the need to prevent it have been pushed high up the public and political agenda following events such as the traffic stopping Extinction Rebellion protests, along with memorable images of plastic-filled oceans on the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary.
The shift in public and corporate opinion in the last six months has been greater than in the last 20 years, says Matt Sparkes, head of corporate social responsibility at City firm Linklaters and co-chair of the Legal Sustainability Alliance (LSA).
But law firms have been playing their part for at least the last decade. Since 2010, he says, Linklaters has reduced its greenhouse emissions by 26 per cent, its emissions from water use by 26 per cent and decreased its use of paper by 20 per cent; while 73 per cent of its electricity is from a renewable source.
Any “unavoidable” carbon emission from the firm’s business activities and travel are offset through the Gola Rainforest Conservation Project in Sierra Leone.
For firms looking to play their part in being more environmentally friendly, Sparkes says it should be relatively straightforward to achieve significant savings initially, through simple acts like switching to economy-efficient lightbulbs and double-sided printing.
“As you address the easy wins, it becomes harder to reduce your carbon footprint”, he adds. The next challenges for Linklaters are addressing issues related to travel and its premises. To that end, the firm recently signed a lease agreement for new London headquarters.
From 2026, the firm will be based at 20 Ropemaker Street, just a couple of minutes away from its current Silk Street offices – premises that have been designed with sustainability and wellbeing at their heart.
Gideon Moore, the firm-wide managing partner, explains that the façade (which is self-shading, highly insulated and made from natural stone) will reduce the building’s embodied carbon and minimise its energy consumption, while flexible floorplates and robust materials maximise its life.
Linklaters was one of the founding firms in the LSA (formerly the Legal Sector Alliance), which was set up in 2007 in response to the Prince of Wales’ ‘mayday’ call to all businesses to take action to address the impact of climate change.
The group now has 300 members working to embed sustainability into their operations. The LSA’s most recent report – from 2018 – showed greater efforts were being made by law firms to go green and reduce their carbon footprint.
A record number of 59 firms reported their carbon footprint, revealing an 11 per cent reduction since 2017 and a 21 per cent fall from 2016. Among the 28 firms that had reported their carbon footprint since 2008, there had been a 56 per cent reduction.
Playing your part in the fight to prevent global warming does not just make firms feel good – sustainability, as the LSA points out, is “good for business”. It cites seven reasons how going green and promoting “positive economic, environmental and social change” affects the all-important bottom line.
Not only does cutting carbon emissions support global goals, sustainability programmes enhance profitability by focusing attention on resource efficiency across the business and enables businesses to prepare strategies to meet changing trends.
Firms that can demonstrate a commitment to tackling climate change, says the LSA, are also more attractive to younger talent; and their response presents an opportunity to showcase their culture and differentiate themselves, which can be a “deciding factor in winning business”.
Lastly, the LSA suggests that failure of the market to prevent climate change will almost certainly result in increased taxation and regulation, with direct financial liability for those businesses exceeding their limits. So adopting innovative measures now will reduce the risk of increased regulation.
The practical measures that firms can take to minimise the negative impact of their activities on the planet are wide ranging, and often tie in with inclusion and diversity and wellbeing initiatives.
They range from saving energy to using technology to go paperless; from enabling agile or homeworking; to examining their own supply chain to make environmentally friendly procurement choices, such as switching to renewable energy suppliers and other sustainability-focused suppliers.
Some firms, like Ashurst, may appoint a global sustainability partner. Last year, it appointed Hong Kong-based Anna-Marie Slot to work with London-based strategic director Dave Rome to help the firm and its clients improve sustainability. The pair will focus on climate change risk, green finance and wider environmental issues affecting companies, governments, financial institutions, funds and investors.
In 2017, international law firm HWF carried out a comprehensive refurbishment of its London office, including replacing more than 1,000 conventional light bulbs with LED ‘skyties’ – and reduced its energy use by more than 50 per cent.
The firm now recycles more than 75 per cent of the waste in its London office, with general waste transported by barge along the River Thames to a plant that incinerates it and feeds energy into the National Grid.
Each year, this creates enough energy to power more than 35 homes for a month. The firm is looking to become a zero-plastic environment. Its canteen has already gone plastic-free, with all disposable items made from Vegware – a compostable material made from plants, that can be recycled with food waste.
Its caterers have a strict policy on using sustainable ingredients and products with the lowest food miles, while its coffee supplier, Change Please, empowers the homeless by training them to be baristas.
The firm recently underwent an energy audit, in line with the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS), to identify further energy reduction opportunities.
Together, these actions have helped it exceed its rolling target to reduce its carbon footprint in its London office by 5 per cent each year, and it has achieved the PlanetMark certification – a programme that recognises commitment to continuous improvement in sustainability – every year since 2016.
HFW has signed the Pledge for Greener Arbitrations, which is designed to change the way in which arbitrations are conducted to minimise their environmental impact, through, for example, minimising travel and using electronic documents instead of hard copies.
In addition, the firm has a global charity partnership with Renewable World, which tackles poverty in the developing world through the installation of community-owned renewable energy systems; and has a carbon offsetting arrangement to minimise the impact of flights made by the global aerospace team.
But it’s not just large firms that can make difference. Steven Mather is a sole practitioner litigation and dispute resolution solicitor in Leicester. He is proud to say that his practice is carbon neural, after offsetting his carbon usage by investing in tree planting and other initiatives in the UK and overseas.
Paul Bennett is half of the two-partner firm Bennett Briegal, set up a year ago by the pair who are based in Shropshire and Cheshire but operate nationally. Bennett explains that the firm uses ‘sustainable thinking’ to make the best use of technology to be environmentally aware and improve its clients service.
The firm, he explains, employs no staff directly, outsources IT and dictation transcription and stores documents in the cloud to reduce paper use. “We have no paper files, no additional storage costs and it means we have client files with us at all times”, he says.
The duo live 70 miles apart and use Microsoft Teams – a video and audio platform – for partnership discussions and client conferences. When they have to travel, they use public transport to minimise their carbon footprint.
For firms at the beginning of their sustainability journey, Natalie Barbosa, a solicitor at Anthony Collins, Manchester says setting up a ‘green team’ is essential. “You will fail unless you bring people with you, allow them input and collectively learn as you go”, she advises.
After setting up a team, the firm asked all staff to make suggestions for changes, and it is already working towards implementing some, including using biodegradable potato starch envelopes and liaising with the caterers to remove all plastics. Barbosa suggests starting with “high impact, low effort wins, like choosing a renewable energy supplier”.
Aside from working to improve its carbon footprint by switching waste collection providers to improve its recycling rate and changing to a green energy provider, legal support service company Obelisk Support created a global law photographic competition to raise awareness of climate change in the legal industry.
The winners of the competition, run to support the not-for-profit ‘green’ law firm Client Earth, won a grove of trees to be planted in Scotland to re-wild the Highlands in collaboration with conservation charity Trees for Life.
Obelisk Support also publishes a list of legal heroes who are changing the world for good and have demonstrated excellence in leadership in areas that include climate crisis and the environment. Nominations for the 2020 awards are open and the list of winners will be published on 2 April 2020 – just in time for Earth Month.
The London-based firm Bates Wells has also committed to take action. It has created an environmental policy statement, formally recognised the climate emergency and pledged to reach net zero carbon.
Since 2014, it has reduced its carbon footprint by more than 33 per cent, even though its business grew by 60 per cent over the same period. It operates a zero waste-to-landfill
office, with 100 per cent of its waste composted, recycled or turned into usable electricity and heat.
But David Hunter, a consultant with the firm, says that if firms want to engage meaningfully with the climate and biodiversity crises, they must do more than merely being eco-friendly.
He suggests firms should stop using profits per equity partner as the measure of success and consider gaining B Corp certification. This measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance, which for law firms would take into account the impact of their advice not only on their clients – but on clients’ stakeholders.
Hunter says: “Law has the potential to be a significant lever for change and a force for good – or an inhibitor to it. Lawyers need to decide whether or not they want to take the opportunity we have, at this critical time, to make a positive difference.
“To preserve business as usual, even with a green gloss to it, is to condemn future generations to a life of increased insecurity and violence.”
Much of the young blood in the profession, he says, understand this and are impatient to use their skills constructively, adding: “Current partners need to decide whether they will facilitate them in doing this – if not, I would politely suggest they step aside, in the interests of their own progeny if nothing else.”
As well as through the advice they give to clients generally, specialist lawyers can have a significant impact on the environment by taking on climate change litigation.
A report published last year from the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics suggested such cases have become a “global phenomenon”, with more than 1,328 legal actions started against governments and corporations in at least 28 countries since 1990. They include 53 cases brought in the UK.
In the spirit of radical change, a group of legal professionals and law students came together last year to support the aims of climate change movement Extinction Rebellion, and empower members to be active in their day-to-day roles.
Last October the group, Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion, issued its Lawyers’ Declaration of Rebellion outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. This acknowledged the “complicity of law” in enabling the climate breakdown and ecological crisis and its “abject failure” to uphold what should be its ultimate purpose – to protect and enrich life.
It also recognised the “critical part the law must play in restoring the health of the planet, and “the urgent and deep change needed in the operation of our legal system in order to deliver this”.
Paul Powlesland, a barrister and founding member of the group, told supporters: “Now, at this time of climate ecological emergency, lawyers need to rediscover their power and contribute their intelligence, hard work and influence towards creating a legal system that protects life.”
Catherine Baksi is a barrister and freelance journalist