Helene Pacalin works for Toitū Envirocare, the organisation that's making great strides in helping businesses measure and reduce their carbon emissions. She spoke to Jeremy Hansen as part of our Seven Plans for a Better Planet interview series.
Jeremy Hansen: Helene, let’s start with you telling us what Toitū is and does.
Helene Pacalin: Toitū translates as ‘to actively sustain’. Our organisation was previously known as Enviro-Mark Solutions, but we began trading as Toitū Envirocare 18 months ago. We’re helping businesses step up for positive change and start managing their environmental impacts. We work with all types of industries and diverse types and sizes of businesses. We have a science-based, hand-held approach to things, so we really like to make it as simple as we can. If a business signs up with Toitū, they get someone like me who will be the go-to person for anything they need. We guide them at first by asking some key questions: What are they going to include in their carbon footprint measurement? What do they have control over? And what are the things they’re going to want to start reducing? We have two programs, carbonreduce and carbonzero, which has the extra step of buying carbon credits to balance out emissions while working on reductions. So we take businesses through all of that and are available for any other support they might want, including engagement, education and general awareness.
JH: How would you characterise New Zealand’s progress towards becoming an economy that understands carbon emissions and is able to measure them and manage them?
HP: That’s a tough question, I think there’s been a lot happening in New Zealand in the last two years, which would explain why we’ve been receiving so many enquiries from businesses wanting to get started on the journey. I think New Zealand companies have really understood they have a big role to play – but some companies are well ahead and some are still playing catch up.
JH: What timeframe can businesses expect if they’re coming from a standing start to try to get a handle on their carbon emissions?
HP: It depends on resources, but it could take a business from four months to eight months to get ready. The average would be able to take about six months for clients to sign up with us and then be able to say, we’ve verified our footprint, this is what it looks like, and this is our action plan.
JH: Has the Climate Change Commission’s report accelerated that process, and created a greater sense of urgency?
HP: I think yes, especially since they have released the first draft of the climate change budgets, and the opportunity for businesses to give feedback. People know more ambitious targets are coming, and there’s also more general awareness from the news. So yes, people understand the urgency of it.
JH: Are you optimistic about our ability to respond to the challenges that climate change presents?
HP: It depends on the day! I remain optimistic because there is so much we can do. Even small changes – creating less waste, using less plastic, cycling to work or walking whenever I can – can add up to something big. And so the more people think about it, the more everyone is involved, the more change will accelerate. But there are definitely some days where you read the news or attend a climate conference and you tell yourself, well, this is way too slow. It doesn’t feel like it’s fast enough, so we need that urgency now.
JH: Has the pandemic accelerated the sense of what’s possible?
HP: Yes. For a lot of office-based companies, their biggest emissions related to air travel. So the shift to online meetings is having huge benefits in that sense. If we can make a change like that almost overnight, we can make other changes too.
JH: Measuring carbon emissions also helps people spot companies attempting to greenwash their operations, right?
HP: Unfortunately, you’ll always have companies who will put a green logo on a product or add green to their name. So I think certification helps customers. It means someone else has gone in and actually verified what a company has done, providing independent endorsement of the action. There is a lot of work happening in terms of rewarding the people that are doing it well and punishing the ones who are misleading.
JH: Is there pressure for companies to feel like they need to get everything absolutely right before they go public with a sustainability strategy?
HP: Quite often companies are worried about communicating anything until they’re five to 10 years down the line. I think that’s incorrect. It’s a journey. Progress now is more important than perfection later – and waiting for perfection stops you from getting started. It’s fine to say hey, we’re just at the beginning and this is where we are at now; this is a plan. It just needs to be easy to understand: don’t talk about tons of CO2 equivalence, just say electricity use is the biggest cause of emissions for your company, for example. Everyone will understand that. Try to simplify everything and make it interactive and make people part of your journey.
Illustration by Lucy Han