Have you ever seen a Chevron advertisement bragging about the company’s new investments in clean energy? How about a commercial claiming that BP is involved in coastal land conservation? Many large corporations have started Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts in order to improve their image in the eyes of consumers. But critics claim CSR efforts are misleading because they prioritize corporate image over addressing the root causes of social or environmental issues. 

Bowdoin appears to have adopted a public relations model similar to CSR when it comes to promoting its own commitment to the environment. The College works hard to cultivate a sustainable image, but falls short of making the large investments and institutional commitments necessary to address the root causes of climate change. 

Simply put, CSR helps a business look good in the eyes of consumers, usually at a low cost. Over the past decade, especially, businesses have been increasingly willing to donate substantial sums to foundations, start their own charities or even let their employees take time off to work with non-profit organizations. 

Businesses do not incur net losses through these initiatives, and there are clear returns to CSR investments. Making large donations bolsters the company’s public image, and employees are usually happier and more reliable over the long term if they can take time off to pursue charitable work. 

Many argue, with ample justification, that CSR does not impact the world in a meaningful way. Consider the example of Wal-Mart. In FY 2012 Wal-Mart donated $1 billion to charities and needy individuals. This is an impressive sum, but keep in mind that Wal-Mart reported roughly $180 billion in assets that same year. The company is notorious for undermining local businesses, under-employing workers to deny healthcare benefits, and even paying large bribes outside of the U.S. 

Is Wal-Mart addressing the root causes of poverty by donating $1 billion to charity? No—the company may actually cause poverty because of its business practices. But due to its $1 billion in donations, Wal-Mart looks great in the eyes of its consumers. 

Bowdoin appears to be practicing a CSR-like sustainability campaign because, like any corporation practicing CSR, Bowdoin has been able to cultivate a sustainable image without, I would argue, adequately addressing the root causes of climate change. 

A new banner on display in Thorne Dining Hall last week advertised Bowdoin’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2020 logo, with a slogan saying “We’re committed, are you?” On Earth Day, April 22nd, students were asked to take pictures displaying what they do to help protect the environment on an iPad. There is nothing wrong with these efforts in themselves. It is great that student volunteers, eco-reps and the sustainability office are fostering individual student commitment to the environment. The only issue, however, is that these efforts imply that Bowdoin is doing all it can to help protect the environment, and that  the rest of environmental efforts at Bowdoin should be left up to students themselves.

That could not be further from the truth. As I have previously detailed in this column, Bowdoin has been reluctant to undertake large capital investments necessary to make our campus more sustainable. The College claims “carbon neutrality” largely based on purchasing RECs, which probably do not reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Bowdoin also has made few investments to reduce GHG emissions here on campus, that do not yield substantial returns for the school. The College still lacks the solar projects promised in the last carbon neutrality plan, and Bowdoin currently has a whopping total of one electric vehicle. 
Did you know that Carleton College, one of our competitor schools in Minnesota, built an industrial-scale wind turbine near its campus that provides 40 percent of the school’s energy? Middlebury College, always one step ahead of Bowdoin in sustainability, recently built its own biomass plant. 

Although Bowdoin falls short of radically engaging with sustainability, at the surface our College looks very “sustainable.” Pledges detailing the College’s commitment to the environment permeate the College website and admissions publications. The carbon neutrality logo is literally all over the school. 

This sustainable image creates benefits for the College by attracting prospective students interested in the environment, enticing alumni to donate to the College and even making current students interested in the environment feel happier. 

How can Bowdoin move from a “CSR approach” on sustainability to addressing the root causes of climate change? The College should undertake larger capital investments designed to bring our school closer to being carbon free, like implementing solar or biomass projects. 

Divestment would be a good option to lead on climate change, too. And if not divestment, what about investment? Bowdoin’s endowment is about $1 billion, which is a lot of capital in Maine, a state with a GDP of only about $50 billion. Instead of wasting money buying largely ineffectual voluntary RECs, why doesn’t Bowdoin partner with other institutions to start investing in renewable energy projects in Maine, helping to make this state a hub for renewable energy generation? 

Bowdoin should get innovative to address the root causes of climate change, building a more sustainable College for the future.