Political, cultural and business elites from all corners of the world recently attended the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos. High on the agenda was climate change. Attendees gave David Attenborough’s passionate environmentalism a standing ovation and commended the activism of Greta Thunberg. Yet at the same time, a record number of private jets flew into Davos for the summit, pretty much completely contradicting its climate-conscious message.
Sadly, this mirrors a wider trend of big business and the super-rich making all the right noises when it comes to climate change, but not following through with correspondingly environmentalist action. The average consumer, however, is very aware of the environmental impact of their choices, in many instances making shopping choices based on environmental judgements, as research from Unilever has demonstrated. It seems that in amongst all this moralising about our individual carbon footprints, the richest corporations have been able to abdicate their fair share of responsibility for climate change.
The impact that corporations have on our environment is colossal. One study was able to link 63% of global industrial CO2 and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010 to just 90 bodies, and it’s a trend that sadly doesn’t seem to be improving any time soon. Businesses have been able to get away with environmentally damaging behaviour for centuries. Today, they do so by turning a token few sustainable actions into marketable traits – concessions to the concerned customer. While CNN is right to think that Davos has woken up to climate change , they are wrong to think that this offers any hope. Businesses are patently aware of the risks to their reputation (and therefore profits) posed by being unsustainable, but they aren’t dealing with this by completely revolutionising their production. They’re just doing enough to be seen as being sustainable. We have seen positive steps towards sustainability, of course: coffee chains offering discounts for reusable cups, supermarkets pledging to reduce plastic packaging. But when the UN says we have just 12 years to save the planet from catastrophe, this isn’t enough. Given the immediate danger posed by global warming, unless big businesses revolutionise the way they produce, the future looks pretty bleak for planet Earth.
A prime example of token sustainability as marketing is Iceland’s banned Christmas orang-utan ad. The heart-wrenching ad shed light on the plight of orang-utans killed and driven out of rainforests by palm oil production, concluding with Iceland’s promise to get rid of all palm oil from their own brand products. And that’s great! Palm oil is a truly destructive industry. And, it had a positive impact on Iceland as a business: it boosted sales of some of their own brand products and was seen by approximately 70 million people.
But dealing with one unsustainable aspect of your business is not the same thing as being sustainable. Palm oil is just one among a litany of sins food retailers commit. And Iceland is just one example of a corporation doing something sustainable, which is good, but failing to address fully its wider environmental responsibilities, which is bad. The problem is that there is some incentive to big businesses to be sustainable, in order to attract conscious customers, but there is not enough incentive to fully evaluate their sustainability because this will lose them money. We cannot rely on the idea that the ‘profit motive’ will be enough to make businesses cut their emissions and thus save the planet. Something more has to be done: until we enforce some truly meaningful standards or agreements upon businesses as we have done states, we cannot be hopeful about the future. The global focus on how we, as individual consumers, can be more eco-friendly has allowed corporations to abdicate a lot of the responsibility they are due.
The business leaders at Davos may sympathise with the cause, but they are doing precious little to support it.
Words by Kate Newby.