The time is at hand
We now find ourselves in 2019, which puts us in the last decade of the 2010s, and means we’re now as close to the year 2030 as we are away from 2008. The reason this is significant is that, a) it’s been a decade and there still hasn’t been a superhero film as good as The Dark Knight, and b) 2030 is the year by which the world must slash its carbon emissions by at least 45% to avoid global climate catastrophe, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Failure to reach this target could lead to observable crisis as early as 2040. Events of last year suggest that this is already manifesting – wildfires raged across continents, while persistent drought brought another 16 million people globally into food shortage, and water shortages hit countries where you wouldn’t really expect water shortages. If nothing is done, over the next two decades we can expect to see disappearing coastline as sea levels rise, with between 30 to 80 million people expected to lose their homes to flooding. The implications for the natural world are not good – a rise of 2°C would likely result in loss of 18% of insect species, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates. We would probably see the entire loss of coral reef, and the ecosystem that exists with it.
But, as all hope seems lost, in 2018 we saw the intensification of an interesting new trend: corporate activism. Many CEOs are wading into social activism, including environmentalism. Reducing the use of plastic packaging, cutting down on palm oil, and in the case of Standard Chartered Bank, backing out of a lucrative contract with a coal-fired power plant purely due to eco concerns, show that the business word is starting to change its stance on profit over all. Apple chief Tim Cook affirmed his hope that corporations switch to renewable energy, while outdoor clothing company Patagonia is suing the US government over plans to allow development in national parks. In perhaps the most unlikely product launch of 2018, Russian gunmaker Kalashnikov, best known for its AK47 rifle, announced it was getting into the world-saving game with a new line of electric cars (of course, overpopulation is a contributing factor to the rise of pollution, so you could argue Kalashnikov has been a green company for years by facilitating effective population control).
Business tycoons involving themselves in politics is as old as business itself. As Charlie Wilson famously (sort of) said in 1953, What’s good for General Motors is good for America. The interests of the corporate and the country were seen as intertwined. More recently, greenwashing – where a company launches a marketing campaign to look environmentally friendly, while in reality doing very little on green issues – has become popular on the corporate scene. So, scepticism is warranted. But this CEO activism is something different. For the first time in history, corporate leaders are taking public stands on issues not necessarily related to their business interests, and sometimes in situations where it would be more profitable to simply shut up.
Ten years ago, it was extremely uncommon for industrialists to publicly castigate a president for policy changes that favour business but will damage the environment – on the contrary, they were often the ones pushing such an agenda. Rarely would a CEO, whose main objective is to maximise profits, risk speaking up about controversial topics like abortion or transgender rights, for fear of alienating a market demographic. Yet, today, there is a litany of examples. This concept is perhaps best summed up by tech entrepreneur Marc Benioff: “Today CEOs need to stand up not just for their shareholders, but their employees, their customers, their partners, the community, the environment, schools, everybody.”
By using a vast public platform to raise awareness and start a conversation, as well as leveraging their economic power, CEOs can effect real change. Of course, some might argue that this is worrying in a democracy – nobody elected these people, and their views are often simply based on what they feel like, often unconnected to wider understandings of political theory or social effects. Some stand up for the rights of LGBT people, while others have denounced gay marriage. Unlike a government, where elected officials work within the parameters of the parliamentary system, CEOs cause change by effectively bullying and ransoming people. It’s a massive power imbalance, and there is very little coordinated direction on policy. Popular causes often follow the line of what is immediately in the public eye, or topics which stir emotional reactions. It would be dangerous to entrust the fate of the future to the whims of whatever is trending on Twitter right now.
All that glitters is not green
When it comes to sustainability, any action is better than no action. The status quo is unsustainable. Given that the cycle of consumer goods plays a huge part in environmental damage, it’s undeniably a good thing that many companies are making efforts to reduce the negative impact their products have. But this CEO activism will not come close to solving the world’s problems. CEOs will ultimately always be swayed by popular opinion, and these popular movements can be misguided. In August of 2018, a tweet requesting that Starbucks replace their plastic coffee cups with ones made from corn starch was retweeted over 60,000 times. Sounds good, right? Probably the kind of thing you would support? Unfortunately, while corn starch is an effective substitute for plastic which is also biodegradable, the amount of land needed to grow it in the quantities needed would lead to widespread environmental damage, similar to the way in which the innocuous palm oil has become a problem purely due to the amount of it that is produced.
The problem with CEO activism is that the only truly valid answer to the plastic problem is one that doesn’t fit with their agenda – we need to buy less stuff. This is where we can see that corporations cannot be relied on to push a true sustainability programme. Waste isn’t just a side effect – it’s central to the system, in the form of planned obsolescence. The cycle of consumerism relies on you continually buying new things, which means getting rid of your old stuff, because it’s out of fashion or doesn’t have the latest features. If we really want an environmentally sustainable approach to business, the simple answer is we need to end the throwaway culture, which means re-evaluation of our approach to buying things. That’s the one thing, for all their good intentions, the CEO activists will never want to change.
If you’re interested in sustainability, and would like to hear more about the solutions to the environmental crisis, you can register for our free keynote symposium at Virtual Congress 2019.