Fake Leadership Is Dangerous When It Comes to Corporate Sustainability, Plastic Pollution and Climate Change

By Brad Zarnett
Mar 27, 2019 2:10 PM ET

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of corporate sustainability and how it’s not delivering on the promise of a sustainable business model. Before you contest that fact, remember that in 2018 CO2 emissions hit their highest level in recent history, plastic pollution continues to get worse and is now in our food chain, biodiversity loss is accelerating, and at no time has the rate of species loss been greater. This is all happening under our watch. The positive inputs from Corporate Sustainability, CSR, Conscious Capitalism, Social Innovation and Impact Investing look very promising but the outputs are increasingly disturbing.

This got me thinking about the messaging that we’ve been hearing over the past few years from both governments and corporations and how their promises are also not being fulfilled. Which brought me to the idea of “fake leadership”. You know, the type of leadership on an important issue that has no teeth and goes nowhere while every day our planet sinks further into an irreversible collapse. Too dramatic? Have a look at any number of scientific reports that will tell you quite clearly what’s coming if we don’t turn things around.

G7 Ocean Plastic Charter

A brilliant example of fake leadership is the G7 Ocean Plastics Charter that was signed in Canada in 2018. All the main polluters, including Walmart, Unilever, Coca Cola and Nestle, “pledged” to help reduce plastic pollution by endorsing the new Charter. Let’s take a closer look.

First, the word pledge is an interesting choice to hear from a corporation, “a solemn promise or agreement to do or refrain from doing something”. Second, the agreement was non-binding, meaning that it was a document that laid out the goals but no obligation to fulfill the terms. Third, while the goals were ambitious, they were vague: “making all plastics recyclable by 2030, reducing single-use plastics, promoting the use of recycled plastic, pledging to build out recycling infrastructure and innovate around more sustainable technologies.” Fourth, this is not the first kick at the can for world leaders addressing plastic pollution. In 2015, the G7 in Germany launched an action plan to combat marine litter, which was then reaffirmed in 2016 in Japan and further discussed in 2017 in Italy. Even back in 1995, more than a hundred governments committed to protecting the marine environment from the impact of land-based activities. And yet here we are, in 2019, with a plastic island in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas and plastic particulates in our drinking water and food chain.

Despite its tepid terms, and a history of very little coming of these types of agreements, both the United States and Japan still found it too far reaching to sign the G7 Ocean Plastic Charter. Can this whole charade be described as anything other than fake leadership? An ineffective and hollow “pledge” that acknowledges, once again, that we have a problem, with no real pathway to find solutions. 

Greenpeace International Executive Director, Jennifer Morgan said in a statement:

“While the leadership to outline a common blueprint is good news, voluntary charters focused on recycling and repurposing will not solve the problem at the source. It’s time for the world’s largest economies to recognise that we cannot simply recycle our way out of this problem while we keep churning out so much throwaway plastic in the first place. Governments must move beyond voluntary agreements to legislate binding reduction targets and bans on single-use plastics, invest in new and reuse delivery models for products, and hold corporations accountable for the problem they have created.”

The Plastic Charter was portrayed by the corporate friendly media as a ground breaking initiative and it continues to be plugged in that way, at least by Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Recently at a climate rally in Toronto, curiously timed during a Liberal Party scandal, he reiterated his pride in his government’s great work in dealing with plastic pollution and climate change, using the G7 Ocean Plastic Charter to illustrate his point.

A Dangerous State of Complacency

This is not leadership! A vague and non-binding Ocean Plastics Charter, that makes no mention of either eliminating single use plastics or of holding corporations accountable for the problem they created in the first place. How is this any different than a doctor who tells a lung cancer patient to feel free to keep smoking while trying different therapies to stop the disease? I suppose if the doctor was controlled or compensated by the cigarette industry, while ethically despicable, at least you could understand his/her motivations. Is that what’s happening here between the plastics industry and our politicians? It sure seems like that’s the case. Without disturbing the underlying system which greatly enriches a few at the expense of everyone else, politicians offer, at best, weak legislation that does nothing to address the source of the plastic toxins that are destroying our ecosystem.

Unfortunately most people are overextended and only glance quickly at the corporate friendly headlines – and that’s exactly what politicians and corporations count on. Show “fake leadership” with a few symbolic gestures and the public will feel good knowing that someone is on the job addressing their concerns. But in many ways these promises are more insidious than doing nothing. When big corporations and governments say that they are going to respond to a crisis, it lulls us into a state of complacency. It’s dangerous, because rather than standing up and voicing our concerns with what appears to be a serious lack of engagement, we are quiet, believing that someone else is  taking care of the problem.   For the better part of the last 15 years, a hopeful public has been pacified with promises, while the corporate sustainability movement continues to track in a direction that suppresses meaningful regulations, in favour of hope that somehow a market based solution will emerge. For those who see the world through a more cynical lens, it almost seems as if those in control of the narrative, the super elites, are not just steering change in a particular direction but rather, they are disrupting change in a way that can best be described as stonewalling to maintain the status quo.   We Are at a Crossroads

We’ve tried to move forward with fake leadership but clearly it’s not working. Our politicians act like puppets for the real leaders; Billionaires, Corporate Elites, Fossil Fuel Companies and Wall Street. Without change, our democracy will continue to be dysfunctional and wealth will continue to concentrate.

Our current path is leading directly to the intersection of climate breakdown and inequality inspired fury. People are no longer willing to sit back and watch as the rigged system provides crumbs for the masses while the elite accumulate the vast majority of income and wealth while simultaneously destroying the environment. Even children have become disgusted as they watch this horror show unfold. Just last week over a million children from around the world participated in a climate strike, hoping to let politicians know that they won’t accept the future that’s being offered. The capitalist system is behaving like a cancerous tumour that is stealing life from the future to satisfy its ravenous needs, for a few, in the present. According to author and environmental activist, George Monbiot, in a recent article: “The economy is an environmental pyramid scheme, dumping its liabilities on the young and the unborn. Its current growth depends on intergenerational theft.”

Change is coming

Real change is coming and contrary to the neoliberal, crony capitalism, billionaire, “we broke it but we’re the best ones to fix it” mantra….it won’t be a market based win-win. Those who are profiting the most from a rigged system that creates massive inequality and ecosystem destruction, namely Billionaires, Corporate Elites, Fossil Fuel Companies and Wall Street, will need to accept that one way or another, either voluntarily or by force, they will need to relinquish some of their power. Hopefully they will accept a little less through regulation but there is another way.   People have shown that they are willing to hire any politician who can make the case that they will deliver us back to a better time when average citizens had more. The problem is that those are usually empty promises, sold to us by distracting us and blaming the weak, and often carried out forcefully using violence.

The path forward is quite clear but it requires the ability of those in power to see what they’ve created through a new lens of fairness. Not fairness for a few hungry folks here and there BUT systemic fairness that will put the big challenges of our time back where they belong, in the hands of our democratic system and our elected leaders.

The fight for corporate sustainability is nothing more than a proxy fight for corporate power that has run amok.  As Nick Hanauer said in his 2014 article, the pitchforks are coming…for us plutocrats.

The time for real leadership has arrived and you can be sure that the person who is best suited for the job won’t be a billionaire who was part of the “team” that created the dysfunction in the first place.


Brad Zarnett is a sustainability strategist, a blogger and speaker and the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). You can follow Brad on twitter at @bradzarnett or on LinkedIn