Sucking up to Business Is a Certain Path to Ecological Collapse

If you incentivize a system to cause harm...then don't be surprised when it causes harm.
Oct 20, 2020 9:00 AM ET

This article was first published on Medium



In a recent conversation with a fellow sustainability strategist it was suggested that the efforts of sustainability and CSR professionals, while not perfect, are based on good intentions. That got me thinking. Are good intentions enough? What if those intentions are constrained from within a corporate culture that uses a self-serving interpretation of climate science to protect a lucrative but ecologically destructive business model? From within that type of culture how can the good intentions of a dedicated sustainability professional possibly emerge?

What are they to do?

What’s the responsibility of a sustainability professional who knows that their employer (or client) is using their wealth and corporate influence to mislead the public with an alternate environmental reality — one that downplays the urgency to act and where half measures and inconsequential efforts are spun as meaningful?

If the climate clock wasn’t ticking, maybe it wouldn’t matter, but it is, and once we pass the threshold — there’s no going back or starting at a new normal. It will be a steady descent into systems failure, food scarcity, political chaos, and suffering.

Positive vs. Meaningful

There are two types of progress in the battle to protect our climate; positive and meaningful, and the distinction is crucial. A positive result is one that no matter the degree, environmental harm is reduced. A giant clothing company that switches to organic thread would be considered to have made a positive change. Proponents of this approach will praise the incremental effort and assert how every little bit helps or at least that it’s a positive step that can be built on. Those responses ignore our looming reality.

A meaningful result is different. It could be described as a dramatic reduction or the complete elimination of harm being unleashed on an ecosystem; and transferring harm from one place to another that is slightly less harmful is not a win and certainly not meaningful. I’m hard-pressed to find any sizeable corporation that operates in this way, other than everyone’s favourite — Patagonia and possibly IKEA. But these corporations are still causing far too much harm considering the desperate climate challenge that lays before us. And the closer you look, the more disturbing it becomes.

20 or 200 Times Worse

More than most, people involved in sustainability understand the science of climate change and that our carbon budget will expire in less than 10 years. Furthermore, they also likely understand that continuing to degrade ecosystems will only make matters worse. Today’s heatwaves, droughts, forest fires and floods are not a new normal; it’s a stark warning of our slide into climate chaos and large scale global suffering. One degree of warming will become two and then three and we need to clearly understand that two is not twice as bad as one — it could be 20 or 200 times worse. Positive feedback loops are nearly impossible to predict but their impacts are coming and they will shake every life supporting ecosystem on the planet.

The Real World

If we could do anything we want to make the world a better place, I’m sure that each of us would have dozens of ideas but for now let’s come down from the clouds and explore this challenge from the real world.

Let’s assume that internally a sustainability professional is using all of their skills and influence to lobby for positive change. That’s a good start, but the harsh truth is that in most cases they’re fighting a losing battle; their voice is lost in a sea of pro-profit sentiment. At bonus time most companies reward employees based on increasing profits, not on reducing environmental harm or building a new less harmful business model that has new costs associated with it. (If you know of a company that significantly rewards employees based on meaningful sustainability metrics then please let me know)

I get it — you need your job. You need to provide for yourself and your family and you may even be paying off student debt. Ultimately you’re tied to the system — we all are. If you speak out you may get alienated at work or you could even get fired which could make it very tricky to get another job utilizing your special skill set. (Although in some cases it might be the perfect resume builder.)

To some degree this is all true, so you don’t call out your own company (or client) and instead you convince yourself that you’re doing some good from within — but is that really true? Can you really fight against a predatory system that is ruled by short term profits and ecological destruction by working with a company that strives to achieve short term profits and ignores ecological destruction? And once again, please don’t tell me how every little bit helps or at least it’s a positive step which we can build on. Those responses ignore our looming reality. Let’s use Coca-Cola as an example.

“Leadership” at Coca-Cola

This summer Coca-Cola Europe announced the replacement of plastic for “6 packs” with the CanCollar paperboard packaging solution. Coca-Cola considers this a sustainable and recyclable solution that is “set to keep” more than 18 “tonnes” of plastic from ending up in the world’s oceans each year.

This might sound impressive, but keep in mind that Coca Cola is the largest plastic polluter in the world and produces 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging each year. So while 18 tonnes might sound like a lot, it’s actually just a tiny fraction of all the plastic that they produce; 18 out of 3 million is a reduction of just 0.0006%. Framed honestly, as a relative reduction, the efforts of Coca Cola are inconsequential at best and misleading at worst. Perhaps this is why Coca-Cola spends approximately 4 billion each year on advertising.

There is essentially no meaningful regulation on plastic pollution (or carbon for that matter) and regardless of what Coca Cola says about sustainability, sales come first, before societal and environmental wellbeing. According to their long time Director of Sustainability, Bea Perez, getting rid of the plastic bottle is a non starter as, “it could alienate customers and hit sales.” Hmmm, sounds a lot more like the Director of Marketing than Sustainability.

In effect, Coca-Cola is saying that they refuse to change their business model in a way that could dramatically reduce their use of plastic and they’re blaming it on their customers.

I suppose that if a company doesn’t have to pay for the harm that they cause and they have no real moral compass for societal wellbeing — then it makes sense to lobby against any meaningful change and resist finding a new way to sell their product.

Stop Placating Corporations

I can understand why those employed at Coca-Cola would gush over these meaningless efforts but what about the rest of us who don’t work there and who can see this whole charade for the hoax that it is. What’s our responsibility to the truth? Is there harm in providing a little visibility for yourself by posting a trite congratulatory platitude on social media?

It may only be a quick comment, but it’s dangerous. It gives energy to a deceptive tactic and creates confusion and dialogue where none should exist. But perhaps even more insidious is that it pacifies us. It makes us think that someone else is on the job tackling climate change and that’s dangerous because it lulls us into a state of complacency, when instead, we should be out in the streets demanding change.

At this point, it might be helpful to reflect on exactly what drives a corporation to behave the way it does. Simply put, they are sociopathic entities that exist in an increasingly deregulated economic system that entices them to exploit people and resources in their quest to accumulate as much capital as possible. Unless you think that corporations can be reasoned with or coaxed to do better, then placating them is not the answer. And knowing that your encouraging comments could be doing more environmental harm than good is probably reason enough to stop doing it.


The Business Case

For decades sustainability professionals have searched for the elusive business case to operate more sustainably but the prize still eludes them, and with good reason — it doesn’t exist. It’s a neoliberal fantasy propped up by corporations and their government puppets; designed to perpetuate the idea that all problems are best solved in the marketplace with minimal government involvement.

We need to stop pretending that we’re making progress and admit that Corporate Sustainability is simply the wrong strategy for our global environmental challenges. Yes, business has contributed to a wave of positive inputs going “into the system” but in spite of those efforts, the “output of the system" is failing to reverse global deforestation, biodiversity loss and ecosystem decline not to mention a host of other social problems like income inequality, living wages and food insecurity.

The truth is that corporations exist in a system that provides little if any reward for solving global environmental problems. Most companies have a narrow focus and it’s not in their interest to expend capital to address a global ecological problem like climate change or plastic pollution, when no meaningful ROI exists. Our system simply doesn’t reward companies for solving problems where the payoff is societal wellbeing.

The results speak for themselves and by now it should be obvious that degrading ecosystems is not a problem that can be solved by each company reducing their impacts one by one with the right sustainability strategy. Great efforts by one company won’t make a dent in our collective challenge. We’ve been approaching this all wrong. Asking companies to play by an alternate set of rules that interferes with their primary goal of increasing shareholder value was a failed strategy from the start. We have a systems problem that encourages business to destroy rather than to regenerate and protect. The capitalist system in which global commerce is conducted is destroying us.

Playtime is Over — It’s the System

Capitalism was created by humans which means that we have choices. It’s time to ditch a system that works for so few at the expense of so many. A system that encourages greed and selfishness with financial windfalls. A system that preys on the weak and treats nature like a slave to be used and discarded.

Imagine if we changed the system so that the rewards were determined by one’s ability to create societal wellbeing. Imagine if instead of a system that rewards predatory behaviour against nature, people and animals, the system punished it. Imagine if instead of a system that worshipped society destabilizing concentrated wealth, it was designed to ensure that everyone received a living wage and access to free health care and higher education. Imagine if the system were designed to create health and wellness rather than to toxify people’s lives for the benefit of the .01%.

Companies would be still free to operate in this system without government interference but the new rules would change their focus. The metrics would be designed to reward companies that enriched society while those that degraded it would become insolvent and fade away. Imagine how different a company like Amazon Inc. would be in this type of system and how much it would enrich society — beyond just selling people stuff that arrives in a day.

Government would play a key role in this system. It would help to design and police the rules. It would spend tax dollars with the same goal of societal wellbeing which would include supporting workers in this transition instead of giving money to corporations that have created much of the harm that we’re trying to repair.

Gone would be the days where government would set the rules for the benefit of the corporate elite and billionaires, but rather, the rules would serve ordinary people for the betterment of society. Wealth could still be created by innovative and creative minds but it would be based on the new focus of wellbeing because that’s where the important metrics would lead.

These simple systemic changes would have immediate impacts on millions of lives, not in 20 or 30 years when our fragile ecosystems would be well beyond their tipping points. Those corporations who find it difficult to adapt would fade away and new companies that create wellbeing would take their place. No more need to chase shadows looking for the elusive business case for corporate sustainability, the system would encourage, no, demand, positive change across the board.

Choice is a Neoliberal Fantasy

The science clearly shows that we are now in the era of climate change. Last year we reached 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and recently scientists reported that, “Greenland’s ice sheet may have shrunk past the point of return, with the ice likely to melt away no matter how quickly the world reduces climate-warming emissions”.

The various climate strategies that have been deemed appropriate by the corporate elite, fossil fuel rich nations and Davos billionaires, all fail to accept the science; “2050 net zero” is nothing but a watered down political target to ensure that the system that created this mess, remains largely unchanged. Today’s heat waves, droughts, forest fires and floods are not a new normal; it’s a stark warning of our slide into climate chaos and large scale global suffering. Positive feedback loops are nearly impossible to predict but their impacts are coming and they will shake every life supporting ecosystem on the planet….well before 2050.

There’s no more time for tweaks and promises. Our efforts are well below what is necessary to prevent our climate from heating up beyond 1.5C. We must demand what’s necessary and not what is politically feasible. The real timeline deemed sufficient by the science community is 2030, that’s when our carbon budget will expire. It will be uncomfortable but we have no choice if we want to avoid planetary chaos.


Time for a Gut Check

Assuming that we agree with the science, each of us must look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what’s the point of my efforts if they don’t address our climate emergency in a meaningful way? And while you’re talking to yourself, you might also ask, why did I get involved in sustainability in the first place?

Small changes in many areas can have extremely positive effects but without changing the system that created our environmental emergency in the first place, it’s far more likely that we’ll continue to destroy our planet than magically reverse course. Our neoliberalism inspired market-based attempts at finding solutions in the past several decades have resulted in steady ecosystem decline, taking us right to the edge of massive systems failure. We’ve squandered the ability to approach this with incremental thinking. We need meaningful change and in order for that to happen, we need to change the system.

OK, so where do each of us fit into this challenge? What role should we play?

Is there ever a reason why we should be loyal to a corporation (or client) while knowing that they are misrepresenting the truth about their efforts to address our ecological emergency or is that just business in 2020? Is there a different standard when it comes to destroying our biosphere?

How does it feel to work for a company like Coca-Cola where two opposing realities need to exist simultaneously? How does that affect you personally? How much cognitive dissonance can you endure before that nagging discomfort will need to be addressed?

It’s time to get off the fence — we can’t have it both ways — either we’re fighting for the climate in a meaningful way or we’re not. If you find yourself defending Coca-Cola or another corporation that is creating an alternate environmental reality, then it might be a good time to go back and sit with the questions asked above at the beginning of this section. It’s decision time and we all need to ask ourselves where we want to be on this issue, especially those of us who know better, those of us who respect the science.

Fight of a Generation

The generation that fought WWII to stop the spread of fascism was known as the greatest generation. They fought with bravery and stubborn determination to protect everything that they cared about. Now imagine for a minute what the world would be like if they lost? What language would we be speaking, who would be in charge, would there be elections, would we be slaves or would we be free? Sometimes in life the stakes are so high that winning is the only option.

It’s 80 years later and the current generation now finds itself in their own fight for survival. This time the enemy is not a country, the fight is against the ruling elite who guard the plundering global economic “system”. This time we don’t have to leave our homes to fight because, in a sense, we’re already being “occupied”, not by another country, but by the rigged capitalist system itself. Every country on the planet is under its spell and all but the 1% are victims of this occupation.

We need to think differently about the battle for a stable climate. We need to reframe the fight as a battle against an occupying force that is destroying us. We need to mobilize against corporate greed and corrupt politicians to protect our climate and everything that we care about. We need to think of ourselves as the resistance.

Time to Go All-In

Imagine what we could do if we combined our passion, skills and connections and went all-in to defeat the ultimate destroyer…predatory capitalism? What if we framed the challenge as a fight for our lives — where everyone had an important role to play. What if instead of squandering our energy and skills on positive efforts that help corporations pretend that they’re making meaningful changes, we focused on how to change the system that is at the core of the harm.

What if instead of being silent when we heard governments and corporations talk about their efforts to achieve “2050 net zero” targets we called it out for the environmental fantasy that it is and corrected it with the scientific reality. We have 10 years to decarbonize every aspect of our economy; transportation, manufacturing, energy production, agriculture and our built environment.

When FDR told the American people that it was time to fight the Germans and defeat fascism — he didn’t say that they would get to it in 30 years. The timeline was now and he engaged every single aspect of American society. And it wasn’t only America — it was Canada and the UK too. We need to replicate this effort to address climate change but unfortunately the current corporate inspired neoliberal stranglehold on governments, that favours market solutions, won’t allow for it.

In an ideal world, all governments would already be on a war footing ready to implement the largest and most complicated economic and social shift in the history of our planet. We have the technology and the solutions are sitting on the shelf. There’s only one thing standing in our way…corporate greed and control which has infiltrated every aspect of our capitalism soaked lives. So what can we do?

We All Have an Urgent Role to Play

Firstly, we don’t placate business, we complicate it. We interfere with predatory capitalism from the inside and out. We interfere with it politically and logistically. We obstruct it and frustrate it. We gum up the system and slow it down. We complicate it and agitate it. If you need to keep our job, then you reveal the lies and deceptions from within…covertly. We can all play a role — some big and some small but everyone must work towards the same goal of bringing down the system that is destroying our planet.

Secondly, we need to stop believing the lies of Liberals or Conservatives — regardless of what they say, as a group, they are beholden to the corporate class. We must vote for Green Party candidates who can launch a decarbonization, job protection and climate justice plan.

Time is not on our side — we are getting closer and closer to a cascading failure of interconnected ecosystems. This is a fight that we cannot lose. We must do everything possible to complicate and obstruct this evil force. We are the resistance and like the greatest generations, we have no choice but to win.

This article was originally published on Medium.

Brad Zarnett is a Canadian sustainability strategist, writer and speaker. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Brad writes about why Corporate Sustainability and our attempts to address Climate Change are a massive systemic failure and what to do about it. You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnett, LinkedIn, Medium or via email.