CSR: Commitments or greenwashing?

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By:
Helen Avery
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The smackdown on greenwashing is coming – and ‘commitments’ to clean energy and environmental practices will not be enough.

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At the One Planet Summit in New York at the end of September, French president Emmanuel Macron spoke for all those who see the gap between talk and action when it comes to financing or implementing climate solutions. 

Demonstrating not only an excellent command of American-English, but also that he may be our best bet for a global leader on climate finance, Macron’s closing speech at the summit candidly called for less “bullshit”. 

His point is that since the 2015 climate pact of commitments, greenhouse gas emissions have actually gone up. Global carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas increased 1.4% in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency. 

Asia and Europe saw increases, while the US saw a slight decrease.  


There are too many eyes looking at how our largest and most powerful institutions are contributing to climate change to get away with much more of what Macron called bullshit 

The commitment to raise $100 billion from the world’s richest countries to help the most vulnerable made at the 2015 pact also looks fragile. And while 23 development banks committed at the September summit to devote a quarter of their loans to climate projects, there needs to be pressure to make good on such commitments – something Macron pointed out. 

I am haunted by the words of Tanguy Claquin at Crédit Agricole

Claquin, a climate scientist turned green finance banker and champion, told me sombrely in August that “most people don’t realise it’s already too late – the world in 2050 is going to be very different, and there will be places that are not pleasant to live in. The social consequences will be huge. Air and water quality are already a challenge – and that will worsen.”

To have a chance at containing the now inevitable changes our world will go through, we need to stop talking of commitments. Indeed, as Macron alluded to, commitments without action are nothing more than greenwashing. 

He too is under the gun; France’s CO2 emissions have not fallen. 

Reality

There’s been a pick-up in the public awareness that these green commitments across all sectors lack substance. In May, for example, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Energy claimed it was about to become the first US utility to supply 100% renewable energy. In truth, the utility was relying on fossil fuels when wind energy was unavailable. When called out, the retort was that its commitment to 100% renewable energy is real. 

But that’s not the same thing.

Anheuser Busch InBev was also slapped down for claiming its beers are made with 100% renewable energy, when in fact Budweiser was the only one of its brands to fit that claim. 

Again, the response was that the group was “committed” to using 100% renewable energy. Again, it’s not the same thing. 

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More recently still, Starbucks came under fire when it announced it had reached an environmental milestone by eliminating single-use plastic straws to make a straw-less lid – a lid that, it has been pointed out, is also unlikely to be recycled, while the largest environmental burden from Starbucks – the cup – remains an issue. 

While Starbucks has said it is working with McDonalds on developing a compostable cup because of its commitment to sustainability, it’s worth remembering the coffee giant also said something similar over 10 years ago and yet here we are, many billions of cups in landfills later. 

Over in San Francisco in September at the Global Climate Action Summit, many other vows and promises were made. The chief executive of Starbucks, which just can’t seem to stop itself, promised to make coffee a sustainable product. 

Salesforce co-chief executive Marc Benioff committed to the creation of an alliance of 21 tech companies “to reach a climate turning point by 2020.” It feels like watching a political campaign. 

Financial institutions need to take great care not to be sucked into the PR spin some corporates and governments are playing by loudly making green commitments without having figured out how to make that a reality, or how to make the transition. 

BlackRock is an example of how not to do it. Chief executive Larry Fink has talked big about commitments to renewable energy, and in a letter at the beginning of the year called on companies to contribute to society. But as campaigners for ‘BlackRock’s big problem’ in New York at the One Planet Summit reminded us, BlackRock still has at least $2 billion invested in fossil fuels. 

I don’t know BlackRock’s policy for working with fossil fuel companies on their transition to clean energy rather than divesting from them, although I know their track record of voting on climate issues is poor – but greater clarity around what environmentally unfriendly business is being done and why seems inevitable. 

There are too many eyes looking at how our largest and most powerful institutions are contributing to climate change to get away with much more of what Macron called bullshit. Transparency is inevitable. 

As Claquin pointed out, thus far in the bid to prevent greenwashing, we’ve just begun to define what is green, and it won’t be long before we start to define what’s not. When that happens, institutions and governments will have nowhere to hide and future dollar commitments will be secondary to what is being done in the here and now.