Two Steps Forward

Activists and others are asking, 'Is this anything?'

ShutterstockRandy Miramontez

One of my television heroes, former late-night host David Letterman — among the best interviewers in the business, especially these days, in his longer format — used to feature an occasional bit titled "Is This Anything?"

Basically, it involved bringing a novelty act — one or more performers doing something of, let’s just say, questionable entertainment value — followed by a brief discussion between Letterman and his sidekick, bandleader Paul Shaffer, about whether it was "anything." The whole shtick took just a minute or two (here’s a classic example, about a minute long).

The point, to the extent there was one, was that "anything" is in the eye of the beholder.

As journalists and analysts in sustainable business, that’s a question we at GreenBiz ask every day. And as the climate crisis and all of its associated impacts become ever more apparent and acute, the question of what’s "anything" will continue to dog and challenge us at every turn.

The question takes several forms. For example, there’s "Is This Climate Change?" — attached these days to every significant storm, drought, wildfire, biodiversity loss or nearly any other environmental perturbation.

The annually occurring California wildfires are one prime example. How, and how much, do they result from a changing climate? It’s not simple; wildfires have happened for eons, long before California existed, but scientists say the changing climate has made them more frequent and severe.

That’s one of the more clear-cut examples. In the much larger arena of sustainable business, the question, "Is this anything?" is becoming increasingly harder to assess.

Naming and shaming

Another category is, "Is This Company Evil?" Lately, we’ve seen harder, sharper-edge accusations of companies about their contributions to major social and environmental problems. As with the climate questions, they’re not always simple to assess.

Three cases in point:

  • In July, an environmental activist group called Mighty Earth named the food commodity giant Cargill as the "Worst Company in the World" due to "its unscrupulous business practices, environmental destruction and repeated insistence on standing in the way of global progress on sustainability." The group accused Cargill of prioritizing "the deforesters in its supply chains over the climate or their customers’ sustainability demands." The company, for its part, says it is "working to transform our entire agricultural supply chain to be free of deforestation."
  • A report last month by the Climate Accountability Institute named the 20 fossil-fuel companies it says are responsible for a third of all carbon emissions since 1965 — and "how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity." The report noted that 90 percent of the emissions in question were from the use of these companies’ products, such as gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas and thermal coal. Only a tenth came from extracting, refining and delivering the finished fuels. Still, the companies were deemed to be worth naming — and shaming.
  • BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, supported only 10 percent of climate-related shareholder resolutions during 2018, according to an analysis by Ceres. But in April, the company published a report (PDF) counseling that "investors who are not thinking about climate-related risks, or who view them as issues far off in the future, may need to recalibrate their expectations." So, activists have targeted the firm for this seeming hypocrisy, noting that it "has billions invested in the fossil-fuel companies polluting the planet and the agribusinesses driving the global deforestation crisis — making BlackRock one of the world’s largest investors in climate destruction."

The "worst company." Threatening "the future of humanity." "One of the world’s largest investors in climate destruction." Is this anything?

Clearly, there are multiple sides to these stories. The companies in question are all struggling to align their strategies and operations with their sustainability goals and commitments. They’re not moving as boldly or as quickly as activists — and scientists — say is necessary to avert the worst of the climate crisis. Many problems lie outside their walls — with their supply chains and customers, primarily — making them harder to control. And solving them quickly presents a disruptive, possibly existential threat to these companies and their shareholders, among others.

Good and not-so-good

I’m not siding with any interests here, although neither am I downplaying the problems undergirding these accusations. All — corporates and activists alike — are well-intentioned and, simultaneously, cherry-picking data to make their case. As activists, including activist investors, gear up for more pitched battles around climate and related issues, the rhetoric is bound to heat up, sometimes to the boiling point.

What do you do? Aside from ramping up your companies’ efforts as best you can, and aligning them with science-based targets, it’s increasingly crucial to tell your story — the good and the not-so-good — more clearly than ever.

It’s activists’ job to press for changes at a scale bigger and faster than most companies are typically capable of making. But they are less likely to attack when their would-be corporate targets are candidly assessing themselves, talking openly and authentically about what they've committed to do and the progress they’re making, as well as the challenges they’re encountering along the way.

This is not merely about publishing a corporate sustainability report. It’s about a robust conversation with critics and other stakeholders. Activists — as well as customers, investors, employees and others — want to know that you understand the challenges you face and have a plan in place to address them, even if progress may be slower than anyone would like. And most of these stakeholders would like to have a conversation, not a one-way presentation.

Easy to say, much harder to do. But when those conversations don’t exist, activists, and even some journalists, are more likely to create their own stories about your company’s progress, or lack thereof.

Closing the "say-do" gap in sustainability has long been a challenge for companies. Communications departments are quick to make broad or hyperbolic claims ("We’re going green!") that can make even their own sustainability folks cringe. It can be an uphill battle getting corporate comms, not to mention legal, to understand the full story and be willing to articulate it far and wide.

But as your company confronts increasingly bigger sustainability challenges, the opportunity exists to help your various stakeholders and partners put your commitments and initiatives into context — to answer the question, "Is this anything?"

For more on these topics, I invite you to follow me on Twitter; subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz; and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast.

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