How industry lobbyists undermine sustainability

How industry lobbyists undermine sustainability

A new report shows that some lobbying groups have a slippery way of contradicting their own members' environmental plans.

European businesses taking ambitious steps to reduce their carbon emissions inadvertently support lobbying against robust climate change policies through their membership with major trade associations, a new report has revealed.

The undermined businesses include Unilever, which last year ended its direct membership of BusinessEurope, hinting at tensions over the lobby group's stance on environmental policies and sustainability issues, but has remained a member of Cefic, the European Chemical Industry council, despite advocating opposing views on the need for carbon market reform.

The report, published by Policy Studies Institute (PSI) at the University of Westminster, is based on publicly available responses from trade associations to the European Commission's consultations on climate, energy and carbon market reform, as well as individual interviews and companies individual climate change policies disclosed to CDP.

It outlines that six trade associations including BusinessEurope, Cefic and Eurometaux lobbied against European Commission efforts to try to salvage the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS). In early 2013, MEPs voted down the so-called backloading proposals; the plan took eight more months to gain approval. BusinessEurope was subsequently embroiled in "intense" discussions with its members, with a number expressing their anger over the group's stance.

Unilever strengthens its stance

Unilever remains a member of Cefic despite admitting it had opposing views on backloading and told CDP that Cefic's position on climate change is "more or less consistent" with its own.

Cefic logo

Unilever remains a member of chemical lobby group Cefic.

The report also notes how Unilever appeared to become more confident in backing ambitious climate action after leaving BusinessEurope. One former assistant to an MEP told the PSI researchers that there was a noticeable shift in Unilever's climate change stance.

"Since they've left, you've seen a huge difference in their lobby asks and they've just come out with a position on 2030 and I nearly fell off my chair when I read it, it's so good ... it's better than a lot of governments. Any government, I think," the source said.

A Unilever spokesperson said that its ambitious climate strategy inevitably put its position in advance of trade groups, which represent a wide range of companies.

"Unilever has set ambitious targets for addressing climate change and been part of the vanguard calling for a transformation of our energy system and our economy," the spokesperson added. "It is therefore not a surprise that our positions are more ambitious than trade groups with broad membership, including some of those of which we are a member. Unilever's advocacy on climate change has never been constrained by our membership to a trade group and we will continue calling for industry-wide action to tackle climate change."

Associations vs. members

Other Cefic members include Veolia Environment, Bayer and Johnson & Johnson, all of which appear to hold more progressive views on climate change policy than what Cefic has demanded.

Robert Hunt, chief corporate officer at Veolia, said the company had only an indirect relationship with Cefic through its membership of the European Union for Responsible Incineration and Treatment of Special Waste (EURITS). "Our role is to help our customers preserve the Earth's natural resources by giving them a second life, turning them into new products or converting them into green energy," he said in an emailed statement.

Anglo American logo
Anglo American

Mining company Anglo American regards climate change as "a key challenge," but lobby group Eurometaux soft-pedals it.

The report also highlights how EuroMetaux "ferociously" opposed backloading and lobbied for taxpayers to compensate businesses for the costs of climate change policies.

This stance appears to be at odds with the views of its individual members such as Rio Tinto Alcan and Anglo American. Mining company Anglo American stated that climate change is a "key challenge of our era" and that it will need to take "meaningful action towards addressing its causes, and to help protect our employees and assets, as well as the communities and environments linked to our operations, against its potential impacts."

An Anglo American spokeswoman said the company recognizes challenges posed by climate change, its responsibility to address its causes and protect its employees, assets and communities against its potential impacts, adding that in some cases it acted through trade bodies and multilateral initiatives such as the U.N. Global Compact.

"With regards to our membership of industry groups and multi-stakeholder initiatives, we are aware of the role that our industry plays in a range of public policy issues linked to sustainable development, climate change being one, but also issues such as job creation, infrastructure provision and broader socio-economic development," she added. "These are issues in which sustainable progress benefits all stakeholders and for which we need to work together; sharing skills, expertise, taking on board contrasting expectations and understanding the role each needs to play. To do this we actively engage with governments, multilateral institutions and civil society."

BusinessGreen contacted all the other companies mentioned for a comment, but has not received any responses.

A call to shareholders

The report was commissioned by the charity ShareAction, which asks investors to demand more ethical practices from the companies they hold shares in. 

ShareAction chief executive Catherine Howarth said investors should ask questions of companies to ensure that their public positions on climate change aren't being undercut by their membership in controversial European lobby groups.

"Runaway climate change would be immensely costly for long-term investors such as pension funds," she said in a statement. "That's why many such investors have committed themselves to supporting a strong global deal and EU leadership on climate.

"But right under their noses, many companies in their portfolios are contributing shareholder funds to secretive trade associations that seem determined to undermine climate security. This Jekyll and Hyde behavior on climate change has to stop."

Her comments echo those of U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres, who repeatedly has urged green businesses to take action on climate change, rather than relying on "wishy washy" lobbying campaigns from trade associations.

Whether this report gives companies the push they need to quit lobby groups that appear to conflict with their own aims remains to be seen.

This article first appeared at BusinessGreen.