Is Environmental Activism Slowing Down Decarbonisation?
Updated: Dec 9, 2022
How misdirected criticism and expectations of perfection are holding back innovation and the private sector’s contribution to our climate response.
Image credit: TEDxNelson
The targets are clear - we need to halve our carbon emissions in the next eight years, reach net zero by 2050, and stay there every year thereafter if we want to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees. Which we absolutely do want to.
Not doing so means more frequent extreme weather patterns like deadly heat waves and storms, droughts becoming more common, water becoming scarcer, species extinction as biomes change and biodiversity suffers, and the ever-increasing risk of chain-reaction-like emission events with the melting of permafrost and the reduction of forests.
The goal is a no-brainer but figuring out how to achieve it is not
If decarbonisation was easy, we’d have solved it already. It’s not even that we know what to do and simply need to be pushed into getting on with it. If only it were that simple.
The reality is we don’t yet have low-carbon or sustainable solutions ready to deploy to replace all the things that are problematic with how we produce, consume and live our lives and aren’t considering rejecting. The people in the best position to find the solutions for tomorrow are precisely those responsible for the most emissions today. People in industry.
Unless the private sector is actively engaged and investing in innovative solutions those solutions will simply not be developed. That does not mean the rest of us should leave them to it and trust them to carry on without scrutiny, but that scrutiny should involve greater curiosity. And less villainization!
We need to take an interest in decarbonisation initiatives that have made a difference and make it easier for all businesses to adopt these new practices. Which means being open to sharing what’s going well, and, importantly, what is still a work in progress or unsolved.
If we are to succeed, decarbonisation will require curiosity, collaboration and transparency. We need those taking a lead on sustainability to share the results of their efforts - both good and imperfect - so others can learn from their experience and improve faster, and with greater impact.
The concerning obstacle we face - the green hush
Greenwashing accusations tend focus their fire on those businesses that claim to be working towards decarbonisation. We are quick to pick holes in those efforts, by drawing attention to where they fall short. Meanwhile, companies that are carrying on with business as usual get a relatively easy ride. After all, at least they’re not hypocrites.
An independent study suggests the consequence of these attack campaigns is:
These sustainability leaders are more likely to go silent
Even if they continue their efforts to decarbonise, they are less likely to talk about it.
They don’t put their heads above the parapet.
The paper examined 18 years of data on thousands of companies from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, which scores and recognises the top 10 percent of sustainable firms across a range of industries. When companies became the targets of threats to reputation, such as boycotts or protests, they became less likely to publicise their inclusion in the index, the paper found.
An example called out in the research is a company that was first included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in 2002 and remained a member through 2014, the last year examined in the study. In early 2006, they were sued by an environmental group. After promoting its inclusion in the index for several years, the company went silent for two years.
The authors of the study call it the ‘green hush’.
The green hush is ‘quiet quitting’ on climate response
When private sector sustainability leaders go quiet, the climate response suffers
Other businesses that are looking for someone to lead the way are cast adrift and much less likely or empowered to take action themselves. This means well-intentioned campaigners, public calls for boycotts and media articles slamming their achievements as “greenwash” or misleading, could actually be slowing down decarbonisation efforts. Instead of sustainable practices being shared, everyone is stuck trying to figure it out on their own. Or worse, they do nothing.
That’s exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. We need even the least likely companies to prioritise a transition to more sustainable practices. To quote one of the authors of the study, “when prominent companies like Walmart adopt
such practices that’s when they really take off.”
In my line of work, I’ve seen first-hand what happens when taking a lead on sustainable practices is seen as a risk. Brands I speak with are using words like “fear” and “paralysis”. They are terrified of being accused of “greenwashing”. Once that word has been lobbed at you, it can be hard to shake. Whether the accusation is valid or not is irrelevant to how sticky it is and how much mistrust it sows.
The thing is, even with the best will in the world, companies face problems they can’t solve overnight. For example, there might be an essential part of their operation that is not yet being done sustainably. Or they may lack visibility or control over parts of their supply chain.
Anyone who wants to catch them out can point to those issues and shout, “Gotcha!” but does that mean they shouldn’t address and communicate what they have done to reduce their impact on the planet?
To make matters worse, the companies that carry on unapologetically with unsustainable or untransparent practices are largely left alone. They are held to a lower standard, their practices are not interrogated, so guess what? They are under less pressure to adapt.
We don’t have time to wait for perfection
As climate change activists and commentators, we have no doubt got the right intentions. But setting the measurement bar at “be perfect or you‘re a climate change criminal” helps no one.
As the Chief Executive of the NZ Climate Change Commission recently wrote “we cannot wait for the perfect plans, policies, tools, or information. The time to start building for a thriving, low emissions and climate-resilient future is now”.
What we need is an environment in which it is safe to innovate and to communicate what we are doing because sharing it with the world further drives awareness, collaboration and progress much more broadly and means we are better placed to hit our emissions reduction goals.
Let me give you a few examples of how the accusation of greenwashing can be
Take the footwear brand, AllBirds.
They’re innovating sports shoe design using plants and other biodegradable and renewable materials. They have an exceptional level of transparency, including the carbon emissions impact embedded in a single pair of their shoes. And their practices go further - their sustainable shoe technology is open source, so their competitors can copy them. That’s strong evidence that progress against the big goal is more important to AllBirds than protecting valuable IP.
Despite all of that, there was a class action lawsuit sponsored by a well-known activist group against AllBirds for “misleading consumers with sustainability and animal welfare claims” and allegedly failing to tell the whole story.
This suit has now been (rightfully) dismissed, but when comparing AllBirds with any other shoe brand, I have no doubt AllBirds is a leader in sustainability - and for that matter - prioritising animal welfare. But because they are likely imperfect, the exceptional efforts they are making makes them a target.
Similarly for Ikea.
They report on the emission of the entire lifecycle of their products, including those associated with usage by their customers. They’ve introduced circular design principles which essentially means they are taking responsibility for the goods they produce at the end of life and are buying them back off their customers to be turned into something new. This lifetime accountability for the furniture they produce should be something that every manufacturer of goods is required to do. Bravo Ikea.
But it’s been called greenwashing because apparently, “it doesn’t go far enough”.
The term “greenwashing” has become overused and misused. It inspires fear that makes business leaders cautious to act. I highlight AllBirds and Ikea not because they are perfect, they have made mistakes too, but because it shows that even with the best will in the world, companies face problems that can’t be solved overnight.
It should be acknowledged that decarbonisation is hard and urgent
I want to remind people that decarbonisation is hard, and anyone sitting on the sidelines commentating on it needs to acknowledge it is hard. This work is also urgent and we need solutions that scale fast, so before shouting “greenwashing!” I’d urge us to ask whether we are actually directing our accusations or boycotts at the right targets or adding anything helpful to the conversation. Perhaps we are holding things back.
At the same time, I’d urge those who are taking a lead on sustainability to be brave, and to keep sharing what you are doing, even at the risk of facing criticism. In fact, I’d encourage you to be upfront about those problems that remain unsolved, as well as trumpeting the solutions you do have because transparency is key to an honest and good-faith conversation about decarbonisation.
Progress towards our decarbonisation goal is more important than perfection so let’s work together because the clock is ticking.