Urging Big Business to ‘Invest In Our Planet’

Earth from Space Africa
The Blue Marble – Eastern Hemisphere. Image credit NASA earth observatory

Business, particularly big business, has a pretty terrible reputation with environmentalists, and sometimes that is quite justified. We all know of businesses that have continued polluting practices long after they should have stopped. There are also some businesses that adopt apparently environmentally friendly practices as a marketing ploy, so-called “greenwashing.” Yet others deflect the blame for the damage that their products cause onto the individual consumer. All this is true, but we do need businesses to power our economies, and there are some that are working hard to put their houses in order.

The theme for Earth Day 2023 is, “Invest In Our Planet,” and businesses are a key target for involvement in the day. So, it seems appropriate for us to spend a little time looking at business and the environmental crisis. What practices are they adopting, and what will be needed in the future? And what is happening specifically on investment?

“Some people ask me, ‘How can you have a business case for low carbon?’ I say, ‘How can you have a business plan for wrecking the planet?’” said Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer of Unilever, at COP21, the United Nations climate change meeting in Paris in 2015. It is often not obvious, but many businesses attend the annual COP meetings. The fossil fuel companies are there in force, lobbying largely to prevent emissions cuts. So are the renewable energy companies, who would benefit from policies that pursue a green agenda. But there are many others present, like Unilever, where it is not immediately obvious why they are there.

Unilever itself has an impressive section of its website devoted to planet and society, looking at a whole range of environmental issues. They are moving to using renewable energy across all their operations and intend to reach net zero by 2039. However, even Unilever has been accused of greenwashing, claiming that Persil washing liquid was “kinder to the planet.” They were forced to withdraw advertisements by the UK Advertising Standards Authority, which considered that the adverts were not clear. But perhaps we should not judge just based on one rather unfortunate case. Many other companies, including Microsoft, Google, Apple and Philips have made some moves towards environmental sustainability. Of course, very few have perfect records, but at least one feels there is movement. “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”

What about investment? COP21 in Paris was a key moment, and many initiatives started as a result. One of them was Climate Action 100+, a group of investors who were committed to ensuring that the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters took action on climate change, and aligned themselves with the Paris Agreement. The approach of these investors is one of engagement, where they are seeking to change company policies through resolutions at shareholder meetings and similar tactics.

There is now also a very large and growing ethical investment sector, where investors are specifically avoiding putting money into areas that they see as unethical (for example, the fossil fuel industry, tobacco, arms, gambling) while investing in areas that are considered to be ethical (for example, community investment, renewable energy). Globally, sustainable investment reached $35.3 trillion in 2020.

In addition, there is a developing fossil fuel divestment movement, where individuals and organizations, rather than seeking to engage with fossil fuel companies, have decided to remove all of their investments. The movement started on college campuses in the United States in 2011 and supported by organisations like 350.org, it soon mushroomed. It has been particularly successful on university campuses, but foundations, pension funds and faith groups have all divested to various extents. Churches and denominations, often concerned with the morality of continued investment in fossil fuels, have been at the forefront of the movement. However, here in the UK, the Church of England has continued with investments in fossil fuels, despite heavy pressure from campaign groups. By 2021, a total of 1,300 institutions, that controlled about $14.6 trillion, had divested.

Let us end at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in December 2022. On the surface, it was not a very successful meeting, but again businesses were there, plotting a different future. Peter Bakker, CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, stated: “Almost 10,000 of the large companies in the world have now set net-zero targets.” He went on the say: “The only way we’re going to create solutions in sustainability at the speed and the scale that we need is if we fundamentally rethink the economic model by which society operates. The days when we could only look at financial performance and ignore environmental or social impacts are over.” That kind of thinking by a business leader would never have happened even a few years ago. So, as we reach Earth Day 2023, think about how businesses you know might “Invest In Our Planet.” Maybe you could ask them what their plans are!

Dr Martin Hodson (CRES Principal Tutor)

This blog post was first published by Good Faith Media here and is republished with their permission