In Essays

The EU is struggling to balance its green policies with the exigencies of feeding its citizens and keeping them warm. Isn’t it strange that no big company admits to such difficult choices?

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Explore ESG on any corporate website and you’ll find that businesses are committed to meeting far-off goals for improving carbon emissions while reducing all sorts of pollution and waste.

The happy PR story is that it won’t impact what they sell us, how they distribute it, or how much money they’ll make therefrom.

This is magical thinking because such progress is impossible without significant tradeoffs, and the world will have either flooded or burned to a crisp long before any far-off goals are met.

To suggest that we will be disappointed in the outcome of their incredible commitment to sustainability is an understatement.

Just look at the hard decisions the EU is facing right now as it tries to stay true to its sustainability commitments: A regulation to reduce chemicals in pesticides has been put on hold; Germany is reversing course on retiring nuclear power and multiple countries are upping their use of coal; and a new plan just announced today calls for significant moves to tax producers and reduce consumption.

The big business response to navigating such challenges? Produce another glossy video about how great they are. Go visit the website of the first big company you can think of and you’ll get overwhelmed with PR about how they’re changing the world for the better.

Worse, there’s usually a direct correlation between the volume of such claims and a company’s culpability for destroying said world.

The Real Story Is Much More Complex

Seeing past the PR on ESG is hard, but when you do it often reveals that there’s no there there. One study of fossil fuel companies found that “60% of all [PR] messages contained at least one ‘green’ claim, even though only 12% of new investments were targeted on low-carbon activities. Some of the worst generators of plastic waste and manufacturing sustainability are the most vocal on being environmental leaders. Here’s a list of consumer brands that have had their green claims challenged. It’s incomplete.

Why aren’t companies telling us what being sustainable will really cost, or how it will impact what we buy from them?

Packaging won’t be as durable or have as long a shelf-life without plastic. Produce won’t be as perfect without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Certain products won’t be available at certain times of the year if they’re not shipped halfway around the world. Consumers will need to learn to buy local, which will mean paying more for less consistency of taste or performance, and relearn the merits of repair and reuse instead of regular new purchases dictated by fashion or new product release calendars.

And things will probably cost more.

My gut tells me that companies aren’t telling us the real story because they aren’t really taking sustainability seriously, at least not to the degree they claim in their PR.

Consumers are fickle and our stated needs and expectations often don’t translate into purchase behavior. Like polls of likely voters reveal, we don’t always do what we say, so even if opinion research says that people are willing to pay more for sustainable products, companies are betting that they’re not (nor that investors are willing to make less money because of such decisions).

Telling The Truth

The only things that matter are numbers and that’s why we’re seeing a robust debate about what and how to track ESG impacts. Challenging the need for such visibility is usually for short-term political gain or long-term preservation of the business Status Quo.

But true visibility goes beyond PR to, well, telling the truth.

I don’t think companies are doing us or themselves a service by claiming that they’re changing the world, or that doing so comes without any cost or risk. The EU’s present predicament is just an example of the type of hard decisions that every company faces; meeting buyer needs and expectations while fundamentally changing sourcing, manufacturing, and distribution practices is a dicey proposition on a good day, and the difficulties of doing business in the world today means there aren’t many of those days, if any.

I’m reminded of the Lloyd Bridges character in Airplane! when he bemoans trying to quit some vice during a crisis.

Our world is in crisis, yet companies use happy PR to avoid revealing telling the truth about what it’ll really cost them…and us…to do something about it.

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