Greening business?

| 19th June 2019
Business as usual
Sustainability has been held up by the 'indifference' of Treasury and 'mixed messages' from the Department for Business
Greenwashing unregulated business interests will not stop climate breakdown.


The gravity of a black hole is so strong that light itself cannot escape. The boundary that separates where light is able to escape and where it is pulled in is called the event horizon. Consider this metaphor: we are nearing the event horizon for the irreversibly destructive impacts of climate breakdown.

We need to stop pretending that the “greening” of business is working if we are going to avoid triggering negative feedback loops.

We’ve reached a point where the very notion that business is in some way working hard to address our environmental and social challenges is laughable. To the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that the greatest efforts of corporations is to maintain the status quo.

Rigged system

Another absurd narrative is that billionaires are somehow big-brained problem solvers who are graciously bringing their special skills to the table to address our social and environmental challenges — this is nonsense.

Billionaires are simply good business people who got lucky with a trend and who benefit from a rigged system that allows them to legally avoid paying taxes. 

They certainly don’t deserve the esteemed status that society places upon them. The ability to grow a business does not qualify them to lead solutions to the Earth's biggest social and environmental challenges.

Throwing big dollars around that should have been paid as taxes should not be a pathway to influencing public policy; like everyone else, influence should arise from democratic channels. 

Can we agree that corporate elites and billionaires are not our saviours for progressive change? In fact, quite the contrary, through their direct and indirect lobbying efforts and subtle influence as “elites” business leaders have delivered a unique form of climate-destroying and wealth-hoarding capitalism that is sending us straight into an existential and climate crisis.


But elites are a sensitive bunch and they dislike bad press almost as much as they enjoy a good money making scheme.

Enter “MarketWorld” - another status-quo-protecting strategy that Anand Giridharadas explores in his book, Winners Take All

This approach is an idea cooked up by the winners of the current system, allowing them to engage with social and environmental problems with so called “win-win” solutions. That is, solutions that further enrich the elites by dictating that solutions can only be acceptable if they find a way to kick something upstairs to the corporate elite and billionaire class.

While “MarketWorld” can bring some good to small groups — it doesn’t begin to deal with the structural problems that lay at the core of our broken system.

Greening business though CSR, Impact Investing, and Profit with Purpose appear to be a cover for corporate elites and billionaires that distract the public while they continue to plunder the planet and add to their billions.

Corporate sustainability

Let’s face it, the “elites” have done everything except tell us directly that they don’t want change.

Those of us who work hard, pay our taxes and follow the rules will find our lives more onerous and precarious as a climate “bomb” sweeps across the planet. But fear not for the billionaires, they will be spared from the coming social collapse.

Private estates and bunkers equipped with industrial-sized greenhouses, water purification systems, giant solar arrays, a small farm with animals and a guarded perimeter will keep the elites and their friends nice and safe while the system that they helped to create implodes.

We can say with our heads held high that until now our desire for leadership and solutions has been so strong that we accepted some pretty far-fetched ideas about business and it’s desire to reverse course and protect the planet.

Perhaps we were a little naive or maybe it was out of pure desperation that we took corporations and their puppet politicians at their word, but in the end, corporate sustainability never delivered.

Dangerous trend

The excitement of energy savings and a few quick eco-friendly cost reductions was short-lived and soon the initiatives began to stall - after all, the “business case” can only take you so far without some clear regulations to standardize a new way of doing business.

One thing that did not slow down, however, was the continued decline of every major ecosystem on the planet.

The picture that I’ve painted is harsh. Some of you will be frustrated by what you read and it might make you angry — I might even become the target of that anger. If that’s the case, I would challenge you to do some reflection as to what is really upsetting you.

Others may find themselves in agreement with my depiction of corporate sustainability and as you read this, you may feel a sense of relief that someone understands your frustration.

At some point during the last three or four years I stopped being able to defend the good work being done in the realm of corporate sustainability. It felt like I was just beyond the reach of making meaningful change.

I felt like my work was doing nothing of consequence to reverse a dangerous trend and that I was implicitly being asked to defend the indefensible. Before long, I began to realise just how awkward and illogical my arguments had become: something had to change.

Devastating harm

I suspect that many environmental advocates who work for companies causing devastating environmental harm either feel like I do right now, or they will eventually find that they too can no longer believe that their employer is challenging the system in a meaningful way, in order to prevent our planet from entering a full blown climate crisis. 

At some point the cognitive dissonance (conflicting beliefs) becomes too much to bear and it leads to a sense of mental anguish. It is only by changing your beliefs or by removing the conflicting attitude or behavior, that a sense of harmony can return.

With the conflicting notion that business is working hard to solve our environmental challenges lifted from my shoulders, I was free to take an objective look at the issue of business and the environment.

Enough time had been wasted — I decided to implement the thinking of Occam’s razor. This is the problem-solving principle that states that the simplest solution tends to be the right one. When presented with competing hypotheses to solve a problem, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.

The corporate sustainability movement is rigged; it’s controlled by the “winners” of capitalism to complicate, stonewall and resist progressive change. Ask yourself, why is it that when an environmental crisis is identified and change is deemed necessary, the first goal of government policy seems to be about maintaining the status quo and the profits of business even when doing so would clearly be an inadequate response to the crisis? 

A simple example is plastic pollution and how we can’t seem to get to a regulation that stops the production of a wide variety of plastic containers. (I explore this in more in my article, “Why Fake Leadership is Dangerous…”)

Held accountable

Besides maintaining the profit gravy train, perhaps an even more pressing concern exists for the corporate elites and billionaires. There’s a little issue out there that is hanging over them — it’s called responsibility and I suspect that they are terrified that it could possibly enter the mainstream conversation.

Imagine if they were held accountable both morally and financially for the devastating harm that they caused during the last 40 years by shifting environmental (climate change) and societal harm (increasing poverty) onto government and taxpayers. They effectively stole billions from average citizens during that time.

It’s no accident that the wages of average Americans haven’t risen in years, health care isn’t provided for tens of millions, life-saving drugs are a fortune, maternity leave is barely offered and that the oil and gas industry continues to receive 4 billion in subsidies every year. (Globally this number is closer to 400 billion and some put the number closer to 5 trillion based on a variety of factors).

It’s becoming a lot easier to see why climate change has become a political issue.

New narrative

Companies are opting to spend a few million here and there to buy politicians who then muddy the issues, ensuring that that money won’t be channeled back to society for retooling a new climate protecting economic system.

To those corporate elites, Wall Street executives, fossil fuel companies and billionaires who crafted and maintained our current form of climate destroying capitalism: your windfall is not the end of the story.

We will get a handle on this challenge and don’t be surprised if you foot the bill. But first we must demand the truth and stop accepting the narrative that business is helping.

Going forward, the concept of the “greening of business” should only be used as a storytelling tactic, a warning about just how desperate we had become when government abdicated its responsibility to protect its citizens; a warning as to what can happen when a faulty cultural narrative is relentlessly pushed.

In my next article I will explore what an honest narrative might look, how the time for moderate thinking as passed and what meaningful metrics and real corporate change might look like.

This Author 

Brad Zarnett is a sustainability strategist, thought leader and speaker. He is athe Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnett, LinkedIn: Brad Zarnett and now MediumThis article was first published on Medium

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