People, Private Companies and our Collective Responsibility
We have a collective tendency to judge our peers based on their motivations as much as their actions. If a politician passes a widely popular bill, for example, you’ll often hear commentators questioning his motives: was this a genuine attempt to improve society, or a pragmatic move to secure public support?
In most walks of life, the reason why a thing is done certainly matters; to say otherwise is to deny that intentions – and therefore ethics – should have any bearing on our understanding of the world. There are, however, certain areas which demand such immediate attention that motives become subordinate to outcomes.
Climate action is one such area. According to the UN, we have under 10 years before the damage caused by climate change becomes irreversible. Action is needed immediately – and any kind of action will do.
Once we recognise this fact, the situation becomes – if not exactly less depressing – at least marginally less intractable. Take corporate attitudes to climate change, for example; there has been tangible movement in this area over the last few years. In 2020, Amazon – not a company known for its philanthropy – established a Climate Pledge Fund worth $2 billion which works to invest in companies producing ‘decarbonizing’ technology. Similarly, Apple in 2020 committed to going carbon neutral by 2030 (a guarantee which includes the entirety of their supply chain). It’s something of an understatement to say that neither of these companies are moral arbiters, but that doesn’t change the fact that these reforms represent a step in the right direction.
These are, of course, private companies; their (self-perceived) primary responsibility is not to the earth, not to us, but to their shareholders. The question of whether such reforms are motivated by benevolence or by business considerations is perhaps most aptly answered by reference to the following fact: a 2019 Afflax report found that 77% of consumers are more likely to buy from a company which has made a CSR (‘Corporate Social Responsibility Pledge’). In 2021, sustainability sells.
This is no bad thing; disingenuous change is still change, and to sniff at it is to shoot ourselves in the foot. The issue is, however, that companies who make environmental reforms for monetary reasons will only ever do so begrudgingly; they will inevitably concede as little as possible, placating the mob whilst maintaining their previous practices as far as possible.
When it comes to climate change, the time for half-measures has come and gone. The threat is imminent, and the response must be immediate and decisive. With this in mind, there are two solutions, both of which seek to make the lowest acceptable bar for corporate climate reform high enough that it makes a sufficient difference.
Firstly, and quite simply, demand change from governments and corporations. The more you clamour for reform, the more likely it is, as the cases of Apple and Amazon attest. And if the people put pressure on politicians – who are more directly accountable to the public than corporations – some centrally mandated reform might be forthcoming, dragging the stallers into line.
The second option is not mentioned enough: offer your custom to companies whose commitment to sustainability is about more than optics. Whilst it can be difficult to distinguish a genuinely eco-friendly company from one which presents as such, ethical companies are out there, and they’re growing in number every year. If such companies were to become leaders in their chosen industries, it’s possible to imagine a change in the status quo. In such a scenario, traditional corporations might be forced to recognise that a shift away from nominally ‘green’ reforms toward substantive eco-policies is not only a moral imperative, but also a sound decision from a business perspective.
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