Climate protests should act as a wake-up call

Businesses planning to keep their heads down in the hope that calls for change fizzle out are likely to be disappointed, argues Nick Hughes.

What should businesses make of the Extinction Rebellion climate protests that have brought paralysis to parts of Central London over the Easter period?

At a practical level, many food businesses located in and around protest sites including Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, have taken a financial hit. Delivery vehicles have struggled to navigate an obstructed road network, while café and restaurant owners reliant on passing trade have reported a reduction in takings.

What has been so noticeable, in this context, is the lack of opprobrium from the business community directed towards protesters. Companies and the groups that represent them have been conspicuously reluctant to condemn what is effectively an illegal occupation that is damaging London’s economy.

Such passivity from private enterprise would have been unthinkable 10 or even five years ago, yet here we had Paul Polman, until recently the boss of one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, joining a group of business leaders in stating their support for Extinction Rebellion in a national newspaper and calling for an “urgent redesign” of global industry. 

These are truly extraordinary developments. So what has changed?

Perhaps most significantly, the Extinction Rebellion protests are taking place at a time when, after many years on the periphery of political and economic debate, the climate change movement is finally having what feels like a seminal moment. The first quarter of 2019 has seen the Fridays for Future school climate change protests spearheaded by teenage campaigner Greta Thunberg inspire millions of children across the world to take to the streets in protest at the perceived lack of action by governments and global institutions to safeguard their futures.

Just this month the BBC, often criticised for its meekness in tackling the issue of environmental breakdown, broadcast an hour long prime time documentary titled Climate Change – The Facts in which Sir David Attenborough voiced a call to arms to act now to resist the devastating impacts of global warming.

In the US, democrats have fallen behind congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, which proposes an economic stimulus program to transform the US economy while moving towards a zero carbon emissions future. Closer to home, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and shadow treasury minister Clive Lewis have tabled a bill in parliament to lay the foundations for the UK’s own Green New Deal.

This goes some way to explaining why the majority of politicians have joined businesses in refusing to outright condemn the Extinction Rebellion protests. Some, like Lucas, are active supporters. Labour’s John McDonnell, who if opinion polls are to be believed could very soon be the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has also lent his support. Even government ministers have declared themselves equivocal about the protests. Claire Perry, the energy minister, said she was glad the protestors’ arguments were being heard whilst voicing her concerns about the disruption to Londoners and the strain being placed on police resources.

In this context, the language used by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in a statement in which he told protestors to cease demonstrating so London could return to “business as usual” felt spectacularly misjudged, especially from a savvy political operator who is widely considered a friend to the climate cause and has voiced support for the school protests.

Make no mistake: it is the very idea that “business as usual” should be allowed to continue that protestors are ultimately challenging. Dr Gail Bradbrook, a co-founder of the Extinction Rebellion organisation, admitted as much when she told BBC News: "This is not the time to be realistic, this is the time for humanity to completely change course."

Such statements might previously have been dismissed by politicians and the mainstream media as the idealistic but ultimately naïve rhetoric of fringe activists. However, the scientific evidence is now firmly on the side of those calling for wholesale social and economic transformation.

Last year’s IPCC report said that urgent and unprecedented changes were needed to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C and reduce the risk that extreme weather events and poverty will threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The implication was clear: policies that tinker around the edges of business as usual – “adding a few solar panels to a few roofs” as Bradbrook put it – are no longer sufficient.

Which brings us back to how business should respond to the wave of protests. In a tangential way, Bradbrook’s pithy comment recalled in my mind a product launch from earlier this year. In February, Nestlé Cereals launched Box Bowls, a six pack of portioned Nestlé Breakfast Cereal “favourites” that can be eaten on-the-go straight from a disposable box. The press release explained that the Box Bowls had been designed to fit around “ever busier lifestyles” and made a feature of the fact that all elements of the Box Bowl were recyclable “from the specially designed inner bag that holds in moisture, to the unique cube-like outer carton and over-wrap film”.

At the time I thought this to be an ill-judged piece of innovation from a business widely considered to be one of the more progressive on issues of sustainability. Indeed, it followed hot on the heels of a similar Nestlé launch – Breakfast on the Go – that not only includes a disposable bowl, but also a carton of milk and spoon. Fast-forward several months and both product launches feel even more like disappointingly retrograde moves in the context of the current backlash against climate change inertia. Here, after all, is a well-known and trusted brand launching new products that wear their eco-credentials on their sleeve whilst simultaneously fuelling the throwaway consumer culture that is driving environmental destruction.

The narrative around corporate responsibility would have us believe that sustainability has been moving on an upward trajectory in its significance, from a starting point when it was merely a “nice to have”, to an important business function that sought to make incremental improvements within the context of business as usual, and finally to the present day where it is baked into the core strategy and values of the organisation – the so-called “purpose” we hear so frequently espoused.

This may be true in some cases, but the Nestlé example told a different story – that even for a company with a solid track record of environmental improvement the lure of a short term profit boost from a high margin product still trumped the environmental impact of creating an unnecessary new consumption occasion (because how hard is it really to find an extra five minutes in the morning to eat a bowl of cereal at home or, failing that, in the office?).

This is not to single out Nestlé specifically – there are many other examples of businesses simply not grasping the significance of calls for a complete change in direction, the “urgent redesign” of business that Polman and his cohorts called for.

Climate change provides a focal point through which people can articulate broader grievances about a dominant economic model based on the pursuit of perpetual growth that many believe is failing current and future generations. Calls for the capitalist system to be overthrown and replaced with a new model that has fairness, wellbeing and ecological restoration at its heart are becoming louder and more mainstream.

It’s easy to see how such a vision would chime with young people in particular who feel as though their futures are being snatched away by those in power still in thrall to a model that plays lip service to change but in reality tinkers around the edges of business as usual.

There does, however, appear to be a lack of clear consensus on what an alternative to capitalism should look like, and no clear roadmap for transitioning away from a system in which trillions of dollars of capital are invested.

Businesses who believe the current system not to be irreparable must seize this opportunity to set out an alternative vision for change. If we really do need to move to a zero emissions economy by 2025, as the Extinction Rebellion campaigners are demanding (and it’s worth noting that seasoned climate commentators believe this to be near on impossible), that will surely need to happen within the confines of the current capitalist system.

Businesses who are reluctant to either support or condemn protesters could make a significant contribution to the public debate by advocating for a rebooted, more sustainable form of capitalism in a well-regulated, market based economy that incentivises responsible entrepreneurialism whilst penalising businesses that contribute to the destruction of the planet. If successfully executed, we may even reach the point where those calling for more radical change are reassured that their vision can still be achieved without the need for “overthrow” or “revolution”.

Those companies, on the other hand, that prefer to keep their heads down and hope that movements for change fizzle out and die would be well-advised to think again. One day – and sooner than many of us might think – they may find it’s their own shareholders leading the protests.

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