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Corporate social irresponsibility

Conscious and coordinated campaigns have managed to derail environmental agreements and regulations like COP28 and the Plastics Treaty. There are no winners if this continues. By David Burrows.

COP meetings tend to be equal parts optimism and outrage. And so it was at November’s ‘crunch’ summit. It is always crunch time at these events, and this time last month there was considerable anger that the optimists were being crushed by OPEC, the alliance of key oil exporting nations. The draft agreement at COP28 in Dubai marked the first plan set out by a COP summit to shift away from all fossil fuels but there was to be no “phasing out”. For those working tirelessly to secure a meaningful agreement this must have felt like scoring a consolation goal. 

Indeed, countries would be able to cherry pick from what Climate Home described as an a-la-carte menu of eight options – which could include a reduction of “consumption and production of fossil fuels in a just, orderly and equitable manner” or tripling renewable energy and doubling energy efficiency, or even using “low carbon fuels” or “low carbon technologies”. Greenpeace called it a “dog’s dinner”. Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, wondered: “Who does this text actually serve?” 

It was a rhetorical question, obviously. Everyone knows who it serves, but did anyone expect anything different? In these negotiations small wins can count big – but it is carbon-intensive corporate interests that continue to win biggest. “Clearly there is an emerging proactive fossil fuel coalition,” said one senior EU negotiator when the draft arrived. “In the past, we had more salient resistance and now it seems more conscious and more focused and more coordinated.”

It does. And it is. And it extends beyond just fossil fuels and COP28. 

Big meat’s media muscle

Consider for example the recent analysis of 285 million social media posts that found 400,000 of them to have published distorted or false information about meat, dairy and alternative diets. A large volume of the “conspiracy theories and culture war content” about food and farming came from those on the political far-right rather than industry, said Changing Markets Foundation, “but the two have a shared agenda: to downplay the science and weaken regulation. This ultimately maintains and even enhances the status quo of high meat and dairy consumption with low regulation.” 

This is exactly what is happening in Brussels currently, too. The packaging and packaging waste regulation (PPWR) began life as an ambitious set of policies and targets designed to (finally) incentivise circular thinking – in which recycling plays second fiddle to reduction and reuse, so protecting resources and reducing carbon emissions. Recent research published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) showed returnable plastic packaging could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35% to 69% compared to single-use plastic. Scale and standardisation are often crucial in achieving the highest savings, which were part of the PPWR plans. But following intense lobbying, including fierce criticism of the science the European Commission had used to show reuse tends to beat single-use on environmental impacts, the regulation has been watered down. The winner could well be single-use paper packaging, spelling disaster for the world’s forests, according to NGOs.

The intensity of the lobbying, as well as the ease with which MEPs gobbled up the industry-funded ‘science’ reports on reuse versus single-use packaging, has taken some by surprise. So too did the bold intervention by a major business – McDonald’s – that led a campaign to discredit the Commission’s evidence. As one NGO said, the combination of McDonald’s public-facing lobbying and the “unexpected push from the paper industry” is something that nobody saw coming.


The messages companies send can be quickly adapted, too. During the plastics treaty talks in November, industry appeared to support the ‘we can’t recycle our way out of this’ line, reiterating the need for prevention of plastic use. It then pushed for recycling to be the solution under PPWR. “I think they have lost credibility,” said Joan-Marc Simon, director-founder at Zero Waste Europe. Campaigners hope the global plastics treaty provides a cap on plastics production but oil-rich states reportedly held back any progress on that front with the focus on recycling and waste management rather than addressing the “full life cycle of plastics” (including extraction of fossil fuels) that the science suggests is needed. The result: more plastic, more emissions (and likely too, more pollution).

These conscious and coordinated campaigns have managed to derail environmental agreements at a crucial time. Some businesses try to offer a positive spin, while others talk earnestly about the need for action but fail to live up to their own rhetoric. A recent piece in The Grocer by Ranjit Singh, president and owner at 2 Sisters Group, demanded more action from everyone. “Our ‘Better For All’ plan is not just a sustainability strategy. It’s a different way of operating and being honest about the areas where we need to do better,” he wrote, failing to mention that his company has yet to even map its scope 3 emissions.

Those that are reporting are of course exposed to scrutiny. The latest investigation, produced by Morningstar Analytics, showed six of the world’s biggest food and drink companies, including Starbucks and McDonald’s, are great at making promises about their net-zero plans, but emissions are actually increasing. 

It is, again, the same when we look at plastics and packaging. WWF’s latest ‘Resource: plastic progress report’, published in December, showed McDonald’s used more plastic (in tonnes) in 2022 than in 2021 – 164,000 tonnes versus 162,000 tonnes – a figure that is 7.6% higher than its baseline of 153,000 tonnes in 2018. Just 1.3% of its plastic was recycled content (compared to 2.6% in 2018). Starbucks managed 6.6% recycled content, slightly higher than its 6.4% baseline in 2019. The coffee chain is also using 15.3% more plastic – 153,000 tonnes in 2022 versus 133,000 in 2019.

“All companies should be reporting on their plastic footprint – something we are advocating for in the UN Global Treaty to End Plastic Pollution,” said Erin Simon, vice president of plastic waste and business at WWF. “ReSource member companies are ahead of the curve, demonstrating that plastic reporting is not an onerous or impossible task. Their transparency enables lessons to be learned and actions to be taken that will reverberate across supply chains and industries worldwide.”

Reporting of such footprints publicly is welcome – and the nine companies involved deserve credit. But this is the fourth such report and concerns remain that reporting itself is the end game. Similar question marks loom large over other such plastic collaborations, run by UK charity Wrap and EMF. 

The World Economic Forum’s annual jamboree in Davos has as its theme “Rebuilding trust”as the meeting, which kicks off on Monday, aims to “restore collective agency, and reinforce the fundamental principles of transparency, consistency and accountability among leaders”. It’s a fine ambition but it ignores the need to also act. Transparency in relation to environmental impact is improving; new reporting regimes will (soon) help with consistency; but it is that last element, accountability, which must come to the fore this year.

Bold and the brave

So what of that COP28 agreement? The language gave room for optimism, but the many loopholes left plenty of space for ongoing outrage too. Al Gore perhaps best summed up the conflicted emotions many feel when he said: “The decision at COP28 to finally recognise that the climate crisis is, at its heart, a fossil fuel crisis is an important milestone. But it is also the bare minimum we need and is long overdue. The influence of petro-states is still evident in the half measures and loopholes included in the final agreement. Fossil fuel interests went all out to control the outcome, but the passionate work of millions of climate activists around the world inspired and motivated delegates from many nations to loosen the industry’s grip.”

It has been a bitter and battering 12 months for supporters of meaningful, transformational and era-defining agreements and policies to protect the planet. They must remain brave and bold, and hold companies and governments accountable, because there are no winners if they don’t.