Nuance is nudged aside in environmental debates

Sustainability has been boxed into black and white decisions perfect for social media. But in doing so we often miss the science and sidestep the shade, says David Burrows.

Plant-based meals are good. So too is paper for packaging. And pay-as-you-earn employment contracts.

Making the sustainable, responsible, ethical business choice appears simple. The alternatives are, we are told, lousy. Hence meat is bad. Ditto plastic. And so too the gig economy.

These neat ‘good’ and ‘bad’ boxes certainly appeal to campaigners. They are seductive and succinct, perfect for a world spinning in social media. The messages are loud but are they clear? Not by a long chalk. In fact, making the sustainable choice, whether consumer, corporate or investor, has arguably never been more difficult.

Foodservice companies for instance are today faced with all or nothing ultimatums. Commit to net zero. Replace plastics. Opt for organic. Shun soya. Go GM-free. Label calories and carbon. The list is dizzying. Sometimes the government forces their hand, which can actually come as a relief (In some cases businesses are desperate for not just guidance but regulation that levels the playing field).

Politicians of course can pick and choose the policies that feed their populism (bans on single-use plastic are vote-winners but simplistic as I’ve noted on previous occasions). The more difficult ones are batted away and left to the market to decide.

The private sector can ill-afford to be so choosy. The pressure is intense so businesses want to be seen doing rather than deliberating – over the science, the circumstances, the (unintended) consequences or the commercial realities. And yet this is what they pay their sustainability experts for (and the value in them has, arguably, never been higher).

In today’s world, not to do is to dare risking the wrath of NGOs and, worse, consumers. Those using compostable packaging are seen as ‘green’ while those using plastic – whether recyclable or recycled, or even with recycled content – are not. Producers of beef, lamb or chicken have become enemies of the planet while plant-based burger manufacturers are pioneers of purposeful businesses no matter how much their products are processed.

Business leaders are impatient for progress but can be  ignorant of the process (Experts at New York University’s Stern Center for Sustainable Business recently dug into the environment, social and governance credentials of 1,188 Fortune 100 board directors. Just 69 (6%) had relevant environment experience, and only three (0.2%) had specific climate expertise). Some companies have therefore been all too willing to swallow silver bullet solutions. The power of marketing teams has surged as they go after quick PR wins that often miss the point completely. Sometimes you wonder who is making decisions on sustainability within a business: is it actually the environmental experts or those who write the press releases?

Take the race to net zero. Corporates are falling over themselves to match one another with commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But as the plans are unpicked will the rhetoric be matched with real reductions? I am beginning to wonder. An analysis of several hundred commitments (business, city and government) by the University of Oxford showed that a “significant fraction” are yet to publish a plan for achieving their target, or set out interim goals to demonstrate they are getting on with it.

Some companies have already begun to criticise competitors’ efforts as greenwash, especially where they lean heavily on offsetting (Indeed, there is a push to place offsetting into that ‘bad’ box, again forgoing the nuance that such an important debate merits).

Why would an environment journalist complain, you might ask? While such debates rage the material keeps flowing. This is true to a point but there are traps at every turn. It is easy to be swept along in these ‘good’ sustainability stories without reflecting on what is being said or done. Equally, you can end up viewing every announcement with super-cynicism, a feeling that every move is made by marketers for the purpose of marketing rather than by a business that really is finding its purpose.

On climate change this is the decisive decade and difficult choices must be made. Sometimes these may go against the popular narrative (or the demands of the marketing team). Sustainability leaders need to stand tall and firm. Plastic isn’t all bad. Neither is all meat. And some Deliveroo workers like their flexibility as contractors.

Amid all the noise created around ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions what is wrong with striving for ‘better’? Better plastic. Better meat. Better working conditions. Better decisions.

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