Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Corporations that care? Don’t believe the spin

(Originally published June 2016 New Internationalist magazine)

Interested in hearing Coca Cola talk about sustainability? How about a Walmart lecture on corporate responsibility? Even better, why not do it amidst the palms and beaches of an island resort, swapping the suits for swimsuits between sessions?

Welcome to the Sustainable Brands conference 2016, where scores of executives are gathering gathered this in June on the Paradise Point resort outside San Diego to promote the role that major corporations may take in shaping the future. With 200 speakers, plenaries, breakouts, workshops, an ‘“activation hub’” – this annual conference has something for everyone, from talks on ‘“Awakening Corporate Soul’” to ‘“How to Factor in Breakthrough Technologies and Deep-future Trends in the Innovation Process Singularity University’”.

Founded in 2006, the Sustainable Brands franchise is one of the world’s most lurid celebrations of ‘“progressive self-interest’” – the belief that the invisible hand of the market is the best way to tackle capitalism’s inconvenient side-effects such as emissions or worker exploitation. The list of attendees at SB16 the 2016 conference was certainly comprehensive, from socially minded institutions like Change.org all the way up to megabrands like McDonald’s, Ford, Toyota or and Proctor & Gamble., and the general emphasis is on brand strategy, design innovation and “communications”. (For the record, ‘“sustainable’” is a reassuringly vague term that seems to boil down to discoursing on how awesome it is to think about your footprint.).

Non-binding buzzwords

Sustainable Brands and conferences like it have become a kind of corporate eco-tourism for the Fortune 500, a feel-good love-in that bestows both fuzzy optimism on those who go as well as heaps of gooey green PR. After all, real, structural change like making serious emissions cuts is incredibly expensive; far easier to appoint someone “VP of Social Responsibility”, fly them to a conference like Sustainable Brands (trailed by a cloud of blogs, webinars, PR puff and drooling sponsored articles) and give an inspiring speech about corporate ‘“vision’”, ‘“values’” and whatever other stirring – but non-binding – buzzwords they can cram in. They can then claim a role as selfless sustainability educators, which is yet more  positive PR for the firm. Ker-ching!

No wonder it’s a booming niche market. Also on offer in June was the Verge Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit in a Hawaiian Village oin the tropical island of Honolulu (the promotional video clip shows sparkling travel-brochure blue seas and sandy beaches). Or there’s Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm E, previously Brainstorm Green, with speeches by green icons like American Electric and Goldman Sachs. Not to mention the plethora of smaller conferences for corporate sustainability (in May alone Sustainable Brands also had conferences in Cape Town, Barcelona and, Istanbul, with more slated for the months ahead). 

It’s easy to laugh at the idea of huge international companies flying their executives thousands of miles kilometres around the planet to sleep in Balinese bungalows with lagoon views in the name of environmental awareness. But this is more than just reputation laundering. It’s part of a growing trend in the corporate world to ‘“stakeholderizse every conflict”’ as the environmental campaigner Peter Gerhardt puts it – to embrace your critics in a dialogue, to adopt and co-opt their language, making it harder and harder to be oppose them.

So far from just being a conference platform, Sustainable Brands sees itself as an entire ‘“community’”, and boasts live and on-line events, lectures, peer-to-peer learning groups and a regular newsletter as part of its media network (sorry, ‘“eco-system’”). It welcomes bloggers and journalists to its fold, encouraging them to submit to its various channels in order to ‘“invite stakeholders on interactive, co-creative journeys’”. Mysteriously, the approaches of this magazine for an interview with the organizers were ignored (perhaps New Internationalist isn’t seen as sufficiently co-creative?) but if the attempt is to control the conversation, it seems to be working. When I typed ‘“sustainable brands’” into Google News, every single one of the hits on the first page were articles published by Sustainable Brands themselves (and when they’re not, other like-minded greenwashed business media such as CSRWire and Brandchannel step in with gushing positivity).

A wholesome-sounding title like ‘“Sustainable Brands’” also provides a kind of green umbrella for companies who want to buy a little ethical kudos. The conference website proudly displays a list of approved companies it generously calls ‘“solution providers’”, which turn out to include BASF chemicals, Jetblue and Price Waterhouse Coopers, while some of its attendees are themselves green umbrellas like the ‘“Sustainability Consortium’”. The name sounds wholesome enough, so few will bother to find out that the Sustainability Consortium is actually a group of academics working alongside Walmart.

Creating an illusion

Greenwashing is nothing new, but on this scale, performed with this gusto, it’s dangerous and insidious. The attending companies who agreed to speak to this magazine all obediently praised the conference (‘“NGOs and governments are not going to solve the world’s problems,; business will,’” said the profit-sharing coffee start-up Thrive, which also supplies Sustainable Brands). But how to square all the leafy language with the naked wealth-lust of a talk like ‘“The Billion-dollar Purpose-led Brand Club’”? Are we really supposed to believe, along with Richard Branson, that the pursuit of serious wealth will also conveniently save the planet? When sustainability is reduced to a fashionable (and optional) accessory it seriously undermines the efforts of thousands of activists, campaigners and social entrepreneurs around the world.

It’s only fair to point out that SB16 this year’s Sustainable Brands conference also hosted worthwhile worthwhile-sounding talks on tackling sex trafficking or supply supply-chain exploitation, and that some of its attendees do show a genuine commitment to values-led business. A minor tweak in the supply chain of a multinational transnational like PepsicoPepsiCo or Diageo, both attendees, could improve the lives of tens of thousands of people. But we shouldn’t let a few gestures by the world’s largest multinationals transnationals fool us. 

By creating the illusion of a corporate world that cares, Sustainable Brands and its ilk effectively de-politicise politicize any real opposition, and reduce solutions to a matter of consumer choice. The conference newsletter is peppered with articles emphasizsing small-scale consumer awareness and recycling campaigns over actual structural change, as well as utopian magical thinking that assumes innovation will solve the problems. ‘“Young Entrepreneurs Are Key to Feeding the World’,”, runs a headline with typical nonchalance – but not, say, an examination of neoliberal trade arrangements or rich-world farmer subsidies.

Ultimately, Sustainable Brands is sadly just the visible tip of the iceberg in the corporate world’s attempt to co-opt the conversation around the issue of their footprint. A multinational transnational like Unilever has its name on so many green task forces and institutions that, as George Monbiot pointed out, it resembles an arm of the United Nations. It’s far from alone. In our age, corporations with deep pockets are shrinking the space for meaningful opposition, and platforms like Sustainable Brands help to do that. We shouldn’t be trying to understand the role of brands in shaping our future. We should be trying to understand the possibilities of a future without them.