Blog article

Big or Small, Businesses Won't All Voluntarily Act for Good

April 19, 2024
 min read
A child wearing a yellow raincoat cycling a bike on an autumn day

This week I spent two mornings taking the Carbon Literacy course facilitated by the fab Jen Gale from Sustainable-ish. While rocking baby Ruby on my lap I learnt about how we collectively need to decrease UK’s average CO2e footprint from 9 tonnes to just 2.5 by 2030.

To get my shiny certification I just needed to commit to one individual and one group carbon-reducing action.

Feeling inspired about the potential to scale small changes, I reached out to my son’s nursery to ask if they would consider something like meat-free Mondays or a ‘cycle to nursery’ week in the spring.

They replied that they couldn’t not offer meat, and because some parents drive to train stations there was no way they could promote walking or cycling to nursery.

I was genuinely confused by their dismissal to do anything, even something small!

After all, the nursery would get to flex its ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards. It would save money by having a more plant-based menu. The car park would be marginally less clogged up. A cycle-to-nursery campaign could help introduce a bit of shared camaraderie between the parents.

But they flat-out refused. So what next?

  • Do I admit defeat and concede that sure, it’s not worth the effort for a small business to tackle the climate emergency?
  • Do I campaign for my fellow nursery parents to show their support?
  • Do I don my behavioural science hat and leverage peer pressure, highlighting other nurseries and local schools who are already upping their eco-game?

In truth, it’s not my son’s nursery declining to go beyond recycling that’s triggered me. It’s that it’s a microcosm of our collective denial and fingers-in-ears mentality.

The ‘business as usual’ myth of our time.

It’s the absence of imagination that one small change contributes to a liveable future for the toddlers this nursery is purpose-built for.

Unfortunately, for-profit companies have no obligation to do anything. Yes, some companies are legally required to report on their ESG standards, but that is not the same thing as being legally required to place people and planet above profit.

Such companies only have one over-arching objective which to ensure shareholders and owners “get more money out than they put in,” as Jennifer Hinton and Donnie Maclurcan outline in their book How on Earth. So can we truly expect more than the legal minimum standard?

On the other end of the spectrum, large #greenwashing corporations are doing all they can to be seen to do good.

As noted, companies like Amazon, the world's third largest company by revenue in 2022, are not legally required to work towards true social impact. Yet I can’t help but feel that two recent announcements related to their (voluntary) efforts to “do good” stink:

  1. Their philanthropic platform AmazonSmile will close on Feb 20
  2. Amazon UK are partnering with Comic Relief to become the exclusive retailer of the Red Nose and encouraging people to buy stuff to solve global poverty(!)

Full disclosure—I’m saying this as an ex-Amazon employee who for the most part found my time working there hugely satisfying.

Let’s tackle the AmazonSmile closure first.

As Barbara Krasnoff notes in The Verge, “I shouldn’t get too snarky about this. After all, Amazon didn’t have to create the AmazonSmile program in the first place.”

The company's press release cites a lack of impact as the main driver:

"After almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped".

But this just doesn’t ring true…

You wanted impact? Add it to your mobile app!

Amazon’s mobile app had ~112 million unique users in 2018 in the US alone (source). But consumers have never been able to natively donate via AmazonSmile from mobile app purchases!

You wanted impact? Up the contribution!

Say, increase it from 0.5% to 1%… why not even 5%?!

You wanted impact? Narrow it to charities ranked as ‘effective’

CharityWatch has a methodology which ranks charities by numerous criteria, plus GiveWell is well regarded in the Effective Altruism movement for its rigorous evaluation approach to identify “charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar”.

It’s almost as if their motive for launching AmazonSmile wasn’t to make true impact, but to see if partnering charities afforded them more social license and drove incremental purchases? 🤔

The Not-So-Funny Comic Relief Collaboration

In a world where scientists keep telling us over-consumption and resource inequality is the root cause of our climate emergency, it seems terribly ironic then that the solution Amazon’s Comic Relief store offers us is to purchase brand-new stuff:

A screenshot of the Amazon Comic Relief Store selling new games and toys

Such charitable efforts “do nothing to question why such a state of poverty exists in the first place”, a criticism David Lammy has previously aimed at Comic Relief and its organisers.

The main problem is this:

“Existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion and the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change”—Scientists’ Warning on Affluence paper

Just like with my son’s nursery, Amazon aren’t legally required to do anything other than make money. When we engage with for-profit companies, we have to expect they don’t truly want to solve the climate emergency or end global inequality in ways which impact their bottom line.

The tide is turning though.

Activist investor platform Tulipshare put forward proposals to Amazon’s board to address environmental and social issues, such as requesting a diversity and equity audit, reports on charitable contributions, worker health and more. According to Reuters, the majority of Amazon (AMZN) shareholders voted against the requests under the recommendations of the board, but this is just the start of more ethically minded individuals pushing for change.

The battleground is a boundary struggle between a company’s desire to do (financially) well and its need to keep customers and stakeholders on their side.

Collective people power that puts pressure on businesses, big or small, is badly needed.

There’s power in numbers. On the Carbon Literacy course, a peer mentioned that a major UK bank gets alerted when more than one hundred people switch their accounts (presumably due to their major role in financing fossil fuel extraction).

Only the collective voice of consumers, voters and funders of for-profit institutions will dictate how far companies truly go to prioritise people and planet above profit.

Only if fellow parents advocate will nurseries change, and only by many people switching away from companies which profit from extraction will signals be sent. Our children’s future depends on it.

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