sustainable business

Research Shows How Corporations Work for and Against the Planet—at the Same Time

Carolyn McMaster | June 22, 2012

This just in: corporations are playing both sides of the field when it comes to sustainability.

I am not surprised by this news, revealed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its report, A Climate of Corporate Control: How Corporations Have Influenced the U.S. Dialogue on Climate Science and Policy.

What is a bit surprising—and frightening—is the extent to which corporations twist science, spread misinformation and use their influence to oppose climate change policy, even as they tout LEED-certified buildings, boast about carbon reductions in their supply chains and undertake initiatives such as developing renewable energy. Fully half the companies in the study misrepresented some aspect of climate science in public communications.

The worst offenders (again, no surprise) are the energy companies, with oil and coal interests doing the worst. Most of the 28 companies in the study are energy and petroleum companies and utilities; only eight are in other industries. They were chosen for study because they commented on the EPA’s 2009 finding that greenhouse gas emissions are harmful to public health, or because they opposed California’s Proposition 23, which would have overturned AB 32, the state’s landmark Global Warming Act.

The report classified the companies as “consistent,” “contradictory” or “obstructionist,” with comparisons of their pro- and anti-climate stances in PR and company actions. Five companies were deemed consistent; these companies are pro-climate in both word and deed. The obstructionists are anti-climate in all their actions, but their outward PR stance is mostly pro-climate.

What’s interesting (and downright bizarre) is the companies in the contradictory group. Most undertake pro-climate corporate actions side by side with anti-climate activity that includes financial support for anti-climate policies, lobbies and scientific research. It’s greenwashing at its worst, and the findings make it clear to me that the bottom line is their immediate core business and profits, not changing their business to do the right thing and adapt for the future.

More research is needed. I’d like to see a similar analysis for nonenergy corporations, for example (the only nonenergy companies in the study are Alcoa, Applied Materials, Boeing, Caterpillar, FMC Corp., GE, Nike and Waste Management). The researchers point out that we can’t know the extent of the problem because public companies’ disclosure requirements for political and financial activities are minimal, making funding and research contributions difficult to obtain. They conclude that we need more transparency, full disclosure on political spending and lobbying activity, full disclosure of environmental risk in SEC filings, and greater scrutiny from all quarters: Congress, regulatory agencies, investors, the public and the media.

We’ll be watching, too.



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