Inside track

The least we should expect of business is to call out the failure of the system

This post is byJonathon Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future.

For the past 25 years of my life, I’ve been an uncompromising advocate of the benefits of NGOs working with business rather than working against business, in order to accelerate the transition to a genuinely sustainable economy. I still am, but not in the same way, and absolutely not on the same terms.

There are many radical environmentalists (including the majority of my colleagues in the Green Party) who see co-operation with business (particularly with large multinationals) as a particularly heinous betrayal of everything that thinking, living and seeing green stands for. I was acutely aware of this when I set up Forum for the Future (together with Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins) in 1994. But I was equally aware of the fact, even then, that if we had first to rid the world of today’s particularly pernicious variation of capitalism, before ushering in the kind of just, compassionate and sustainable world that we all yearn for, then it was game over for any such aspirations.

Without businesses on board we can’t address social and environmental crises
That was my rationale then. It’s still my rationale today. Without the majority of businesses being on board with the idea of radical transition, given the state of the world and its people today, then we have literally no chance of addressing the converging crises of the climate emergency, collapse in ecosystems, chronic social injustice and racial inequality.

So the only test that matters for me today is this: which businesses are prepared to tell both their shareholders and politicians, unequivocally and with maximum amplification, that today’s model of wealth creation is dead in the water, a threat to everything that the vast majority of people hope for themselves, their children and their communities, and (worst of all) a threat to the very future of capitalism?

Put ideology to one side. Think empirically (as in the ineluctable evidence now coming back at us from every corner of the planet as to accelerating collapse) and compassionately (as in the astonishing numbers of people who still live lives of grinding poverty – there are still more than five billion people living on less than $10 a day – roughly 67 per cent of humankind. Every single employee of every single multinational should now be living as uncomfortably with those realities as employees of NGOs like the Green Alliance and Forum for the Future do. There comes a point where ‘acquired cognitive dissonance’ (where life is only manageable by refusing to confront contradictory realities) is finally revealed as a betrayal of our deepest values.

NGOs working with oil and gas companies are deluded
However, we all know that there’s little in this world of corporate sustainability that is as black and white as the above paragraph might imply; there are almost limitless grey areas (both morally and practically) in between. All the more reason to act on those realities that are incontrovertibly black and white, as in rooting out the deluded, morally questionable positioning of those NGOs who still believe that there is a ‘win’ to be had in working with today’s oil and gas companies.

Having persisted for more than 20 years in denying the science, equivocating, obfuscating, lying and corrupting politicians, there’s literally nothing that Shell, BP, Total or any other private company in that sector (let alone the National Oil Companies) can offer that should persuade any NGO to continue working with them. And I speak as one who got burned some years ago thinking that there might be.

Companies must call out the truth of the unsustainable economic system
Beyond that sort of no-go zone, there’s still all to play for. However, researching my new book, Hope in Hell, confirmed one deeply uncomfortably truth that I’ve half recognised for many years: no single company, or coalition of companies, however progressive, however aligned on the full spectrum of sustainability issues, can do anything other than mitigate the negative impacts (externalities) in an inherently cruel, unjust and unsustainable economic system. The iron clad rules of today’s shareholder first, profit maximising, value extracting economy make it literally impossible for even the best of today’s progressive companies (and I do truly love and respect what those companies are doing) to be ‘moving the needle’ in the way they would aspire to do.

Hence the test that I mentioned before: all progressive business leaders must now call out that truth, unequivocally and with maximum amplification. For instance, they must stop disparaging (implicitly or explicitly) the critical importance of regulation and standard setting by governments. They must call out all those governments (not least China and the USA) that systematically undermine the rule of law (on which all their businesses ultimately depend) and people’s human rights. They must refuse to do business with companies that are still only too happy to play both sides of the divide: climate-trashing profit-maximisation alongside warm and cuddly ‘inclusive capitalism’; and they must spare us the godforsaken hypocrisy of talking about ‘shared value’ when they’re still putting the interests of shareholders above every other consideration, and paying their senior executives utterly obscene salaries that make a mockery of any protestation of fairness.

There’s a simple but ultimately very challenging message in there for all of us sustainability professionals. Do our business partners really get it? Are their leaders really calling out the insanity of today’s wealth destroying system? Are they prepared to do that in language that the politicians cannot play down or ignore? And, if they aren’t, should we not put them on notice that this is the very least that we now expect of them?

Jonathon Porritt’s latest book Hope in Hell was published on 25 June by Simon and Schuster