It was the great David Attenborough who said: “Anyone who believes infinite growth is possible on a finite planet is either mad or an economist.” To which one might add “or a politician” (viz almost any state leader of modern times) or a captain of business and industry (viz almost any successful capitalist).
Attenborough – arguably modern Britain’s finest export to the wider world – might have been forgiven a forlorn shake of the head when the country’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, having been cajoled into attending the current COP27 UN climate change conference in Egypt, told the assembled world leaders they needed to come up with a plan for “clean growth”.
This is not the place to outline Sunak’s policies that reveal even this box-ticking call as a very thin greenwash. But it is interesting to contrast it with the words of one senior officer (not quite a captain, perhaps) of one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of “sin products”.
In a recent interview for Edie, a leading news resource on green issues and “sustainable business”, Jennifer Motles (pictured) urged companies of all kinds to go beyond seeing ESG (environmental, social and governance) impact reporting as a tick-box exercise but to use it as a tool for producing properly costed plans to transform business models which have negative impacts on both people and the planet.
The elephant in the room
“Traditional ESG metrics sometimes don’t cover significant problems your company is creating, or your most material issues,” Motles said. “Because ESG disclosures are so comprehensive, you can tell many stories and, in many cases, avoid addressing the elephant in the room.
“For example, tobacco companies can sit with you, or report to you, on what they claim is ESG. But it’s all on decarbonisation, without any mention of the most negative impact they create, which is borne from the products they sell. When that is the case, I think it’s very important that companies step in and commit to reporting not only against a set of metrics provided by standard-setters. In addition, they should recognise that transformation is bespoke to each company’s value proposition and strategy, and add further tailored metrics.”
Of course all this could just be fine words, but it does at least suggest a level of awareness and a willingness to encourage movement in a better direction. Motles is chief sustainability officer (CSO) for Philip Morris International (PMI), a role she took on two years ago with a mandate to steer the tobacco giant’s move towards its much vaunted “smoke-free future”.
She is aware, too, not just of the now well-known deleterious effect of smoking on health, but also of criticism of PMI’s record on cigarette butt pollution, deforestation, and human rights. It adds up to making hers a major and challenging job. It also means plenty of opportunity to gain brownie points for cleaning up the act.
And when she speaks of the “Blue Planet II effect” you know she has at least been listening to David Attenborough.
– Aidan Semmens TobaccoIntelligence staff