Thirty years ago, the United Nations shut down its Centre on Transnational Corporations. Over the prior two decades, the UNCTC had sought to shine a light on the growing influence and power of giant companies around the world, but especially in what was then called the third world.
After the UNCTC was gone, the United Nations said relatively little about corporations overall and even less of a critical nature. A new report from the international body begins to rectify that. As part of the COP27 climate conference, a group of experts convened by the Secretary-General has issued a critique of the commitments by non-state actors to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions in their operations.
Noting that many corporations with net zero pledges are still investing heavily in fossil fuels, the report calls for an end to what it does not hesitate to label as greenwashing—a term that was once used only by environmental activists. The title of the document, Integrity Matters, is a rebuff to companies that purchase dubious carbon offsets rather than making serious reductions in their own greenhouse gas emissions.
At the heart of the report are ten recommendations designed to make net zero commitments more meaningful. These include items such as setting short-term targets along with longer-term goals, engaging in better disclosure, and investing in just transitions.
But to my mind, the most important recommendation is the call for moving from voluntary pledges to enforceable rules. “Regulation is therefore needed,” the report states, “to level the playing field and transform the groundswell of voluntary commitments into ground rules for the economy overall.”
Even more promising is that the report urges cooperation among regulators in different countries to promote and enforce global standards. In fact, the document calls for the creation of a task force to convene a community of international regulators.
It is encouraging to see the United Nations take this posture. It will not be easy to get big business to move from self-serving and essentially meaningless promises to serious obligations.
Keep in mind that the phenomenon of greenwashing has been around for a long time. It was back in 1992 that the problem was first highlighted in a publication titled The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash written by environmental activist Kenny Bruno.
That report showed how corporations such as Shell were already pretending to be leaders in the effort to address global warming. Yet the deception was also taking place with regard to a slew of other environmental issues. Among the leading greenwashers cited by Bruno were General Motors, Westinghouse, Sandoz and DuPont.
Perhaps the most brazen of these was DuPont, which sought to divert attention from the extensive harm its chlorofluorocarbon products did to the ozone layer by running a series of television ads in which animals were made to look like they were applauding the company’s environmental initiatives while Beethoven’s Ode to Joy played in the background.
The lesson then, as today, is that large corporations will go to great lengths to give the impression that they are a key part of the solution when it comes to the environment, when in fact they are major contributors to the problem and will continue to do so until they are forced to change.