The Impact of “Deniergate” on Corporate Reputations
If you haven’t heard the news, a leak from the US libertarian think tank the Heartland Institute has spelt out both a number of corporate funders and, allegedly, its tactics to undermine public trust in mainstream climate change science. The documents, if genuine*, haven’t really revealed much that many of us haven’t guessed was going on, but it is instructive to see written down such humdingers as:
“This influential audience [the readership of Forbes magazine] has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out.”
“providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.”
This is what I said in my book The Green Executive about the need to dissociate from such groups:
The ﬂip side of joining positive organizations is true – if you want to appear environmentally enlightened, you need to distance yourself from bad company. Ever since Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, catalogued the effect of pesticides and herbicides on eco-systems, there has been a coordinated attack on the green movement by certain sections of industry. Whether the issue is persistent organic pollutants, the health effects of passive smoking or, more recently, climate change, there have always been elements who would prefer to invest in dubious tactics to maintain the status quo rather than change their ways.
For example, the industry-backed and disingenuously named Global Climate Coalition spent 13 years feeding exaggerated accounts of the uncertainties in climate change science to the press, despite their own scientiﬁc advisors protesting to the contrary. The Coalition eventually withered and died in 2002 as members such as Shell, BP and GM decided to disassociate themselves.
Associating with any such organizations will backﬁre on green efforts. The hyenas mentioned in Chapter 4 are particularly hard on any organization perceived to have be saying one thing while doing another.
Having a zero tolerance to industrial resistance to sustainability can be used to demonstrate commitment. In 2009 a number of high proﬁle companies including Nike and Apple left the US Chamber of Commerce in protest at the Chamber’s stance on President Obama’s climate change bill. By doing so they sent out a message to their customers, their peers and the government that they were taking the green agenda seriously.
Realistically, though, I’m not sure this issue will make the headlines the way the ‘climategate’ e-mails from climate scientists did – after all, we expect lobby groups to lobby for their own interests, and the Institute doesn’t receive public funds, so there isn’t much of a ‘scandal’. The story certainly hasn’t made the printed media here in the UK, just on-line articles and the Twittersphere.
So what about the reputations of those – including some companies featured in my book – who have donated to the Institute albeit not to the climate programme? I believe that the damage will be limited this time around, compared, say, to more newspaper-friendly stories like working conditions in Apple’s supply chain. But these kinds of revelations can accumulate into a bigger story if left to fester. I stick by the advice I gave in The Green Executive – anyone who wants to protect their CSR reputation should steer well clear of such organisations.
* The Heartland Institute claims one document on climate change is fake, although it appears to replicate the content of the other documents which the Institute admits are genuine.