Dear Mr. Polman , CEO of Unilever and Mr. Bryant, Chairman of Board and CEO of Kelloggs:
I read with interest your article titled The Case for Business Action on Climate Change in the Huffington Post written in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical, “On Care for our Common Home“. In particular it was heartening to know that within the business community, there is full acknowledgement about the science of climate change and the need to provide economic progress for all on the planet.
Our world is full of challenges on so many fronts. Your article, written on behalf of 93 business leaders, generates hope because large businesses such as yours have the bench strength to enact exactly the type of broad reaching and meaningful change we all want to see in the world.
I have read your article multiple times.
For most of my adult life, I worked for multinational companies. I made a conscious choice to leave my job in 2008. Our values were not aligned and I could not justify spending the largest chunk of my day churning revenues for companies that actively contributed to the problems we face in the world, where profit margins historically trumped any concerns for the environment, for social justice and fair play.
As you have noted, we are in trouble; we no longer have the luxury to continue doing business in the same old way. I started a small food business in 2009. I run it with regard for people and the environment and I balance these with my need to earn a living. My choices are not always easy – in order to purchase sustainable and fair trade ingredients for my food, I have less take-home pay left for myself. However, doing business this way ensures that the people involved in my supply chain can also earn a living wage. In my own small way, through the path of commerce, I keep my carbon footprint as low as possible. It also allows me to look my child and the next generation of human beings in the eye.
“We believe that we have reached a tipping point on climate change and that there is an unstoppable shift to a global economy that is significantly less harmful to the environment. As the world transitions to this new economy, it will be important to provide economic progress and a higher quality of life for all people in all regions of the world.”
I believe this sentence from your article is heartfelt and genuine but it has prompted lots of questions in my mind regarding specifics.
Nestle SA is a one of the signatories to your article. The brand page for Nestle Pure Life lists all the benefits of drinking bottled water along with their policy on environmental sustainability in the last paragraph. The science around the environmental impact of bottled water could not be more clear. 32 million – 54 million barrels of oil was required to generate the energy to produce the amount of bottled water consumed in the United States in 2007. Does Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestle SA, acknowledge that bottled water is not required in many parts of North America where good and reliable municipal drinking water is available? By getting rid of these plastic bottles, Nestle could “significantly reduce (its) natural-resource use“, which is another point stated in your article. Can we expect an exit strategy for this line of bottled water in some of Nestle’s biggest markets in the near future?
I also have questions for Hugh Grant, CEO of Monsanto. Does he accept the findings of the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer about their product RoundUp? If not, why write it off as “junk science” to create more animosity and fear? Would a more prudent approach not be to err on the side of caution and take the time to convince the skeptics, through independent testing, that the product is safe? Also, Mr. Grant has every resource available at his fingertips within Monsanto to bring food production safety to the table. But doing so by polarizing the world population into camps of GMO and non-GMO creates mistrust and this will hinder any progress we wish to make to feed nine billion people.
“No company is perfect but all companies are made up of people who want to leave a higher quality of life and a better world for generations to come.”
You could not be more correct with this phrase. However, the pursuit of wealth is an ugly impulse that leads good people to do very bad things. What precedes you are the past actions of individuals, heads of some of the largest corporations in the world, who have made terrible decisions, profited from them and left behind a world that is a mess for our children. The biggest challenge your group of 93 signatories will face is earning the trust of the people of the world. Here is why:
From The Guardian, an article about individuals at Exxon (not signatory to your article) who knowingly chose a path that is helping to kill our planet.
No corporation has done anything this big or bad”, writes Bill McKibben.
The management team at Exxon knew about the science of climate change in the late 1970’s. They used this information to strategically buy up leases for drilling oil in the North when the polar caps started to melt. They also actively engaged in campaigns which ensured no-one took climate change seriously. All of this was done for profit and with no regard to the consequences. As a direct result of those decisions, many island nations in our world will vanish.
A more recent example of people making bad decisions is the one of Martin Winterkorn and his team at Volkswagon who chose to save $430 per car and rigged the emissions tests of half a million vehicles in North America. This story is still unfolding and we will learn of its environmental impact down the road. I am certain this will be yet another example of corporate profits trumping all else.
I could go on; the fact is, we have lost our innocence and taking your words at face value is difficult.
“A common thread that cuts across all of these efforts is finding new and innovative ways to use technology to achieve these social and environmental commitments.”
This is what goes through my mind when I read the sentence above from your article. “If our business practices cause pollution and rates of cancer continue to increase in the world, we will donate generously to hospitals to build new wings for fighting these diseases. We will fund research that develops innovative ways to use technology for diagnosing and treating these cancers. It is unfortunate that we continue our business practices to remain profitable, but we need to keep our shareholders happy. At least we have acknowledged the problem and are doing something about it.”
Forgive me for my cynicism, but I hope you get my point.
The signatories to your article represent large and very successful corporations. Some continue to produce goods and services that predate common knowledge about global warming and human health. Now that the science is clear, it behooves all of us in the business community to fundamentally change what we offer up for trade in the first place. After looking within, we can look out and proceed to conduct our businesses so they leave a positive impact in the world. Your article addresses a lot of the latter but details are lacking about the former.
I would like to see all parties represented in your article to put your money where your mouths are.
- Will you only engage in forms of commerce that improve lives and communities on our planet and look at phasing out those goods and services that continue to perpetuate the problems?
- Will you look to remodel your businesses and genuinely reduce your carbon and water footprints by using business tools such as The Strongly Sustainable Business Canvas?
- Will you review the salary structures within your organizations to ensure that the distribution of wealth is shared fairly with your staff? While CEOs should earn more, the wage gap cannot be so wide that only a few benefit from the economic success of your companies. Would you consider the standards put forward by Wagemark who have determined a ratio of 8:1 to be fair between the highest and lowest wages in a company, in order for it to remain competitive?
- Will you review your supply chain and only deal with suppliers whose businesses align with your new mode of operating?
- Would you sign fair trade policies to prove your commitment to raise populations out of poverty and to ensure that people in Third World countries are not exploited for their cheap labour?
- Will you make your business practices transparent by becoming certified by organizations such as B-Labs who have a framework in place for using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems?
Mr. Polman and Mr. Bryant, the world salutes you for what you have written in your article but along with those declarations come very big expectations. It follows that corporate social responsibility can no longer be used for PR and glowing phrases on your websites. Just as it is obscene for Phillip Morris International to have a “pink cigarette” campaign to fight breast cancer, it is equally not acceptable for corporations to promote the social good they do in order to mask some of the ugly business practices which continue to leave our world polluted and a large segment of our population poor, sick, exploited and vulnerable. The problems need to be fixed at their core.
I write this open letter to you, on behalf of the following concerned people and small businesses in my community.
Thank you for your attention.
Marcella Tomas, Shameless Idealist and Concerned Citizen
Karen Kane, Worker Bee