How companies blame you for climate change

Cooperative approaches like this, often led by lobbyists or interest groups, have shown that companies can be effective in limiting new regulations. Public opinion could be shaped by the language and images of the brands used, and some of the wind could be taken out of public campaigns.

In 1992, the United Nations organized the Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conference, known as the Rio Earth Summit, aimed to address inequalities in global development and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“Borrowing a strategy from the past, corporations have recognized that the best defense against environmental movements’ arguments for greater government control over corporate activities is attack,” wrote James Rowe, now an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria in Canada. in 2005. Corporate social responsibility, he says, has become the “preferred strategy for allaying popular discontent.”

“The World Business Council came into being in response to the Rio summit,” says Jessica Dempsey, a political ecologist at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It was that kind of moment of realization with the environmental and development challenges that were coming to a head in the late 1980s.”

“The World Business Council was created, like many other interest groups, to increase their power,” says Dempsey. “[They recognised] that they could be more influential in these multilateral forums if they worked together. So the biggest companies in the world were thinking “we should work together because we have interests that are under threat”. »

In response to this, “just before Rio, Stephan Schmidheiny, founder of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), pleaded with business to unless ‘we promote self-regulation.. .we’re facing government regulation under public pressure,'” Rowe says.

The cooperative action was successful, Rowe continues. He quotes two representatives of the International Chamber of Commerce (who describe themselves as the “voice of global affairs”), saying:

“Generally the feeling among the business attendees was that the substantive outcome of UNCED was positive. It might have taken a negative stance on…the role of business, and there was at one point the real possibility that the conference was pressure to lay down detailed guidelines for the operations of transnational corporations.

But, says Rowe, the companies “succeeded in fending off the threat.”

The WBCSD says the need for “sustainable transformation of the systems that govern our world is… more urgent than ever.” ICC General Secretary John Denton said “significant policy changes” will be required to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. “We believe the best way to achieve these reforms is to work hand in hand with the business community to design decarbonization plans that work in the real world.” Schmidheiny was asked to comment on his quote, but declined.


Without an agreement from the governments of the 179 countries represented at the summit for tighter regulation of fossil fuel use, it has been left to corporations and the lobbyists who represent them to self-regulate, writes Dempsey with co-authors Audrey Irvine -Broque and Adriana DiSilvestro in a 2021 article. It’s called free market environmentalism.

Free market environmentalism is based on an economic principle called “self-interest” according to which if companies act in their own interest, their production will benefit the consumer. In the case of free-market environmentalism, if companies can win more customers by acting sustainably, then they will, and less responsible companies will be penalized by the market.

But free-market environmentalism assumes that consumers are able to tell which companies are acting responsibly (which, as Coming Clean has covered in the past, can be hard to tell, especially when some ads are misleading) , and are motivated to choose the most environmental option – which is not always the best or the cheapest.

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