The Ethical Corporation’s editor-in-chief Terry Slavin explains why the magazine’s mission of doing deep dives into complex sustainability issues is more relevant than ever before
I became editor of Ethical Corporation in February 2016, just a couple of months after COP21 in Paris.
One exciting memory of attending that event, as a freelancer for Guardian Sustainable Business, was of having Prince Charles suddenly walk up while I was interviewing Paul Polman after a major announcement that Unilever and Marks & Spencer would preferentially source from countries with strong policies to end deforestation.
I then trotted alongside the two to them, into the glare of cameras, as they chatted animatedly on their way to another event.
For a sustainable business journalist, such serendipitous encounters with the green and good are one of the payoffs for the exhausting two-week marathon that is a UN climate conference.
While the UNFCCC media room in Paris in 2015 was frequently semi-deserted, in Glasgow last month journalists were at times camped out on the floor
I didn’t manage to rub shoulders with Prince Charles in Glasgow – heck I couldn’t even penetrate the scrum around Barack Obama to get a glimpse. But then the business and climate world is no longer the rarefied club it was, even six years ago.
For one, it’s no longer just sustainability veterans such as Unilever, M&S, Mars, and Nestlé who are appearing on panels at such events. With some 1,045 companies having set an ambitious science-based target of 1.5C, hundreds of CEOs were strutting their sustainability stuff on the stage of We Mean Business “Climate Pledge Theatre” at COP26. (See also Why delivering net-zero promises is now absolutely the order of the day)
And two, as Oliver Balch observes in his column, sustainable business is no longer the exclusive stomping ground of specialist writers. While the UNFCCC media room in Paris in 2015 was frequently semi-deserted, in Glasgow in November journalists were at times camped out on the floor because they couldn’t find an empty seat.
The fact that news agencies such as Reuters and Bloomberg, and newspapers from the New York Times to the Guardian and Financial Times, are devoting significant resources to covering the business and climate story is hugely important, since it is in the interest of every single person on this planet that the companies that have made net-zero promises are scrutinised, and held to account.
But there remains a crucial role for the specialist sustainability journalists who write for The Ethical Corporation and its sister publication, The Sustainable Business Review. And I believe that role has never been more crucial.
For several years in the mid-noughties, when Ethical Corporation was young, I edited a special supplement in the Guardian for the Energy Saving Trust about its annual Green Fleet heroes award, in which I was also a judge.
In those days, diesel was promoted by the European Union as an environmentally friendly fuel, and companies were incentivised to convert their fleets from petrol to diesel to cut CO2 emissions. With electric vehicles still very nascent, paying a premium to use biodiesel was the mark of a green fleet.
We can’t take it on trust that companies will deliver on their net-zero promises, without transparency and third-party verification
But there was a handbrake turn after the Volkswagen emissions scandal revealed how not only Volkswagen, but pretty much the entire car industry, had gilded the lily on CO2 emissions claims, and amid evidence that in real-world use diesel vehicles cause much greater toxic emissions injurious to human health than petrol cars.
There was also a growing appreciation that the CO2 benefits of first-generation biofuels were compromised by the energy penalty, while food security and biodiversity was threatened as vast swathes of agricultural land in the U.S. was turned over to produce biofuels.
There are several lessons that I took from this, and that have informed my approach to covering sustainable business. We can’t take it on trust that companies will deliver on their net-zero promises, without transparency and third-party verification. That’s why it was significant that Amazon, with its ambitious climate pledge to be net zero by 2040, finally caved to pressure from investors to disclose its emissions to CDP this year. (See Amazon, Twitter and Netflix make first climate disclosures as CDP raises bar for A list)
A bigger lesson is the danger of focusing exclusively on action to drive down CO2 emissions, without also understanding the myriad potential impacts on health, human rights, land use and biodiversity.
Of course, I am far from alone in this realisation. It’s why climate justice and nature-based solutions to climate change were so high on the agenda at COP26, when they barely got a look in at COP21 in Paris.
And it is also why, though a welcome first step, it’s not enough for Amazon to report to CDP on climate. CDP will continue to hound the online retail giant on behalf of investors until it is transparent on what it’s doing to minimise its impacts on forests and water. And so, increasingly, will its customers and civil society.
Despite the plethora of pledges at COP26 to go nature-positive and invest in nature-based solutions, companies are still very much in the dark about how to do it
The great pleasure of editing The Ethical Corporation over what is nearly six years has been the free rein it has afforded to do deep dives into what are increasingly complex issues, to explore unintended consequences, and highlight the solutions and companies that are showing genuine leadership.
Going forward we will continue to challenge the orthodoxy of hot new technologies such as sustainable aviation fuels, which could become a latter-day diesel controversy if they lead to intolerable pressure on land use. Indeed, the mass roll-out of electric vehicles over the next 15 years runs that same risk if the energy systems that power them can not be produced within shrinking planetary and social boundaries.
Cutting CO2 emissions is actually the easy bit. Despite the plethora of pledges at COP26 to go nature-positive and invest in nature-based solutions, companies are still very much in the dark about how to do it, without even metrics to measure their impacts on the natural world, though these are urgently being developed.
What may be needed is actually wholesale change to capitalism as we currently know it, and dramatically different business models. The most impactful solution in aviation may be simply to fly a lot less.
There’s going to be plenty to keep The Ethical Corporation and The Sustainable Business Review going for the next 20 years, and beyond.
Terry Slavin is editor-in-chief of Reuters Events Sustainability, and editor of The Ethical Corporation and The Sustainable Business Review.
This article is part of the Winter 2021, and anniversary issue, of The Ethical Corporation. See also:
COP21 sustainable business COP26 climate change GHG emissions Amazon CDP