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Green Is The New Black

Big corporations want you to believe they’re doing all they can—but they’re greenwashing.

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Over the weekend, we found out that executives from big corporations including Apple, Disney, Amazon, and Microsoft have their hands in dirty business. They’ve been backing a fight against a major US climate bill, which contains measures to fight climate change. This matters because they’re doing this in a time when such measures are the bare minimum. But despite public promises otherwise, these big corporations are greenwashing—as they’ve always been.

 

According to new analysis from watchdog Accountable.US, company executives from the likes of Apple, Disney, Amazon and Microsoft are linked to lobbying groups backing a fight against a bill containing new measures to fight climate change. 

In short, the bill will decrease America’s greenhouse gas emissions, and shift the country towards more climate-friendly infrastructure. And it’s being fought by executives like Tim Cook (Apple’s CEO), Andy Jassy (Amazon’s CEO), Sundar Pichai (Google’s parent company Alphabet’s CEO) and more, but not directly. Instead, these executives are controlling or supporting lobbyists and business groups, that are fighting the climate bill. 

 

Why the timing of this matters

Them fighting the climate bill, at this time, is significant. For one, the climate crisis is, as it has been, at the forefront of our concerns. The IPCC recently called “code red for humanity”. And climate scientists have been saying, since 2018, that we need “rapid and far-reaching” transitions, across all of society: land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. That is, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Which would minimise climate catastrophe (even though 1.5°C already entails a certain level of that). 

Furthermore, in the US context, the bill is “the first major attempt at climate legislation in a decade”. All of this is to say that now, more than ever, is a pivotal moment for corporations to do the bare minimum on acting on climate. We’re talking about merely supporting climate legislation. As climate programme manager at Friends of the Earth Lukas Ross told The Guardian, this is “a historic chance to end fossil fuel subsidies and invest in a liveable future”.

Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, commented: “Major corporations love to tell us how committed they are to addressing the climate crisis and building a sustainable future, but behind closed doors, they are funding the very industry trade groups that are fighting tooth and nail to stop the biggest climate change bill ever.” Indeed, these corporations make headlines whenever they announce their climate initiatives. These proclamations are turning out to be greenwashing… but this isn’t the first example of this happening. 

 

Amazon is infamous for its lack of ethics

Let’s start with the least surprising corporation to make this list—Amazon. Aside from being known as the online shopping haven famous for their next-day deliveries? The corporation also has a reputation for being incredibly exploitative, and environmentally unfriendly. Its founder, the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, has said that the climate crisis is the “biggest threat to our planet”. And Amazon has also created a pledge for businesses to cut their emissions to net zero by 2040. 

These seem great on the surface. But that’s where the good part ends. War on Want, an anti-poverty charity, part of the global Make Amazon Pay coalition (representing over 200 million workers and activists worldwide), reports that Amazon’s carbon footprint is larger than two thirds of all the countries in the world. And that its “growing delivery and cloud computer businesses are accelerating global climate breakdown.”

 

amazon burning

IMAGE: Via Twitter | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A close-up shot of a lamp post. On a torn piece of a priority mail envelope, the words, stamped: “THE WRONG AMAZON IS BURNING”. There are other older signs and stickers on the lamp post. Behind the lamp post is a street, and a rainbow painted on the crosswalk.

 

Beyond its direct environmental impact, the more concerning aspects of Amazon’s operations have to do with its ethics. Instead of giving back, Amazon paid just 1.2% tax in the US in 2019… up from 0% in two previous years. That’s money that could be redistributed back to many people. The people who, no doubt, make Amazon’s profits possible. Not to mention, says Executive Director of War on Want, Asad Rehman, there’s “a litany of abuses associated with Amazon business practices, from harassment of workers to unsafe conditions in its warehouses”. Instead of redistributing the wealth it earned on the backs of people and taken from people, the corporation has instead produced “gross inequality where a few are made grotesquely rich”. 

This comes back to the climate crisis anyway, indirectly. Because massive inequality does drive climate change. That is, as has been proven time and time again: rich people are consistently the ones producing the most emissions. More broadly speaking, corporations like Amazon are also perpetuating the economic system of capitalism—that’s exploiting the people and the planet, driven by a need for profit and accumulation, kept up by keeping wealth in the hands of a few—that’s, of course, the reason why “human activity” is the definitive driver of climate change.

 

Microsoft’s bad apple has left, but you know what they say about rotten apples…

So Amazon isn’t a surprise. But what about the rest of the club? For Microsoft, philanthropic billionaire Bill Gates is no longer helming the corporation. Though Gates did amass his wealth thanks to the corporation. And, unfortunately, philanthropic good, in the billionaire world, just doesn’t exist. Gates, despite his veneer of do-gooding and money-giving (in part also a image bought by his wealth—his money has gone and does go to media outlets to paint a good image of him), is deeply involved in furthering the vaccine apartheid, growing big agriculture, and most certainly, hoarding his wealth.

Gates leaving Microsoft doesn’t mean that the corporation is any better for it, unfortunately. Back in January, The Verge reported that despite its pledge to be carbon negative by 2030? There’s “a whole lot of work left for Microsoft to do.” It pointed out, rightfully, that when companies say they’ll be “carbon neutral, or carbon negative in Microsoft’s case, the company isn’t saying it will stop pumping out greenhouse gases altogether. What it will do is cancel out some portion of its greenhouse gases by paying other companies and nonprofit organizations to trap and store carbon dioxide.”

Offsets have been highlighted as problematic. And we’re far away from carbon-absorbing technology becoming a viable reality. And both of these still fall within the realm of solutions within capitalism. These will help in the short-term, but to reckon with our climate crisis, the aim can’t be just to reduce emissions. (Which, again, it isn’t even doing. Just like Amazon, Microsoft’s data centres are key to its operations, and consume a lot of energy.) Instead, companies like Microsoft have to figure out how to entirely move their operating systems away from capitalism, that’s killing our planet. 

 

Apple: for all its talk…

What about Apple? Apple’s doing great for the environment, right? On the surface, this may be true. It’s poured billions of dollars into environmental efforts. At its own facilities, it uses only renewable energy. Impressively, its strategy isn’t about offsetting. It’s about actually harvesting clean energy. Its sustainability team consistently speaks about Apple’s vision… to eventually make the same volume of products, except without mining new materials. 

Quartz asked, in 2019, the question that’s on our minds. “Is Apple’s focus on sustainability more than a charade?” The answer turned out to be a “kind of”, then more of a “yes”. The former was because its sustainability strategies did actually tackle the problems it intended to. And unlike other corporations, Apple’s team actually has been quite honest about the struggles. For example, it has acknowledged the way its data centres, offices and stores “are actually a small fraction of the company’s carbon footprint, most of which is spread out along a massive and fluid manufacturing supply chain that could take in the tin mines of Bolivia, aluminum smelters in Iceland, lithium-ion battery makers, and the like, plus shipping and transport.” 

But executing is another story. To its recycling challenge, for example, it actually is working on ways to use recycled materials. It’s made some headway, but there’s a “long, long way to go to 100% recycled.” What really cements the fact that Apple’s focus on sustainability is really just a charade, though, is something that almost all of Apple’s users are familiar with. Apple’s notorious planned obsolescence. It’s incredibly difficult to get devices fixed.

At the end of the day, for whatever it says, Apple wants to sell you more products. It has to. Because like Microsoft, like Amazon, it functions within the illogical confines of capitalism. 

 

planned obsoleteness

IMAGE: Via Consumers International | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo of many (presumably) scrap materials in a pile. It is not clear what these materials were used for. The materials are in orange, green, dirty yellow, white and black.

 

So no, Apple probably won’t come up with a revolutionary system to have customers coming back from repairs. It probably wants to keep you coming back to buy new products. As Ascanio Vitale, CEO of StopCO2, told Quartz: “a fixation on growth is baked into the very structure of what a multinational company is.” Apple’s sustainability head believes that growth and sustainability can “coexist”. Unfortunately, we live on a finite planet. It has physical limits. So the concept of green growth needs some radical rethinking. Some have even argued that it’s impossible, and that it’s, in fact, just a dream. 

Socialist writer and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast Paris Marx echoed Vitale in saying: “We need to stop believing that multinational companies are going to lead the charge toward a sustainable world. Capitalism will always constrain their ability to make the changes that are truly necessary.” This very same logic applies even to big corporations that don’t make products as their mainstay.

Such as the most “magical” place in the world: Disney.

 

What about the happiest place on Earth?

I’d love to say that Disney-lovers should look away. But the truth is that we should be looking. With both our eyes wide open, to embrace the ugly truth. 

As The Nation highlights, just like any other major corporation, Disney earns a massive amount in profits—$14 billion. Much of that wealth goes to the top—the CEO, who just left in 2020, got $65.7 million compensation. While most workers earn a measly amount in comparison—the median Disney worker earned 1,424 times less than the CEO. This is one of the widest gaps of any American corporation.

For the products that it does produce, the highly-coveted Disney merchandise? “Since the late 1990s,” The Nation reports, human rights groups have reported that many of Disney’s consumer products have been made in sweatshops in Bangladesh, China, and Haiti.” It’s had an “appalling history of worker abuse around the world.” 

 

disneyland

IMAGE: Source unknown | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A film photo of a Disneyland sign. Above the sign are a few flags in pale pink, teal and cream, along with a castle. Below the sign is the text “THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH”. And below that, an electronic board, with yellow text. The text reads: “YOUR MESSAGE MAGICALLY APPEARS HERE.” Around this entire structure are trees, grass, and some flowers. In the background there appears to be a building.

 

In the end, capitalism is a straitjacket for these big corporations who want to “do good”. Disney workers haven’t shared in Disney’s prosperity. Apple’s sustainability vision isn’t compatible with planetary limits. Gates and his philanthropic efforts haven’t saved the world. Amazon can write as many pledges as it wants, but its massive negative environmental and social impact can’t be negated.

At the end of the day, as long as these corporations are aligned with an economic system that is destroying the planet, no matter what they do, they won’t actually be able to save it. This explains why nobody is really surprised that “Big tech’s pro-climate rhetoric is not matched by policy action”. And why nobody is surprised that the executives are fighting this latest climate bill. Does that mean that we shouldn’t expect that these corporations that “completely dominate the stock market” leverage and deploy their political capital? No. We should still be demanding that they leverage the impact that they do have to make headway on the systems level to fix the climate crisis. But we shouldn’t assume that they will. 

Instead, what we should also be advocating for, alongside demanding that they do more with their power, is a system where corporations can’t accumulate this much power to begin with. Capitalism won’t solve the climate crisis. We have to divest from it. Especially if we’re serious about getting anywhere with climate change. News like this should only serve as a reminder that this is, and should be, the goal. 

 

FEATURED IMAGE: Via Stephen L on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo taken from inside the Shanghai Pudong Apple Store. The Apple logo hangs from the middle of the glass ceiling. In the photo are glass panels arranged to be a circle around the logo. Beyond the glass ceiling, there are blue buildings towering above.

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Tammy (she/her) is an activist-in-progress and digital creator and communicator, based in sunny, tropical Singapore. Her mission is three-fold: (1) to make climate justice activism and theory more accessible; (2) to create digital and physical community and learning spaces towards a more just, regenerative, and loving world within our current one; (3) and to mobilise the best parts of social media in service of all this.

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