The case for refusing to protect existing business models

By Safia Minney
Image by Adeolu Eletu via Unsplash


In a hard-hitting podcast interview with me, Jonathon Porritt, co-founder for the Forum of the Future and a former director of Friends of the Earth, argues short-sighted and protectionist approaches by business leaders has only increased costs and made responding to the global climate crisis that much harder.

During our interview the prominent environmentalist and writer talks about how oil and gas companies as well as governments have spent decades attempting to obscure the truth of climate change from the public and shareholders.

“From the late 80s onwards the oil companies put hundreds of millions of dollars into so-called thinktanks and universities with the specific intention of obscuring the science and making people doubt what was already completely clear by the late 1980s. It was horribly effective.”

However, Jonathon points out such moves were not only short-sighted but could prove even more expensive in the long-run.

“The wheels of justice turn slowly but they turn and right now in the USA there are a number of very significant class actions being brought against the biggest oil companies – in particular ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron. The nature of the court cases is that they obscured the scientific knowledge they had from their shareholders.  It’s not illegal to lie in the USA (apparently it’s ok) but it is illegal not to share material information with your shareholders so they know the risks associated with their continuing investment in your company.”

He says all of these court cases focus on the fact that, from the late 1970s onwards, all of these companies had commissioned first class scientific work of their own into the implications of the accelerated burning of fossil fuels.

It’s interesting to ponder where we might be now if such powerful companies had instead acted on the evidence collected and spent those enormous sums of money transitioning their business models to renewable energy, green technology and the pursuit of sustainable profit.

For similar reasons he argues that nuclear power should not be considered a viable option for our future energy needs.

“The intergenerational justice issue with nuclear is incredible. We don’t know what to do with nuclear waste and the next generation will have to pay.”

This is not only immoral but surely begs the question that future lawsuits could surely be predicted based on what is happening with the big oil companies. 

Forum for the Future has been working with businesses for 25 years but Jonathon explains that even those companies currently investing heavily in sustainability, such as IKEA and Unilever, will be unable to make the difference needed alone.

Government regulation is key, he states, by placing a proper price on carbon.

“It’s incredibly simple….a tax of 50-60 Euros per tonne of what is used in the supply chain would create a mechanism to reduce carbon emissions…the only obstacle is the politics”. 

I asked him his views about the fast fashion and he is unequivocal about their role in hastening the climate emergency.

“The clothing industry is a disgrace. They know what the consequences of cheap clothes really are.” The case for government regulation in the industry is, he says, long overdue.

However, the increase in public awareness of climate issues over the past two years has, he says, now created conditions where business leaders could make a real difference without running into the traditional wall of scorn, indifference and inertia. 

He believes a new generation of leaders will emerge in areas such as fashion and beauty who will be inclusive, empathetic and broad-minded to lead the transition needed. 

‘Hope in Hell’, Jonathon’s new book, which will be published in June 2020, outlines the impact of climate change on our lives whilst offering hope in the form of technological solutions and the power of civil action to force politicians to change and engage.  

If you would like to start the journey to transition your business model check out REAL’s course on Leadership for Sustainability.