If you want evidence that the corporate rich are turning “sustainable” into a dirty word, then consider the recent award won by Australian bank Westpac. At last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the bank was named the most sustainable company in the world.
Westpac also finances the Abbot Point Coal Terminal in Queensland, which is undergoing a huge expansion. When finished, Abbot Point will be the world’s biggest coal port. News broke on February 2 that 3 million cubic metres of spoil from the dredging at Abbot Point will be dumped in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
It is not just that Westpac is part of a project that involves dumping sludge on one of the world’s great natural wonders. Since 2008, the bank has lent at least $1.58 billion to expand liquefied natural gas plants and coal ports in Australia.
Westpac is also financing several open-cut coalmines planned for New Zealand’s Denniston Plateau. Climate activists opposed to the mines are campaigning for the bank to pull out of the project, saying: “Westpac is directly funding climate change”.
Calling a coal and gas-investing firm like Westpac “sustainable” is like calling a sick person healthy, or a poor person wealthy. It turns the word into its opposite.
The most widely accepted definition of “sustainable development” appeared in the 1987 report of the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development, entitled Our Common Future. It said: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Toronto-based media firm Corporate Knights, which put Westpac at the top of its list of the world’s 100 most sustainable companies, uses a very different definition of sustainability.
Toby Heaps, editor-in-chief of Corporate Knights, told Forbes magazine: “[Sustainable] means creating more wealth than we destroy ... Sustainable firms are those doing the best job at creating net wealth — economic, social, and ecological — as compared to their peers.”
Corporate Knight’s redefinition of sustainable removes any concern about meeting present and future human needs and replaces it with an emphasis on the needs of private businesses to generate higher returns. It’s about what’s good for business, not what helps preserve and protect the planet’s natural life-support systems.
As a result, its list of the world’s 100 most sustainable companies is packed with firms that profit from trashing the planet and are driving us toward climate disaster.
Corporate Knights said Norwegian oil company Statoil is the world’s fourth-most sustainable firm. Statoil is taking advantage of the climate change-induced retreat of the Arctic Sea ice to drill for more oil in the Arctic. In 2012, Statoil signed a deal with notorious Russian oil firm Rosneft to jointly develop offshore Arctic energy resources in coming decades.
Finland-based Neste Oil was listed as number six on the Corporate Knights report. Branded by Greenpeace as “professionals in rainforest destruction”, Neste Oil is one of the world’s biggest producers of biodiesel. Its biofuels are mostly sourced from palm oil plantations that have uprooted hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Another Australian bank, ANZ, was listed at number 19. In the past few years, ANZ has been the biggest funder of coal and gas export plants among Australia’s banks, lending out about $2.34 billion.
ANZ also finances the huge coalmine planned for the Leard State Forest near Maules Creek in New South Wales. Climate activists and local farmers opposed to the ANZ-backed coalmine have organised a community blockade to stop it, attracting international attention and support.
Notorious for its aggressive rollout of genetically modified food, Monsanto was labelled the “most evil corporation” in a Naturalnews.com poll last year. Corporate Knights, however, said Monsanto was the 37th most sustainable company on the planet.
“Evil” Monsanto pipped “Killer” Coca Cola, which ranked 43rd on the list. This will be news to the many thousands of Indian farmers who live near Coke bottling plants. They say the company’s hugely unsustainable water use has created pollution and severe water shortages.
Duke Energy — the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the US — is supposedly the world’s 47th most sustainable firm. The Charlotte Observer reported on February 3 that “an unknown amount of coal ash and water” had washed into a local river from a 27 acre pond at a retired Duke Energy power plant.
Royal Dutch Shell was named the 51st most sustainable corporation. The day the Corporate Knights list came out, 1000 people protested in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, against Shell’s failure to pay a court-ordered fine for an oil spill that took place 20 years earlier. A week later, a Nigerian court fined the multinational oil giant US$11.5 billion for another oil spill in 2011.
Corporate Knights said oil and gas firm Enbridge Inc, which wants to build a $6.5 billion pipeline in Canada to transport ultra-polluting tar sands oil, is the world’s 75th most sustainable firm. US climate scientist James Hansen warned in 2012 that if all the tar sands oil is exploited “it will be game over for the climate”.
Nestle — the world’s largest food company — was listed as the 86th most sustainable corporation. In a January 31 interview, Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck denied that climate change is caused by human activity. Brabeck is also on record saying that access to water is not a human right, but should be in private hands and regarded as a “foodstuff”.
Corporate efforts to hijack the term “sustainable” and use it to justify business-as-usual are hardly new, but they are pervasive — helped along by mainstream media that typically reports on such greenwash as legitimate news, without critical comment.
Given this, it’s no surprise that some people are increasingly suspicious of the word itself. For example, in a recent interview US author Kim Stanley Robinson told Boom journal why he no longer liked to use it: “’Sustainability’ is a captured word, and ‘sustainable development’ is a captured phrase, a kind of greenwashing. Now it means, we can keep on doing capitalism and get away with it.”
But perhaps, like that other much-abused term “democracy”, it’s still worth fighting to rescue words like “sustainable development” from the PR hacks and return them to their true, subversive, meaning.
Subversive because genuine sustainable development is simply not possible in a grow-or-die capitalist economy, which relies on short-term gains and relentlessly concentrates wealth in so few hands. Those who seek to preserve the system are compelled to try to capture dangerous words like “sustainable” because they’ve been unable to bury them.