Out of Scope

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Written by

Max Gomez

Out of Scope

When you should talk about climate change

The desire to wade into the conversation about climate change is completely understandable and sometimes even admirable. Trust me, I am the first one to tell you to use your platform to talk about what’s happening to our planet.

But with heightened expectations post-COVID for institutions— universities, celebrities, and, yes, brands— to weigh in on social issues, it seems everyone is expected to share more about their environmental values. There’s an ongoing debate-trending-on-tantrum unfolding about ESG/CSR and other acronyms meant to describe social justice concepts living within organizations. It’s playing out on main and largely culture war shenanigans, but it means that more people are more paranoid than ever about how to describe their values in the context of larger justice conversations.

Again, talking about climate change is important. But unless your company is announcing real, tangible climate action, most advocates will tell you to keep your platitudes and toothless CSR policies to yourself. And that’s why corporate conversations about climate change are often lose-lose. If you take one thing away, let it be this: by saying something just to say something, you can do more harm than good to your brand.

Lamer than greenwashing

When a brand speaks, it’s important you have something to say. So, what exactly do you have to say about climate change?

Is your company pivoting from offering financial services to replanting the rainforest? Have you stopped working towards a new spiked seltzer for health-conscious consumers and figured out how to re-freeze the ice caps? Are you talking about it because you have something to say or because you feel like you should have something to say?

I’m not talking about the dreaded greenwashing and covering up bad policies with green paint— I’m talking about something much, much lamer. And that’s saying nothing when you say something. Before you make your climate impact announcement, consider the substance you’re offering and the fanfare you’re pairing it with.

A company like Patagonia is widely considered the gold standard for ethical, Earth-loving brands. In March 2023, they announced the 50th anniversary of their industry-shifting green business philosophy with a modest web release. Over the next year, the anniversary would pop up in a few outlets, a keynote at Aspen Ideas, and…kept pretty quiet otherwise.

On the other hand: Starbucks. This week, Starbucks announced a set of new cups that will reduce the overall amount of plastic used for some of their cold drink orders by a measly 20%. This resulted in an all-out announcement blitz: mainstream press outreach, trade attention, and a full TikTok campaign. It’s not exactly planet-saving news; actually, in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty minor. Nevertheless, it was treated by all parties involved, brand and media, with the same reverence as the moon landing.

The hard truth is very few brands on the planet are investing in initiatives or programs that will impact climate change within a meaningful timeframe or at scale. Quite the opposite. Most of today’s brands are announcing progress towards an arbitrary sustainability benchmark or mentioning a green-giving campaign in a press release before going back to business as usual. Most attempts today are rarely more than an overly eager attempt to weigh in on a conversation that can do without your comment.

Communicating during the polycrisis

It is rare that you will be able to satisfy everyone when discussing how your company fits into the climate crisis, and blowback from somewhere is inevitable. And rightfully so— the hard truth is that very little will be enough to appease all involved because there is just so much to be done. The climate crisis is bigger than anything one company can solve in a press-release-friendly manner.

Some people like to throw around the word polycrisis to describe what is happening in our climate struggle. The theory is that there are so many overlapping challenges facing us that its impossible to untangle a single one from the other.

Consider an organization like Surfrider, a nonprofit organization advocating for the health of our marine environments worldwide. They do amazing work, organizing beach cleanups, leading advocacy, and educating the public about the importance of our oceans. But they’re not immune to the polycrisis. Despite their brand built on outspoken concern for the environment, they’ve received flack from housing advocates, who point out that restricting coastal construction also restricts a denser housing supply, resulting in more sprawl, more car usage, and more carbon emissions in the name of keeping another part of our ecology safe.

And that’s another tough reality to face— even if your company is contributing to the right cause or doing something positive, advocates might still decide your organization is part of the problem.

Running a true carbon-neutral organization is next to impossible. Even if you prioritize green initiatives and try your best, we’re all trapped in an interlocking grid of challenges. You may hold office space in a LEED-certified building and use recycled copy paper, but your executive still might be flying private every day. No one is unimpeachable when it comes to our climate footprint, and unless you plan to change the very nature of business in the 21st century, you will have a tough time making your case that you’re doing enough to concerned advocates.

When you should stop talking about climate change

Don’t get me wrong. Any progress is progress, and progress is good. Companies can and should acknowledge the reality of climate change, and I don’t mean to dismiss well-intentioned corporate initiatives. By all means, practice sustainability! Recycle! Reward employees who carpool, bike, and take transit to the office! Donate to organizations that further environmental justice! But don’t expect it to be front-page news.

It’s not my goal to dissuade from incremental gains to achieve climate change. Many argue that those are the exact kinds of wins necessary for averting catastrophe. Just because you cannot, as a brand, announce something that will drive a major climate impact does not mean you should avoid trying. We should not let perfect be the enemy of good here. But unless you are announcing a true, tangible good for the Earth, consider keeping it to yourself.

Image: Patagonia / NYT