Should we work with businesses who destroy the world?

I get asked this question quite a bit. Is it ethical? Does it have an impact? A gambling company was recently recruiting for people in one of my industries in their fancy new office. They struggled. Numerous people turned down an interview to work for a company against their morals. If we continue this, over time they’re going to find it difficult to recruit good talent and will (and are) resorting to different ways of influence to build a pipeline. I’m proud of this, but many of those same people also have clients that are in mining or they themselves work for fossil-fuel based driven energy companies. Why don’t we have the same shame with environment destroying industries? Are we not there yet?

In running my businesses we selected not to work with tobacco companies, big alcohol, big agriculture, gambling, fast fashion, extractivism, or religion (funny story: our design studio once had an enquiry for a monthly membership site that taught catholics how to answer atheists – they had 20,000 paying users). In that studio we reduced our plastics (not enough), only liaised on product development if it could be done sustainably (a vague concept) and we didn’t work with labels that encouraged consumerism or exploited labor. We absolutely didn’t do things perfectly and it’s also significantly easier to do all this with services than products which is why we probably ended up doing a whole lot more of that too.

Should working with companies who promote ever increasing consumption be shamed? What about those who nearly single-handedly wipe out species with palm oil and other types of land use change and deforestation (much of the processed food and beauty industry)? Is intensive agriculture part of this line? I know someone who went nearly-vegan for cruelty reasons and then went on to design for a cattle beef farm. What about urban development which is a primary cause of so many animals becoming endangered? Should we turn down partnerships with organizations who consistently greenwash their initiatives? 

For me, it’s a yes. But it comes with a price. And it wasn’t always this way. Nor is it perfect. 

In this environment work (a social enterprise) we currently don’t take funding from nearly any organization in order to remain independent and bias free. We may of course work with less environmentally friendly companies in our workshops (i.e. fast fashion) in order to upskill departments or turn the ship around but other than that businesses would have to align their values much more closely to our own. On our environment job board we don’t accept listing from companies that are focussed on destruction unless they are transitioning entirely to a more sustainable option and require experts to help them do so.

All of these things of course make it much, much harder to make money and keep doing the work. By working with sustainable and ethical only businesses, you immediately eliminate about 90% of the market. That’s a tough and bitter pill to swallow of the state of our society and it’s difficult to make a living that way.

What all of corporate America should be doing is saying if you are a trade organization or lobby group and you are interfering on climate, we are out. Period. – Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator, Rhode Island

There are increasingly good opportunities in the less environmentally destructive and human rights destroying space, but as hyper-capitalism and growth continues to define our world, it is also difficult to reconcile this economically. The most environmentally and socially destructive companies, and the companies that encourage endless cycles of consumerism, still command the largest share of resources.

Individual action does little when we’re not doing it by the millions, but on this piece we actually have quite a significant amount more power than we believe. In most businesses, people are the biggest asset they have and employees are starting to force changes. Not all of course. Not most. Not enough. But it is happening. Furious employees at Google, Microsoft and Amazon are currently forcing their leaders to confront their fossil fuel partnerships, their climate denying funding and their environmental footprint. Even an industry group of engineers in Australia which heavily lends its skills to fossil fuel companies (engineering activities are connected with over 65% of Australia’s direct emissions), established Engineers Declare Australia for a climate and biodiversity emergency. The huge firm Arup signed onto the accord and within three weeks of its launch they had signed 112 engineering organizations.

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission offered the following definition of sustainable development, “Development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Small business owners and some company executives are starting to draw their lines too. I know numerous agencies who now only work with “conscious” brands (choose your own adventure for what this actually means in practise). As consumers are slowly starting to make more informed choices, some businesses are responding. As employees see what’s happening to the environment around them, or imagine the future for their kids, they too are starting to demand the companies they work for do better.

There is enormous, exciting power in this. As consumers we can choose to switch our bank accounts and retirement funds from companies that don’t invest in or support fossil fuels and fast fashion. The same goes for employees. We can remove our skills and use them for good. When companies can’t get the best talent, they will have to shift their strategy. And when businesses reject clients, and those businesses can no longer hire the best quality nor seek out ideal partnerships, they too will have to change. In the age of technology, we still rely a whole lot on humans and for once, we can use this to create a major positive step.

Serious harm to the Earth is preventable when government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop. – Ecocide Law

There has long been a discussion in effective altruism on whether it’s better to work for a sustainable company and earn less but not contribute to the destruction of the world, or work with a company that ultimately aids destruction, but earn a lot more making your donation amount for good causes much higher. It’s an understandable debate and I’ve been caught in it very recently, but I think it creates a pass-it-down-the-line problem. You can pollute, waste, ruin, plunder, addict as much as you’d like but somewhere else in the world you’re doing a little good. It’s not an effective offset, it’s not satisfying and it continues to fuel bad behavior (if that sounds similar to carbon offsetting it’s because it is, and that’s a shitshow). We’re currently still in a market that economically rewards bad behavior.

I’m light years away from perfect and it’s an impossible goal to try to be, but I have turned turned down employment and clients that have, in totality, cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars. I made the decision to earn a sizeably smaller salary, live minimally (other than a couch, mattress and fridge most of what I own can fit in two suitcases) and then spend most of the pesa I can on enjoying my own experiences and the education, communities and people it is more important for. I worked three years for mining companies when I was younger and it is my biggest regret in life. I didn’t actually mine or support any operations but ultimately working in an office enables the company to continue and is all part of the cog that keeps the machine turning.

I say that with so much privilege. It is a privilege to make these choices. When I worked for those companies I lived in places that economically function around destruction so it was difficult to see anything outside of that, particularly as a new entrant to the market who certainly wasn’t thinking about the impact of work, but it is thousands of times more difficult than that in rural towns. Many cannot make these choices at all. I certainly do not have much money, I don’t have any assets, and I don’t come from a family of wealth. I couldn’t care less about the stock market. But I am wealthy; it’s simply not economical. Thanks to the country (the Netherlands) I was born in along with my skin color, I was always going to be privileged no matter how broke I got. In any case though, we should all be in this together, pushing for the economic system to change so we don’t need to make these choices. All of us are a whole lot closer to being homeless than being billionaires. 

But where do you draw the line? Where I started one of those jobs was in a city that is dominated by resources. Nearly every building is resources related and if it’s not, it’s likely an accounting firm or bank that supports, works for, and props up those same companies. All the vendors around town between the suddenly booming office furniture stores to the trades, to the technology support companies, to the government departments that furnish them with tax breaks and weak environmental standards; all provided their services to the resource giants. Housing development for killing and displacing species, flattening land and growing suburbia became richer than ever thanks to the ever growing families moving in to take advantage of the cash and the increasing wealth of everyone else. Even the cafes had catering contracts with the resource giants, as did the design studios, the marketing agencies and the universities. Where do you work when everything is tied back to destruction? Where do you draw the line?

It’s difficult to know no matter the industry. Can you call it sustainability if you work for a plant plastics company causing mass monocropping and land clearing, replacing one problem with another? Even the world of Instagram influencers is a minefield. Influencers get a pretty bad rap, and I also get sick of the fake theatre on the streets when I’m travelling, but I feel for them and we cannot blame them. The job world is nearly impossible for young people. It’s also actually pretty freaking hard work to create so much content, manage all those partnerships and grow a community. You can never switch off and you work around the clock. But where should they draw the line? Fast fashion which dominates the platform? Country tourism boards? You can find a country like Saudi Arabia trying to clean up its image with pretty photos from travel influencers and most of us can agree that’s not ideal. But all countries do terrible things. Australia is one of the worlds biggest fossil fuel exporters and enjoys locking up and killing refugees. America has Trump and multiple human rights crises. China is an authoritarian nightmare. England has Boris and a Brexit fuelled by racism. Turkey has a horror show. Norway is great but oil drills its way through life. Japan still believes we should be killing whales. Where’s the line?

There’s not a perfect answer for any of this of course. I argue a lot that we’re not actually trying to solve problems anymore; we’re crafting better ones. I’ve come up with some of my own guidelines though that might be useful if you’re considering the types of clients you work with, the direction of your business or the employer you offer your skills to.

1. Educate, educate, educate

When we know more, it’s our responsibility to educate first. Most people don’t understand the value of design so we educate before we begin work. The same goes with sustainable practices. Learn and absorb as much as you possibly can and then chat with your fellow employees and your manager. Start looking into the clients your company provides its services too. Which one would you like to see change, or if they won’t, be removed? What power do you? Think about how you could potentially offer services or products that are more sustainable. What needs to change in your company overall to do the right thing? Can you present a model of this? Pour through your company communications and work out what has been said about the future and our environment. Have a high alert radar on for greenwashing and spin.

2. Use your influence

When you’re in a position you can wield some influence in, use it. Speak to the executives. Chat to your board or co-founders. Hold a workshop with your department. See if you can help shift the trajectory of the organization. What would it actually take to shift it? What does it mean economically? What creative solutions can we put in place? Can we leverage the marketing on this? Can we create something even better? Where are the system interventions? Have we got people motivated to change? Where do we feel our responsibilities lie to the planet currently, and to the future generations? Use and spread your influence as much as humanly possible until you can’t get any, or continue to craft, traction.

3. Assess your personal situation

Write a list of everything you pay for and own. Nearly everyone in industrialized cities can cut back significantly and still be living really well. In fact, if Americans and Australians lived more like Europeans, emissions there would reduce by 60 percent. Europeans tend to live pretty well and Europeans too can still cut things back a lot. Big houses are not necessary. Neither are personal pools. Nor upgrading tech every year or two. Nor buying new clothes often. Kids can literally live from the thrift shop for years and be the happiest they can be. Most people in cities can reduce their food spending & waste way down with meal planning and a bit of prep. Most of us also have insurances we don’t need and credit cards we shouldn’t have. Nobody needs a store-bought new car and most of us don’t need a big one. Once you’ve got that all down you can see where you can make substantial financial decisions that free you up much more. We’re all in the same messed up system that deludes us into believing we need more and it’s impossible to avoid some of the crazy expenses, but we can shift a lot of it together.

4. Make change

If you’ve educated and used your influence, you can’t create change or you’ve done as much of it as you can, and you’ve determined your situation and know where you can make changes there, you might decide you can do something different. This might be taking a hit to your salary but finding a new job utilizing your skills for a company that does good things for our world, doesn’t enable nature or human destroying clients, or provides non-destructive services. It might be negotiating to work four days a week instead of five so you can free up time to repair items, cook dinners and breads, work on community projects and source things you need more sustainably. It might be deciding to live somewhere else to gain more opportunities or lower the cost of living. It might be selecting to start your career fresh, or go back to study, and work your way up making decisions based on your values. It could be deciding to get much pickier on the clients you take on for your business, or indeed to start a business. I know this isn’t easy. There might be a lot of people involved. But, for many of us of privilege in industrialized cities, it is possible.

5. What are you enabling and who are you harming?

We live in a complex world intent on avoiding simplification. It’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to set up your own business or work for a company that does things right, ethically and sustainably, 100% of the time. Our economic structure and what we value in society simply isn’t set up for this. Even some environmental companies do plenty of awful things (cough Environmental Defence Fund cough).

Consider what you’re enabling and who you’re harming. Is the outcome of your work to increase alcohol sales which in turn is consumption? That’s hugely problematic. We are fully aware of the social issues this creates and the harm is significantly burdened by women (violence) and the health of all humans (and low to middle income tax payers who cover this). You have skills to offer – is this the best place? Perhaps your flex point could be working with a company like Toast Ale. It’s still alcohol, but it uses waste bread to brew. You could also turn to the non-alcoholic brands competing directly against alcohol like Seedlip. If you say no to the harmful business, see if you can then use your skills for the better ones and warm up your connections there. Try to avoid companies who negatively impact as part of their business model, but then allocate a percentage of profits for “doing good”. 

Write a list of industries and businesses you wouldn’t want to work with. Make a note of which ones are absolutely core (you’d figure anything else out instead of working with them). And now allow yourself some grace and flexibility for when you need to make the money come in to keep a roof over your head and food on the table. On the flip, write a list of who you would love to work with, or for, and get connecting!

6. Keep an open mind to change your mind

Some people believe companies can make a difference remaining on boards and industry bodies that do terrible things by wielding their power there. I don’t see this as much more than green PR spin at the moment but I could be persuaded if lots of good examples of this occurred.

Another example? In general I am a huge advocate of public, and fair, government run services for healthcare, education and transportation and would opt for this model constantly over private and in the inequities it causes. I often rail up against privatization of this and encounter the enormous consequences it creates. Except in the Netherlands we have universal healthcare of one of the highest qualities run entirely on a private model and it’s generally not expensive (something you realize living in other countries!). It’s just very different to what most people understand as private (most of the insurers and hospitals operate as not-for-profits, heavily government regulated, and a co-op model amongst other things). I’m still hugely for a public model but I’ve seen a successful private model that also works for human rights. Maybe it’s not what will work in the future and that’s ok too. It’s good to keep the solutions flexible if they align with good outcomes.

I know this is difficult and we don’t always mean to contribute to harm and yet we all do. Game designers, for example, are commercialized by marketers and founders. Their intent might be good but the end result is leading to addiction, damaging kids developmentally, loss of interpersonal skills, social isolation, and significant sexism. They arguably also create hugely irresponsible spending. Could those exceptional skills be used to deliver socially just education or games that focus on brain development or healthy relationships, or simply don’t have problematic issues instead?

This is easier in a number of industries. There are already plenty of alternative companies in the likes of design, marketing, technology, architecture, fashion, energy, food and transport (all of which currently influence our environment enormously) that are already working sustainably and constantly improving.

For me, the distinguishing factor on making these decisions is the business model. Is it core to the business to destroy the environment?

Tech products undoubtedly do and rely on the exploitation of labor and minerals but it isn’t core to the business. We could not do it that way. We could use lab products. We could be working heavily with universities and startups on the development of these. We could set up e-waste recycling thousands of times better than what we have and place the burden on privileged consumers and countries. We could pay people fairly and price product accordingly with smaller profit margins. We can move to a B-Corp structure to remove some of the stakeholder pressures. Ruining the earth isn’t the business model. That’s different to a company in mining where destroying the earth is indeed the business model; digging rocks out of the ground or drilling for oil is core to the entire operation. We could do things a bit better – some more restoration (or any at all in Australiawould be a good start), scaling back operations and finding alternative options for all the shipping and trucking emissions for example. Fast fashion relies on over consumption, new styles every week and convincing customers that need to feel a certain way in order to buy more and never repeat an outfit. That’s the business model. But not all of the clothing industry works that way; their are other business models. Two collections per year made sustainably in a capsule wardrobe style that work with loyal customers whilst providing repair services for example. Patagonia and the founder are leading a different way for this at a global scale.

I’ve recently also started working at an amazing innovation unit for a huge not-for-profit health care provider. Though the facilities operate secularly, the parent company is a church (same-sex couples and marriages are permitted; a non-negotiable). I share a lot of the problems many have with organized religion but that’s where I’ve decided my values can currently flex. I would never work directly for a church itself (they wouldn’t let me in!), and have spent a lot of time on the ground arguing against the inclusion of christian education at schools in Buddhist countries, but I can appreciate the legacy of this situation. My list of no-compromise industries is absolutely massive these days. What am I enabling at the end? Potentially better health care, happier patients, better protected nurses, accessibility for lower-economic families. And also significant environmental waste and he ongoing status of a broader religion that sends out missionaries to areas of the opposite faith causing communities – including ones I work in – major problems. We live in a world of wicked problems.

What are you enabling? Who are you doing harm? Whose suffering are you continuing? What are you leaving your kids and all the other children of the world?What do you stand for? What are you prepared to sacrifice so you don’t sacrifice your values?

These can be difficult decisions. We’re not the only ones responsible at all. We could (and should) simply mandate a whole lot of laws and regulations so much of this destruction can’t exist. We could do that equitably (a universal income, just transitions, a shift from late-stage capitalism, enforced environmental laws, and better education is a start). Our businesses wouldn’t be able to take on those clients because they would have closed, or be operating sustainably. Our employers would be genuinely much less harmful. We wouldn’t need to be in a continued rat race clambering on to each day. Like so many of our environmental issues, it needs to be a multi-pronged approach. This is one of those prongs.

We all need far less stuff than we think to live well and we can choose to not live excessively so that others live poorly. But we also need money for rent, transport and food. If it’s accessible to you, we can use our privilege to change, and use our hard earned skills as a force of good. And if you’ve done as much as possible in your context, and continue to uncomfortably push at the boundaries around you, don’t beat yourself up for the rest. This isn’t just on you or me and it can be exhausting. You’ve done what you can. We need systems change.

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