Corporate pledges and promises related to climate change aren’t cutting it

Activists say these efforts often don’t drive the meaningful, immediate impact that’s needed.
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Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

Reduce, reuse, re-pledge? When it comes to addressing climate change, company statements and promises may not be cutting it, especially if they are not aligning with business practices.

In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put out a report showing that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, greenhouse-gas emissions will have to peak by 2025. Since then, people have called for corporate action before Earth becomes “unlivable.”

Companies like Visa, Apple, and BP have all pledged to go net-zero in the next 10–30 years, but critics have pointed out that there are no set standards for net-zero and carbon-neutral emissions. And carbon offsets can be seen as a cop-out on actually reducing emissions.

Climate activists and experts say corporate efforts frequently don’t drive meaningful, immediate change or impact—and we’re running out of time.

What’s behind door campaign no. 1?

Coca-Cola has pledged to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 25% between 2015 and 2030, but Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, a project fighting against plastic pollution, told Marketing Brew that the problem is that pledges like these are often set internally with no external accountability.

She pointed to a study Beyond Plastics conducted where it looked at plastic producers’ promises to use recycled materials versus their actual usage, showing many—including Coca-Cola, which has pledged to use “at least 50% recycled material” in its packaging by 2030—may still have a lot of work to do.

a graph from Beyond Plastics

Beyond Plastics

Enck also noted that Coca-Cola was ranked the world’s top plastic polluter in 2021 for the fourth year in a row by the NGO Break Free from Plastic. On its website, Coca-Cola states that 61% of the bottles and cans it introduced “in 2021 were collected and refilled or collected for recycling.”

In April, Coca-Cola released an ad featuring an animatronic Bill Nye about “creating a world without waste” using recycled plastic. Beyond Plastics made its own video “in response,” accusing Coca-Cola of “greenwashing,” calling out the fact that most plastic ends up in landfills.

While Coke’s ad is “effective in explaining the recycling process,” Enck said she believes it’s “deceptive” in the way it frames the company’s role in addressing the climate crisis.

“We understand there is a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about the recycling process, our part in it and recycling infrastructure in the US, and if people don’t understand how or if something works, they are less inclined to commit to action,” Coca-Cola said in an email to Marketing Brew. “Through this short film and our partnership with Bill Nye, we wanted to make this process more digestible for consumers so they understand the science behind the process and can hopefully feel inspired to take action with us, as we have a major part to play, too.”

And it’s not just Coke that’s hyping ways it claims it is leaning into climate-action pledges. This year, Amazon decided to celebrate “Earth Month” by donating $1 million to One Tree Planted and asking Alexa users to use voice commands to donate to the cause.

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Duncan Meisel, campaign director of Clean Creatives, is wary of these campaigns. He told us that tree-planting is “an extremely short-term carbon capture and often involves land grabs that are not great for human rights.” He predicts that “we’re going to see growing consumer skepticism of tree-planting because it’s become so prevalent in these greenwashing approaches.”

In 2020, Amazon reported that it emitted 60.64 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and was recently found to have been drastically undercounting those numbers, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s publication Reveal. Last year, a ClimateVoice report found Amazon received a “cautious” grade on supporting federal climate action via the Build Back Better Act, while Coca-Cola was among companies “obstructing” the act’s passage.

Let’s get political

On the flip side, some companies are using their marketing to call for federal climate action.  Recently Just Egg, a vegan egg-alternative company, parked food trucks around DC to distribute free sandwiches with the message that its products do more to address climate change than politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), or Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK). The company also made it possible to contact local representatives and urge them to pass climate legislation on its website.

Tom Rossmeissl, head of global marketing at Eat Just, the parent company of Just Egg, said the company “thought about who we are as a brand and what this moment required, and the truth is—and it’s right in the IPCC report—the truth is lifestyle changes aren’t going to be enough,” he said.

Neeru Paharia, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University, said consumers are “looking to brands to help them enact their political will in the marketplace.” The simple reason? “You can’t really do much [as] a consumer or a citizen; anything you do is going to have minimal impact. So the change has to happen from either a government or a company.”

Patagonia, which has been widely outspoken on the climate crisis and has pushed for government action, also addressed its own role in the crisis. “Purchasing offsets to get to carbon neutral doesn’t erase the footprint we create and won’t save us in the long run,” its website states.

The company has addressed its role in consumerism as a key issue in driving the climate crisis, as seen in the “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign. “I feel like the whole idea of sacrifice is really what makes some of the messages come across as more authentic,” Paharia said. “[It’s] like you’re actually committing some resources or or forgoing something—I think that makes a big difference.”

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