Nothing to hide here. Why we work on difficult sectors
Sustainability net zero transition | 24/10/2023

Nothing to hide here. Why we work on difficult sectors

Brendan May

In this age of (rightful) sustainability scrutiny of all corporate sectors, including consultancy, it occasionally crosses my mind that our firm, which married Robertsbridge with Stonehaven, might one day find itself on the end of one of those ‘gotcha’ moments in which advisory firms are challenged, in public, on the client work they do. Despite our long history of fruitful collaboration with campaigners across countless NGOs, no one is immune from challenge, and nor should they be.

The most obvious (and necessary) of these ‘stings’ has been the now frequent calling out of PR and advertising firms for blatant greenwashing. I have often participated in this sport with unbridled glee – both on my own social media channels and even in a more concerted effort as an occasional contributor to various publications. Slamming greenwash (when it really is that) is legitimate, it is necessary, and it is fun. One could even make a career of it, and some people are. No one is a bigger enemy of PR front groups, eco marketing guff, of information designed to mislead, confuse or question scientific consensus than me. In my brief few years at a very large communications agency, I also performed the role of professional irritant from inside the firm, as many of my former colleagues will testify.

When Christopher Broadbent and I set up Robertsbridge at least half of our motivation was to be entirely different from this nonsense. To, as one client puts it, ‘speak the truth to power’. The PR industry, we contended, operated mainly on the basis of ‘the answer’s yes, what’s the question?’ in dealing with client requirements. Our approach was to challenge the question or tell the client that PR and marketing would often achieve the precise opposite to the desired effect. We found this message resonated with many battle-weary clients, and our business quickly established itself as a no-nonsense consulting shop, which prided itself on its good standing in the NGO community, its straight advice to corporate laggards, and its determination to change businesses from the inside. It has mostly worked, and our philosophy has not changed one iota. Stonehaven, with whom we joined forces 3 years ago, has always operated along these same principles, and it was one of many factors that led us to bind our firms together as one. We all believe that without taking on challenging work, rooted in pragmatism, commercial and political reality, we are unlikely to succeed in the mission to achieve Net Zero. 

The principle of environmentalists working with large companies is far from new. As far back as the 1980s, green activists of significant repute recognised that without working with businesses, the prospects for action on climate and biodiversity were bleak. Many of the world’s most successful corporate turnarounds on sustainability were driven by people who crossed from the game keeping to the poaching side, and used their knowledge, contacts and skills to great effect. They took great risks with their reputations, and were brave to do so. Today you will find some of the world’s most famous environmentalists working behind the scenes, or even more publicly, for big brands and businesses across the world. They are not ‘selling out’ – their input is a necessity of responsible global commerce. To call them all out as green washers is frankly rather lazy and name-calling.

I am against corporations who twist, deceive, and lie to their customers, employees, investors and stakeholders. But I am not against particular sectors, simply because they have an eye-watering environmental footprint. I am proud of the work we have done in aviation, and on nature-based solutions for hard-to-abate sectors. I cherish our work across South East Asia on deforestation, which has involved working with companies who were once seen as toxic, and are now celebrated as leaders. I relish the challenges and opportunities of working with huge conglomerates who have vast planetary footprints, but an equally voracious appetite to drive the changes needed to meet Net Zero and avert the extinction of much of the world’s most important habitat. Countries like Indonesia have huge mountains to climb as they transition away from coal to renewables. Years of hard work lie ahead in the extractive industries to accelerate their decarbonisation pathways. The notion that environmentalists should be too pure to help them strikes me as both pompous and self-defeating. If you cannot cope with fossil fuel firms, you cannot work in Indonesia. If you cannot work in Indonesia, you cannot achieve Net Zero. This sounds blunt, but it is also true.

Should we refuse to work with a company because it still relies on fossil fuels today? Should we decline the opportunity to build the policy, political and investment pathways that will allow such a firm to drive the attitudinal, commercial and environmental opportunities that are essential if the world is to meet its obligations to stabilise the climate? If we do, to whom will such a company turn? And what will the integrity of quality of the advice be? We did not build our business simply to advise organic make up brands or fairtrade tote bag firms, lovely though they are. They do not need any help from us.

For this reason, I am happy we now explicitly state, as corporate policy, our approach to these issues. You can read that policy here. I don’t want to be the firm that takes the call from a Sunday paper on Saturday afternoon and spends the weekend hastily cobbling together a weak, defensive, nervous or partial statement. I want to be the firm that is frank and open about why it does what it does, the terms on which is agrees or refuses work (we turn down plenty, trust me), and to be where the action will be required if any of the lofty ambitions made by governments have a hope in hell of being achieved. As we say in our statement: Where there is debate and controversy is likely where you will find our firm – we believe we operate best in these complex policy landscapes. We are not a PR firm, have never wanted to be one, and never will be. We do strategy, and we help clients engage with audiences without whom they cannot prosper in the long run. We do so unapologetically.

Perhaps one day that fishing phone call will come - I have no idea. Maybe someone somewhere is currently rubbing their hands, hoping to put our firm on a list or league table of consultancy greenwashers for that brief ‘gotcha’ moment. In some ways, I would relish the opportunity to have the debate. It is my fervent belief that if we do not insert ourselves squarely at the table of huge corporations who have it in their power to make or break life on earth as we know it, we are failing, whatever pat on the back we might get from some well-meaning but ultimately naïve campaigners. It might be a discussion we actually need to have. We certainly won't be hiding behind bland statements or trying to run away.

No one can pretend there aren’t huge challenges ahead in turning the oil tankers, quite literally, away from their present course. I sleep better trying to do that, than in the easier life we could all choose. In 25 years of work, I have been fortunate to find myself on the front line of many divisive, contentious, and difficult sustainability challenges. I have yet to fall out with a single friend in the environmental community, because they know, as do I, that I will never sugar coat a client’s achievements or embellish reality. We are direct with our clients, and they have always seemed to welcome this candour. Many of us hold our hearts in the activist community but our heads in the business world. It can sometimes be uncomfortable, to be honest, but that does not make it wrong. This is how we built our firms at both Stonehaven and Robertsbridge, and why we have now codified our approach at group level for all to see. We will not agree with our friends in the campaigning world on everything, but our common enemy is always the same: those who deny the climate crisis and would rather our industry did not exist at all. What matters most is that those willing to risk scrutiny and attack are able to defend what they do. In all these challenges, that is, fortunately, the thing with which I struggle least of all.


Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

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