NEW YORK ― The message that environmental activists sought to send to 400 multinational corporations on Monday night was clear from a few words scribbled onto one small cardboard sign. “Give a shit,” it screamed, begging more from a business world that has repeatedly made, but so far hasn’t kept, commitments to reduce the amount of deforestation and environmental destruction their products and practices cause.
The protest outside a meeting of the Consumer Goods Forum, a trade group made up of many of the world’s best-known companies, was small ― at its peak, about 30 people gathered on the corner. But it was also surprisingly effective. Just before the event began, representatives from the forum opened the door and asked Etelle Higonnet, a senior campaign director for the environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth, to join them inside.
“They invited us in to present what exactly civil society is asking for,” Lucia von Reusner, a Mighty Earth campaign director who helped organize the protest, told HuffPost outside the event. “It seemed like they really wanted to be pushed and wanted the message to come from the public.”
Corporate America didn’t have to strain to hear that message this week during the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly, where climate change was the primary focus for more than 200 world leaders in attendance. Mighty Earth’s protest was one of dozens of demonstrations held across New York City, as environmental activists took aim at Big Oil, Big Agriculture, Wall Street financial firms and anyone else who continues to profit from environmentally destructive practices.
Around the world, demonstrations have continued since last Friday’s international climate strike, as this year’s record outbreak of fires in the Amazon rainforest and increasingly dire reports from the United Nations have heightened concerns about a looming climate crisis.
Seeking environmental change from profit-motivated corporations may seem futile. But in a world where powerful political leaders like U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refuse to act ― and both made it clear again this week that they won’t ― Big Business has an even more important role to play in the effort to thwart that crisis.
There’s no doubt corporations have the power. The Consumer Goods Forum alone comprises companies with more than $2.5 trillion in combined sales; together, they form an economy roughly the size of Brazil’s.
And publicly, at least, many of the world’s largest corporations have promised to use that power to put an end to the unsustainable clearing of forests. Five years ago, in New York, hundreds of companies and large financial institutions pledged to eliminate deforestation from their global supply chains by 2020.
Their “give-a-shit,” though, is less evident. As the 2020 deadline approaches, none of the corporations that signed the New York Declaration on Forests are on track to meet the goals it laid out, according to organizations that chart their efforts. Companies continue plowing through forests and other environmentally sensitive areas to satisfy the global craving for red meat and products that rely on soy, palm oil and timber.
That’s not all the fault of corporate greed and malfeasance, researchers and activists say. Supply chains are long and complex, making it hard to suss out indirect suppliers in the Amazon and elsewhere that are culpable far down the line. Lax government enforcement of environmental laws and a lack of transparency complicates matters further, even for companies that want to do good and think that they are.
Members of the Consumer Goods Forum “are doing their part to build a forest positive future, but we know now that the issues are far more complex than originally thought,” said Ignacio Gavilan, the forum’s environmental sustainability director. “While our members have made progress on our 2020 goals, we have learned that cleaning up individual supply chains won’t alone drive the transformation needed to end deforestation and so we are transforming how we do business, and we expect and want suppliers to do the same.”
But there are bad actors, too, activists say. The Mighty Earth protesters specifically targeted Cargill, the mega-supplier of food products, which the nonprofit has named the “worst company in the world” when it comes to deforestation and environmental destruction. In early September, Cargill released a statement that said the company “is committed to protecting the Amazon” and that “illegal deforestation and deliberate setting of fires in the Amazon is unacceptable.” Cargill said it will “continue to partner with local communities, farmers, governments, NGOs and our customers to advocate for approaches to preserve this important ecosystem” and that it does not source products “from newly deforested areas.”
“A commitment to oppose illegal deforestation is nothing more than a pledge to obey the law ― this is the bare minimum, not something to celebrate,” Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz said in response.
The Money Behind Deforestation
On Tuesday morning, activists from Amazon Watch rallied outside BlackRock, a large investment firm that the environmental group has linked to deforestation through many of the companies it funds. The activists, with the support of indigenous Brazilians who live in the Amazon, delivered a petition signed by more than 260,000 people calling on the asset manager to divest from Brazilian and U.S. companies tied to environmental destruction.
BlackRock did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the protest or petition. A spokesperson for BlackRock previously told HuffPost that it encourages companies “to adopt the robust business practices consistent with sustainable long-term performance” and that when it has concerns, it’s “ready to vote against proposals from management or the board.”
Amid chants asking BlackRock how much it earned “while the Amazon burns,” at least a couple of people leaving the company’s building waved dismissively at the protesters.
BlackRock isn’t the only firm effectively putting up the money for deforestation. The world’s largest financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, “provided tens of billions of dollars in financing between 2013 and 2019 to companies either directly or indirectly deforesting the largest rainforests in the world,” according to a report released by Global Witness, a London-based nonprofit, on Monday.
The report linked the banks to some of the worst environmental offenders in Brazil and beyond: Goldman, according to Global Witness, holds more than $4.5 million in shares of JBS, a Brazilian beef company that has been fined for buying cattle raised on protected lands and was implicated in similar practices earlier this year. In 2014, Barclays financed a $2.2 billion loan for Olam, a company the report said has been linked to more than 20,000 hectares of deforestation in Gabon. JPMorgan underwrote $150 million in bonds for Olam, too.
A JPMorgan spokesperson told HuffPost that the company works “to advance environmental sustainability within our business activities and facilities” and believes that “balancing environmental and social issues with financial considerations is fundamental to sound risk management.” A Barclays spokesperson told Global Witness that it has “stringent environmental and social impact assessment policies.” The company declined to comment further.
Well-intentioned or not, the basic problem is the same, von Reusner and Mighty Earth argued: Individual companies aren’t trying hard enough, even though there are clear steps they could take.
“You need to immediately suspend contracts” with suppliers that deforest, von Reusner said her colleague Higonnet told the business leaders inside the forum meeting. “You need to require every single one of your suppliers to adopt satellite monitoring systems for the entire industry, coupled with full supply chain transparency. And you need to speak up and support government policy that would make it illegal to deforest across the board.”
“If you’re really serious about ending deforestation, you need to look beyond your tiny little sliver and drive accountability across the whole industry,” von Reusner said.
Change Today, Not Tomorrow
That sort of pressure didn’t come only from protests during what the U.N. has branded “Climate Week.”
Sunday brought the launch of Possible Amazon, a coalition of environmental organizations, researchers and business leaders that hopes to “raise the ambition of the private sector” when it comes to stopping deforestation. Possible Amazon wants to secure corporate commitments against illegal logging and on other environmentally focused policies by the start of next year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Chile, said Renata Piazzon, the executive manager of climate change initiatives at São Paulo’s Arapyau Institute, which helped launch the project.
“We started as a Brazilian movement and with Brazilian companies, but we need both Brazilian and foreign companies that operate in Brazil for that to work,” Piazzon said. “We need clear commitments, not for 2030 but for much sooner than that.”
“There is no such thing as part-time good guys. Corporations need to step up.”
This week, 80 large companies signed on to the U.N.’s Climate Pact, which commits them to reduce carbon emissions within the next decade. Over the weekend in New York, representatives from Brazil’s agribusiness sector spoke about the importance of limiting Amazon destruction and said the industry was committed to protecting the forest. On Monday, a coalition of international businesses launched a new effort to promote biodiversity and limit deforestation, with the hope of going further than the New York pledge that companies so far haven’t kept.
This latest agreement could help companies that want to limit their environmental impact by filling information gaps in the supply chain, said Eric Soubeiran, the nature director at Danone, a French food producer that signed onto the new pact.
“If you’re a European farmer and you want to buy soy, you have no way to know the conditions at which the soy has been produced,” Soubeiran said. “I think in 2019, that needs to change. And we have the technology to make it happen.”
The business world might not have a choice. The outbreak of fires in the Amazon and the international outrage aimed at Bolsonaro has threatened foreign investments whose loss could hurt Brazilian businesses and the Brazilian economy, leaders of the country’s agribusiness industry said Saturday morning during an event focused on the Amazon crisis. And consumers are increasingly demanding cleaner products free of links to environmental degradation.
“Younger generations have challenged us all over the world,” Soubeiran said. “They want to know. They want to be empowered.”
The sense of urgency, to say nothing of the intensity of direct challenges to corporations and their executives, will likely only intensify if they keep failing to live up to the promises they’ve made.
“The reason people are protesting around the world is that they’re sick of their leaders making high-level promises and not delivering with clear action,” von Reusner said. “There is no such thing as part-time good guys. Corporations need to step up.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that von Reusner was not the representative from Mighty Earth invited into the Consumer Goods Forum meeting.