I was recently in Paris for the first European edition of the Sustainable Brands (SB) global convention. SB began in 2006, with the goal “to inspire, engage, and equip business leaders and practitioners who see social and environmental challenges as an essential driver of brand innovation, value creation, and positive impact.” The SB community carries some heavy-weight corporate members, such as National Geographic, Procter & Gamble, Pepsico, Danone, LG, and many others. The price tag to join the convention as a company is hefty, and to join as an individual not only do you have to pay but also apply to be invited. Interestingly enough, they had invited “youth hacktivators” from schools, but which schools or what level of education these youth members had was not disclosed. Anyone with a healthy dose of skepticism and decently versed in sustainability jargon would hear the word ‘greenwashing’ echoing in their ears.
Given the nature of the companies that had been announced on the SB Paris ’19 program, I did not expect to be surprised by any other big-name companies who showed up; and yet, I was. The Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) for Philip Morris International (PMI), Huub Savelkouls, made an appearance and answered some very interesting questions. A tobacco company at a sustainability convention set off every greenwashing alarm in me, so I paid very close attention to what he had to say.
The interview opened with the slogan “If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, quit; and if you don’t want to quit, change.” This was a quote from PMI, not from SB Paris. How can a tobacco company promote quitting smoking when their revenues depend on it, and most importantly how can they have any claim to sustainability when their very product is damaging to the environment and to society? The answer to both these questions seems to lie in smoke-free, tobacco-replacing products. Savelkouls explained, “In 2017, smoke-free products already represented over 4% of our shipment volume and around 13% of our net revenues, excluding excise taxes, in just three years since commercialization. […] In 2017, 39% of our global commercial expenditure and 74% of our global R&D expenditure were spent on smoke-free products.” This comes after just three years since the commercialization of these products. The change has been big and fast, by any standard.
Still, if PMI genuinely cares about the sustainability and environmental issues, why is it still marketing and selling cigarettes? Savelkouls retorted with a very business-logical argument. If PMI were to stop selling cigarettes today, they would leave about 15% of the cigarette market without supply and other tobacco brands would most definitely step in to meet the demand. Nothing untrue about that statement. Nevertheless, smoking is not only a western-world problem, it is also a developing world problem; are smoke-free products available there and are they affordable? According to PMI, they’re working on that issue. “We are committed to doing our part to develop a range of products and business models that make scientifically substantiated smoke-free products an acceptable, affordable and accessible alternative to cigarettes for adult consumers at all income levels in all countries, regardless of development status, […]”
And while on the topic of low to medium income levels in the developing world, what about the tobacco farmers who work with PMI? They’ve thought of that too. They claim to be working closely with their farmers to help them diversify out of tobacco farming while improving local food security.
Even when asked about the sense of urgency and swiftness all environmental and sustainability progress should be made with, PMI was not short on words. They pointed to Japan, a country where the launch of smoke-free tobacco alternatives has occurred less than four years ago, and yet, half of the sales already come from smoke-free products. A tobacco free world does not have to be far off into the future, according to this.
I walked away from the interview intrigued, but not convinced. Although I certainly felt a lot of admiration for Savelkouls, the audience had been incredulous at best.
At home, on the PMI website, a lot more concrete information pertaining to their environmental footprint, approach to climate change, and general sustainability goals can be found. Not to mention yearly reports on their progress. In one of their reports, they mention their Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) recognition: “Out of over a thousand of the world’s largest companies assessed by CDP last year, PMI’s operational carbon footprint is nearly 90% lower than the average, and PMI is one of only 25 companies recognized in CDP’s 2017 ‘Climate A List,’ for consistently taking comprehensive action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigate climate change, and for the transparency of our disclosures.”
I would be lying if I said that I have conducted thorough research on whether or not PMI is guilty of greenwashing or not. The simple answer is that I do not know. Nonetheless, they have surprised me and most importantly they have giving me a small hope. Many times, throughout my (our) studies and lives, it can feel as if this great change that is yet to happen in order to do just enough for climate change to be manageable cannot come simply from us, little people, and must also come from the big corporations who dictate so much more than just us. It is encouraging and relieving to see a most unlikely ally seemingly joining the ranks to tackle this wicked problem, climate change, alongside us.