“If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, quit; and if you don’t want to quit, change.”

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.

Taken from PMI’s Sustainability Report 2017

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.

Taken from PMI’s Sustainability Report 2017

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.”

Taken from PMI’s Sustainability Report 2017

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.

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6 thoughts on ““If you don’t smoke, don’t start; if you do smoke, quit; and if you don’t want to quit, change.”

  1. Hi! Juanita, very cool that you were able to attend such an event. I am looking at the graphs and see that they want to reduce 70% of their CO2 emissions by 2020. However, they only reduced around 38% percent by 2017. We are currently closer to 2020 than 2017 and I was wondering if they mentioned during the conference whether they are going to meet their goal next year. Did they give any insights on how exactly they want to reduce (or reduced) their CO2 emissions?

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  2. Hi Juanita, I really enjoyed reading your blog post, it is interesting to hear a story based on your personal experiences. It got me thinking though, about whether large corporations such as PMI engage in such ‘green’ programmes out of moral convictions or because they believe there is a ‘business case’ to be made for the adoption of environmentally friendly practices. I reckon that it could often be the case that such changes in a company’s business model (e.g. from tobacco to smoke-free products) could also be a logical response to a change in the business environment. Perhaps, due to changes in consumer demands or cultural changes, demand for smoke products was already declining, so it might be the case that tobacco companies were already increasing the share of non-smoke products in their product range, which they could then use to improve their corporate reputation by claiming it was decided out of environmental concerns. I was, therefore, wondering if you might now when the change towards smoke-free products coincided with an adverse public opinion towards regular smoke products or with a more general trend in the tobacco industry towards smoke-free products?

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  3. Hi Juanita, this article was quite interesting to read and provided many new insights into the tabacco industry. However, I would be a bit more reluctant of accepting the sustainable and health friendly image that PMI is drawing. The whole concept of greenwashing works on the basis of providing only one storyline. And of course the storyline that they choose to paint sounds good. However, it is important to get outside assessments of the situation and investigate the subjects that they are trying to hide from their story.
    Eventhough it is difficult to find critical research on such topics I would like to add two subjects to the story of PMI to add a more critical twist to the plot.

    First of all, in the past PMI has denied the scientifically proven fact that smoking is bad for human health. While I believe that companies can change I think it is important to know about the questionable past of PMI when talking about them in a current context.

    Second, PMI conducts animal testing to develop more apealling products. They use animal testing for both the development of ‘smoke-free’ products AND conventional cigarettes (https://www.pmi.com/resources/docs/default-source/our_company/product-assessment_v2.pdf?sfvrsn=164e8bb5_2).
    Of course they have the legal right to do so but many other cigarette companies have stopped doing animal tests due to the unnecessery harm inflicted on animals (https://lushprize.org/cigarette-manufacturer-bans-animal-tests/).

    This is just my opinion, but I think PMI should not conduct animal tests to improve products that kill people, if they want to be ‘sustainable’

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  4. Dear Juanita, thank you for an interesting read! I enjoyed reading about your experiences. One takeaway I always have when reading about companies that greenwash is the issue of accountability. As you mention in your blog, we need large, wealthy companies to be on board to impact change before it is too late. In which case, I think that their ambitions can be positive; however, it is still necessary to hold them accountable and ensure that they reach the targets they promised to reach. I think that’s how we turn greenwashing into simply ecologically friendly practices. Perhaps we as individuals can do less of the same work that can be done by large companies; but we do have the power to question, criticise, and ensure that these companies do as they claim. Let me know what you think!

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  5. Interesting blogpost!
    Very interesting to read about a company such as PMI’s claims to want to reduce their environmental impact.
    Although reading about this did raise a lot of questions for me: for example in the Carbon Disclosure Projects companies share their data on environmental performance with the initiative. Thus this would allow a company to choose how they measure this and what results exactly they disclose. Thus I am wondering what an independent assessment of PMI’s carbon footprint would conclude.
    I was also wondering what exactly is taken into account into the emissions reduction targets. Specifically, since it reads scope 1 and 2 above the graph, however it is not explained what is meant by these scopes. Are these parts of the companies? If some processes/products are either included or excluded this could have a large influence on the GHG emissions.

    Apart from these questions, upon googling this issue I also came across an article talking about that while the company promotes quitting with smoking, at the same time it runs numerous campaigns to promote smoking by for example sponsoring cultural events and introduces new flavored cigarettes to appeal to young people. Thus while the company might say it stands for a ‘smoke-free future’ it still actively promotes smoking at the same time.

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  6. @mariacatharine
    Totally expected. They seem to be just trying to appeal to both sides as hard as they can. As much as I’d like to think that people are driven by ethical decisions, it is rarely the case for large companies. It is cool though that with the ongoing shift in public discourse it is convenient to portray yourself as sustainable. The moment being sustainable/moral is financially beneficial, the status quo changes. It just sucks that many of the most influential companies do make money off of polluting the Earth. That one is going to be tough to turn around.

    Thanks for the post! I hope that the numbers they are presenting are real. In any case, props to PMI for taking (or at least signalling that they are taking) steps the right way. What are the smoke-free products they are pushing? Is it vapes?

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