For some companies, there’s a clear path towards more sustainable processes and products, but for others, the call for sustainability poses more existential problems. That is, car makers can switch to electric vehicles and clothing companies can treat their workers better, but companies in sectors such as coal mining and the oil and gas sector don’t have such clear options. They find themselves in a tight spot; they cannot overhaul their core business, at least not fast enough, neither can they say this out loud without antagonizing society and losing their societal “license to operate”. A recent paper uses the case of Big Oil to shed light on the rhetorical strategies, or “myths” that such companies employ to avoid both taking meaningful action as well as facing societal backlash.
What does this mean?
The paper’s analysis shows that oil majors use three “myths” to avoid, divert and project blame with regard to sustainability. The first is the promise of “techno-fixes”; eventually new technology will enable society to fix the climate problem without making any significant sacrifices and without any immediate and drastic action by the oil company. The second is what the researchers call “promethean oil man”; oil majors present themselves as the noble upholders of modern civilizations and draw on ideographs such as progress and prosperity to construct a trade-off between welfare and sustainability and, as such, divert responsibility to society as a whole. The third is “climate partnership”; companies claim to be working together with other stakeholders, from NGOs to governments, in order to project (part of) the blame for inaction onto others (e.g. government failing to introduce meaningful regulation).
Looking ahead, the situation for these companies is unlikely to become any easier. As other companies continue to improve their practices, oil companies are likely to fall farther behind and receive even more blame. Moreover, even when they engage in sustainable (side)projects as Shell does (e.g. EV-charging or investments in offshore wind parks), they are still frowned upon and accused of merely greenwashing their unsustainable core business. Over time, they will have to develop a credible pathway towards a fully sustainable business model. As of yet, this would mostly appeal to societal stakeholders, but eventually that story will also have to convince shareholders to prevent more investors from dumping their stocks. Interestingly, Big Tech might find itself in a similar position in the future as and would be well advised to play close attention.