It seemed like an easy ask.
Jamie Alexander wanted Google to sign onto an ad in The New York Times earlier this year, calling on the federal government to “ACT NOW” on the climate crisis.
After all, Google was an original partner of Alexander’s group, Drawdown Labs. It’s part of a larger movement to harness the power and influence of corporations that have positioned themselves as leaders on climate change. The idea: Companies must go beyond reducing their own carbon footprint and go all-in on solutions to the climate crisis.
Indeed, when the group launched in 2020, a mix of small and large companies enthusiastically jumped in. Google’s chief sustainability officer, Kate Brandt, said: “We’re proud to support Drawdown Labs and to join this coalition of companies. Together, we can work toward a more sustainable future for everyone.”
So in January, after Alexander got word that Congress needed some cajoling to pick its climate agenda back up, she shot off an email to Google asking it to simply add its logo to a plea for Congress to do something – really, anything – on the climate crisis. Google’s response: No.
The ad ran in February with 25 corporate logos. But the group’s big-name partners – Google, Netflix, General Mills and LinkedIn – all were conspicuously absent. Faced with their reluctance, Alexander reached out to others, including Salesforce, eBay and Lyft, which did sign on even though they weren’t part of the coalition.
The refusals proved to be a turning point for Alexander. She’s now speaking out and reevaluating the premise her group set out to test: that some of the largest companies will go above and beyond to combat climate change. If companies that tout themselves as climate leaders won’t endorse a generic call to action, what are they willing to do?
“It was very surprising,” Alexander told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in an interview. “The large corporations in our own coalition failed my own barometer for climate leadership. Which is a hard pill to swallow. It’s definitely something that I lose sleep over.”
It wasn’t as if an ad in The New York Times was the be-all and end-all of climate advocacy. In fact, without any mention of specific legislation or policy in it, the ad seemed like a fairly minimal, noncontroversial step – a “no-brainer,” Alexander said.
As brand-name companies try to outdo one another in proclaiming themselves Earth’s best friend forever, the ad’s backstory illuminates the clear limits of relying on corporations to take the lead in averting the ravages of global warming. And it offers a rare moment of transparency in an ecosystem of advocacy organizations that are often too scared to talk openly about corporate partners for fear of pushing them away.
“It’s all a pretty damning critique of these companies’ climate commitments,” she said.
While more companies promise to zero out carbon emissions by some target far in the future, climate advocates worry those commitments are inadequate at best and take the steam out of transformational change at the government level by creating the illusion that it isn’t necessary. Last month, Reveal reported that Amazon – which has made a major public relations campaign out of its climate efforts – drastically undercounts its carbon footprint, watering down its climate pledges.
Alexander is the latest leader in the corporate sustainability world to become disillusioned by the lack of progress behind the promises. She designed Drawdown Labs as something of an experiment to see how companies large and small could set a new bar for climate leadership. It is part of the nonprofit organization Project Drawdown, and many of the corporate partners contribute money and collaborate on projects, such as creating resources for individuals, employees and small businesses to take climate action. Among other projects, the group organized a sign-on letter to support climate legislation last fall – also missing the corporate logos of Drawdown’s biggest partners.
The ad in The New York Times aimed to nudge Congress to reach into the wreckage of President Joe Biden’s collapsing Build Back Better legislation and salvage the climate parts of the bill. Those provisions were huge: $555 billion in funding, providing financial incentives to individuals and businesses to boost electric vehicles, wind and solar power, and other low-carbon fuels. Environmentalists say it’s a make-or-break opportunity to drive down emissions before the point at which scientists agree climate catastrophe will set in.
Fierce opposition from business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped doom the Build Back Better legislation. Showing businesses’ support for the climate provisions is key to building momentum in Congress, said Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, an advocacy group that works with Drawdown Labs. The ad, he said, “certainly got attention.”
Around the same time as the ad, a slate of major corporations joined a letter praising the climate provisions of Build Back Better and urging congressional leadership to “overcome the present impasse and see these historic climate and clean energy investments are realized.”
Even oil companies Shell and BP America endorsed that one. It was organized by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, which asked members of its Business Environmental Leadership Council to sign on. Among the member companies that didn’t sign: Google.
Reveal’s Will Evans is covering corporate accountability and climate change. If you have information to share with him on this topic, like documents, data or tips, you can contact him securely through Signal at 510-255-0865.
The Drawdown ad didn’t even mention Build Back Better or any part of it. To make it more palatable, Alexander assured the companies she asked to sign on that it wouldn’t mention any specific legislation. It would merely show that the business community backed some kind of federal action and investment on climate issues. She didn’t ask them to help pay for it either.
Brandt, the Google leader who hailed Drawdown Labs originally, referred questions to a company spokesperson, Mara Harris, who declined to directly answer them. “Sustainability has been a core value for us since Google was founded over 23 years ago,” Harris said, and pointed to Google’s sustainability webpage.
Netflix spokesperson Bao-Viet Nguyen said, “We support Drawdown and their efforts,” but didn’t explain the company’s position on the ad.
General Mills spokesperson Jessica Stevens pointed to the company’s emissions reductions goals and said: “While we cannot possibly sign on to the thousands of requests we receive annually, our dedication to driving urgent climate action is clear.”
LinkedIn didn’t answer repeated inquiries.
The responses to Alexander’s plea showed how cautious businesses can be even on an issue they supposedly support. Some wanted to know who else had signed on before they would – a “game of chicken that’s often played,” Alexander said. Some of the corporate sustainability leaders she contacted made it clear that it wasn’t their call – that public policy officials at their companies would have to sign off and didn’t. Some declined by saying they were involved in hidden behind-the-scenes efforts.
Google and Netflix already had expressed support in subtler ways. Last fall, toward the bottom of a company blog post, Brandt wrote that Google supports the climate parts of Biden’s signature bill. Netflix wrote a supportive LinkedIn post last year.
But Alexander says companies know that not many people will see those things. “That’s just the bare minimum of what they could do if they really were committing to getting this thing passed,” she said. She had pitched companies on several other ways to use their influence – writing op-eds, meeting with legislators – and come up empty.
LinkedIn’s parent company, Microsoft, sent its president to a White House meeting in support of Biden’s bill, including its climate provisions, in January. It’s unclear why LinkedIn decided not to join the ad.
Alexander says she doesn’t blame the sustainability professionals working inside these companies. They may be spending their political capital to push their employers in other ways, and maybe this ad just didn’t make the priority list at the moment, she said.
Bill Weihl knows these calculations well. As a former “green energy czar” at Google and director of sustainability at Facebook, he said requests to take a stand were routinely shot down, often by the public policy team. “I saw that time and again,” he said. “Some executive saying why it’s not our job to take sides on something like this. It’s not our job to save the world.”
Companies don’t see much benefit to sticking out their necks, Weihl said, and worry about antagonizing lawmakers and their own trade associations, which might be helpful on other issues more core to their businesses. And they assume nobody will call them out when they say no.
Still, Weihl said, it seemed odd and disappointing that Google and others wouldn’t join a relatively tame statement from one of their own partners. A single ad or letter doesn’t even matter much, Weihl said. He wants to see serious lobbying muscle dedicated to the fight.
Weihl left Big Tech’s corporate sustainability teams and became a thorn in their side as the founder of ClimateVoice, which pressures companies to do more on climate advocacy – and gives them lousy scores for failing to do so. He said that in the grand battle over climate legislation, fossil fuel interests and their allies are aggressive – playing what he called “three-dimensional chess with tanks.” On the other side, he said the self-proclaimed pro-climate companies are playing “two-dimensional checkers with paper airplanes.”
As the head of the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group, told CNN last fall, “We’re leaving everything on the field here in terms of our opposition to anti-energy provisions.”
What aggravates Alexander is that federal investment in clean energy would help these same companies hit their own public climate commitments. A cleaner electrical grid, for example, would drive down emissions for all the companies that rely on the grid. So why wouldn’t firms that promise to slash emissions do everything they can to get there?
“That’s the part that makes me question the whole authenticity of these long-term, nonbinding climate commitments,” Alexander said.
Of course, 25 companies did come through for the ad, including a bunch of smaller ones like wool shoemaker Allbirds, scooter-sharing firm Lime and eco-retailer Grove Collaborative.
The experience has made Alexander rethink her experiment and ponder the way forward. “Should we be making a different bet about the companies that are going to be leading us to the future we need?” she wonders. She doesn’t claim to have the answer.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick. Feature photo courtesy Jamie Alexander.