Sustainability and business: where does the media come in?

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Michael Mander

The Guardian has not reported on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development since 2014. The BBC quoted a Tweet from the WBCSD last year, but little more in the last 5 years. I couldn’t find a single mention of the WBCSD in any of The Independent’s online content. These are the three news sites I read the most. So – when the opportunity to attend the WBCSD Council Meeting came up, it’s little surprise that my first response was “the what?”.

In my mind; journalism is an industry that exists to fulfill two goals: holding power to account and promoting transparency. The WBCSD Council Meeting was power holding itself to account – CEOs of major companies coming together to talk about sustainability. The motivations differed but two things were the same: nobody was forcing companies to be at the conference, and through being at the conference companies were admitting that there was more to be done in terms of sustainability.

These two facts went against a belief-system that I held, and that I know many others hold: “Big business doesn’t care about the environment”. I still grapple with this question (do they care about the environment, or their image? Do they want to enhance their understanding of sustainability, or network with each other?).

Where does this belief that companies don’t care come from? Being so keen to enter the media industry, it’s hard for me to bash it too much, but there is a huge amount of truth in the fact that the media has an enormous tendency to report only bad news. That’s not because of some big conspiracy, it’s because we are psychologically drawn to bad news. Bad news sells better than good news. It’s easier to be critical, therefore, than praiseworthy in the media – because that is what people want to read / watch / listen to.

In the right-wing press, that negativity is directed towards scientists who research climate change, and politicians who work to reduce climate change. According to a Media Matters study, 69% of Fox News coverage denied the existence of climate change.

The left-wing press, on the other hand, directs negativity towards ‘big business’ and governments, suggesting they are not doing enough to be sustainable.

Headlines from The Independent and The Guardian:

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Compare that to the sort of headlines from The Financial Times:

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So, given that the left-wing press is so keen to blame companies for climate change, and play down any effort they make to be sustainable, it’s no wonder I hadn’t heard of the WBCSD. Companies are actually doing something. By indulging in the belief that they are not, and by allowing the left-wing press to convince me that business doesn’t care, I’m really just indulging in an excuse for me to neglect my own responsibility to climate change. It’s easy to say “why should I care when they don’t”. It’s hard to accept that they do.

But let’s not get carried away. The left-wing press does ignore the efforts being made by business to curtail climate change and achieve sustainability. But it’s easy to become disillusioned: the positivity at the WBCSD conference is disillusioning. So much positivity radiates it’s easy to forget that there is a long way to go: but stepping outside and seeing the reality of life in Chennai for many locals (the slums, the poor quality water and air) knocks this illusion.

The reality is that the media is encouraging us to be complacent. The left-wing papers make us feel dreary that the powerful don’t care about the environment and that there’s nothing an individual could possibly do. The right-wing papers brush off the issue of climate change, and assure us that the government and business have got it all under control. Fox News tells us not to worry at all, because it’s all a joke that 97% of scientists are in on.

But believing any of this is just an ‘easy out’. Maybe it’s true that businesses don’t care about anything but profits, or maybe it’s true that they’re doing everything they can: either way, we can’t neglect the responsibility that falls upon us as individuals to work towards sustainability. The small actions that, all too often, we neglect to do because “someone else will handle it”, or “nobody else is, why should I?”. The media must be taken with a pinch of salt – the papers will write what you want to hear, nothing more. If my time with the WBCSD has taught me one thing, it’s that “saving the planet” (as Peter Bakker says) is a job for all of us.

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