Kirstin Hunter: Is fossil fuel production the new tobacco industry?

Fossil fuels and tobacco have more in common than you'd think, argues WorkforClimate Ambassador Kirstin Hunter.

Kirstin Hunter
September 16, 2022
3 mins
A cigarette slowly going out.

As a leader in business and sustainability, WorkforClimate Ambassador Kirstin Hunter ponders if fossil fuel companies are losing their social licence to operate, just as the tobacco industry did years ago.

I believe that history is a great teacher. You don’t even need to look far back to find the lesson. When considering the rapidly evolving public perception of the fossil fuel industry, a clue to its future can be found in the fate of other industries.  

In the early days of my legal career, the asbestos and tobacco industries were in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. With the immense damage caused by these harmful industries finally coming to light, the dirty deeds of corporate lobbyists, spin doctors and public relations teams also came under some long-overdue scrutiny.

During this time, many law firms were pitching themselves to students like me as organisations that refused to take on tobacco or asbestos companies as clients. This key point of difference was strategically used to attract young talent to accept graduate roles in their firms. And it worked. As a young professional just beginning my career, I remember being impressed by the firms that took such a strong ethical stand that they were willing to say no to business that didn’t align with their values.

These days, young professionals have the opportunity to pressure their workplaces to treat fossil fuels in the same way. Whether you’re a lawyer, accountant or management consultant, you too can make it known that the days of doing business with fossil fuel corporations are over.

The end of an era

Even though the writing has been on the wall for decades, fossil fuel companies are still desperately clinging onto the power they’ve collectively held for so long. Millions (if not billions) of shareholder dollars will be wasted as these big polluters try to get a foot in the door of the clean energy sector.

For shareholders in these businesses (including me and probably you through our superannuation), the best outcome might be for oil, gas and coal companies to wind up gracefully. A supported exit (rather than a protracted, expensive period of trying to create new innovations or buying out emerging companies) would be a wise path to follow not only for the planet, but for shareholders too.

Sure, some of these businesses have delivered strong economic outcomes that have resulted in people being lifted out of poverty, but that history can be recognised and celebrated without giving big polluters a free pass to continue to operate in the future.

Playing our part

So, where do we fit in with all this? I believe that advisors should provide advice that clients need to hear, not just what they want to hear. Younger people on advisory teams have a pivotal role to play. You might not be conversing directly with your client’s CEO, but your views will influence the people that are having those conversations with the CEO and executive team.

"You may recycle and ride your bike, but those actions don’t offset the impact of contributing your skills and expertise to a greenwashing ad campaign or media relations blitz that pushes a planet-destroying false narrative."

One conversation starter that gains attention is the threat of litigation or loss of standing for participating in greenwashing and other deceptive activities. Just as global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company suffered reputational damage for aiding Purdue Pharma’s efforts to push highly addictive opioids on the American public, other companies may soon come under similar scrutiny for colluding with fossil fuel companies that knowingly cause harm to people and the planet.

Any business leader would be unwise to ignore staff members and advisors pointing out reputational or legal threats to their business. It’s our job to keep putting these topics on the agenda for discussion and (hopefully) action. 

Leaving a greener career legacy

I’m pleased that we’re seeing an end to the cognitive dissonance that has led many of us to believe that what we do for work isn’t who we really are. The reality is that you absolutely are who you are at work. So, if your job is providing legal counsel to a mining conglomerate or creating positive branding campaigns for fossil fuel companies, then that's who you are.

You may recycle and ride your bike, but those actions don’t offset the impact of contributing your skills and expertise to a greenwashing ad campaign or media relations blitz that pushes a planet-destroying false narrative.

Unlike in the Emmy-Award nominated television series Severance, we can't separate who we are at work from who we are at home. Who we are at work is the same as who we are when we take our kids to soccer on the weekend. We all breathe the same air, whether we're at work or at home, and we need a stable climate to operate our businesses and live our lives.

While we can’t undo whatever we’ve done in the past, we can use our time to start doing something positive right now. We’ve all got a role to play, what will yours be?

Could you be your workplace's changemaker? WorkforClimate is here to help, with all the news, advice and inspiration to get you started on your journey to taking meaningful climate action.

Share Icon
Copy link

Subscribe Today

Register your details to receive our weekly newsletter containing advice and strategies to help your company take climate action.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.