Home > Dear companies, your fossil fuel support is a reputational ticking time bomb

Dear companies, your fossil fuel support is a reputational ticking time bomb

24 August 2020

24 August 2020

When the response finally came through from engineering consultancy GHD’s Chairman on 5 July 2019, it was fairly typical, “Please contact Adani directly on any matters that may relate to their business activities.”

The company that had been providing engineering and other consulting services to Adani since it started work on the Carmichael coal project in 2010 was refusing to take responsibility for its actions, deflecting questions about this work to the project proponent.

Six months later, after weathering a massive backlash from its own staff, charity partners and the general public, GHD ended this decade-long relationship with the Adani Carmichael project.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again in the Stop Adani campaign – the community campaign working to prevent the climate-wrecking Carmichael coal mine and rail line from being built. 

Westpac, AECOM, Aurecon, Downer, Samsung, Siemens, Aspen Insurance and Greyhound Australia are just some of the companies that have been on the receiving end of a reputation-destroying community backlash, after doing what they would consider to be business as usual.

Westpac’s lending to Adani’s Abbot Point coal port in 2013, and its refusal to rule out further funds saw it face an explosion of protests at branches and offices all over Australia four years later, in 2017, culminating in its lavish 200th birthday party having to be cut short due to protests both outside and inside the venue. Three weeks later it adopted a policy banning lending to thermal coal mines in new coal basins.

Siemens ignored the concerns raised about its proposed work for the Carmichael rail network for months in 2019, scrambling to respond only after it had signed the €18 million contract in December – in the midst of Australia’s worst ever bushfire season. It was a public relations disaster with the company ending up sticking with Adani while admitting it was doing the wrong thing. Its reputation may never recover from the blanket media coverage this issue received in Germany and the mass protests against it led by high school and university students. All because of a relatively minor contract, which previously would not have been controversial.

Many of these companies had made similar decisions to fund, underwrite, design or construct similar coal, oil or gas projects in the past with no public backlash. All of them were caught off-guard when what they would consider just another ordinary business move thrust them into the spotlight and sullied their brand.

The lesson companies need to learn is that when it comes to fossil fuels, there is no business as usual anymore. As the impacts of the climate crisis become more dangerous and severe and the global social movement to fight it gains in strength, the ground is rapidly shifting under the feet of not only the pure-play fossil fuel companies themselves, but any company that provides them with services.

That decision to finance a gas pipeline, insure an oil rig or construct a coal-fired power station may not make headlines immediately (although it is becoming more likely that it does), but once it is made the company is sitting on a reputational bomb, which could go off at any time.

This is something the companies currently in the sights of the #StopAdani campaign such as W.R. Berkley, Lloyd’s of London, Korea Investment and Securities and Stifel should be particularly aware of.

If companies want to future proof their business and their brand, they should avoid regrets by avoiding fossil fuels.