The good news, coming so soon after the VW scandal broke, makes an interesting test case on how we should deal with "sustainable" companies. Like VW, Shell had invested heavily in a brand image as a modern company that cares about its responsibilities, and both companies have a string of awards and a library of glossy reports to prove their credentials as socially responsible corporations.
emissions standards, but had ultimately lost.
Against Shell though they deployed their full arsenal, with protests from Seattle to London, on land, at sea and most recently hanging in the air off a bridge in Portland. First they went for their allies, forcing Lego to back out of £68 million deal with the company, and then they came for Shell in person. First they dropped a banner, then they serenading their headquarters with a succession of musicians, some famous and some not, and then they parked a three ton animatronic polar bear outside for most of September. That's when they gave in.
Volkswagen made cars for hippies in the sixties, and more recently gained a reputation for safety, economy and practicality.
Shell, meanwhile, gained a reputation in the nineties as one of the worst companies in the world. They had devastated the Niger Delta, funded an oppressive military dictatorship, and they were culpable in the execution of the man who opposed them. For VW Corporate Social Responsibility was the natural progression of a sensible car company, for Shell it was a passport to rejoin the human race.
However VW and Shell were alike in other ways; they both wanted to be number one. Merging with
Audi and then Skoda, VW became the giant of the European market. With arch rival BP disgracing itself in the Gulf of Mexico, Shell became the world's second biggest oil company.
But there were problems ahead. VW had the challenge of making it's diesel cars cheaper and faster than the opposition. Shell had to face up to the decline of conventional oil resources. Both companies faced a choice: become genuinely 'sustainable', or go for that coveted Number One slot.
It's easy to think that the chief execs of these companies live on a different planet to the rest of us, but actually they don't. This makes it even more sickening to think of the world they planned to leave for their children.
Because the truth is that more often than not the 'sustainable corporation' is a lie.
True, there is good news out there.
There are the Googles and the Interface Carpets of the world, but these are companies who streaks ahead of the opposition and can afford to be generous, and whose core business was never a major threat to the planet.
There are also the Teslas, and the Solar Centuries and the Ecotricities of the world, but these are small
companies that will never become big until the VWs and Shells move aside.
However despite twenty years of talk of 'sustainability' and 'social responsibility' not one fossil fuel company has switched to renewables, not one car company has given up petrol, not one cement company has given up coal. They have talked the talk, but they've not walked the walk.
Worse, they have pulled the wool over the eyes of politicians and governments have abdicated their responsibility to legislate. VW was trusted to keep it's own house in order. As a result it's crimes were not discovered by any government agency, but by a small NGO. Shell had been given permission to drill in the Arctic by President Obama. What stopped them was not our 'democracy', but people power.
The lesson is clear. The corporate world will not reform itself voluntarily. We need to make them.
Power never gave up without a fight. Shell was the most recent battle. Lets get on and win the war.