What follows is the first chapter of a three-part analysis of the delegitimisation of industry.
I am often bemused by how industry actors think of themselves. Often they are content with being the second slowest zebra in the herd, happily continuing to graze because today, the lions are getting their fill on another carcass.
But what will this zebra do tomorrow when that anti-industry activist demand for blood returns to the savannah? Will they be radically changing their positions? Will the herd get together to unite in a stronger, defensive position? Or will they blindly wait, do nothing and hope the inevitable does not happen?
Sadly these second slowest zebras are not acting at all. Most industry lobbyists seem to have given up on the policy process (but still go through the motions). Aware that their voice is being suppressed in Brussels, they merely campaign to keep their substance or process on the market for three more years. They cannot fight the EU’s precaution juggernaut so they do the derogation dance, provide industry data no one will read and continually appeal the inevitable legal decisions.
But keeping a market for three more years is not a strategy at all. How should the value chain respond to such an absence of leadership, innovation and opportunity? Will downstream users keep a precaution-prone substance in their formulations if they can find an alternative (however less attractive) that is not under regulatory attack? Some quicker zebras have left the herd and are accelerating the market demise for the sake of “alternatives opportunism”.
Corporations do not look at trying to change the policy process that has been turned on its head over the last two decades and is now working against them (like the use of the hazard-based approach or the precautionary principle applied as the reversal of the burden of proof). They do not consider the ramifications – that the constant media assault, reputation and trust destruction and political denormalisation of industry are an existential threat. Instead, the second slowest zebra seems to celebrate what it is not. In the crop protection sector, they may express relief their company is not as bad as Monsanto. In the petroleum sector, actors can proudly claim they are not like Exxon-Mobil. And as they feebly work on accumulating their ESG points, all industries will crow proudly that they are not like Big Tobacco or the arms industry.
Except, in the eyes of the general public, they are.
Meanwhile, life as an NGO activist in Brussels is pretty easy. They have a simple strategy: look for a vulnerable industry, insert uncertainty, create a link between a product or lifestyle and some cancer or environmental destruction, promote potential victims to generate public outrage, highlight corporate profits and collect $200 as you pass Go. This can be applied to almost any herd of zebras. “Wash, Rinse, Repeat”.
The last decade has seen a rather audacious move by activist NGOs (and some policymakers particularly in Brussels) to ostracise most industries from the public policy dialogue process, create public revulsion and denormalise companies as stakeholders and social actors. This proved to be a successful strategy during the war on tobacco and many of their campaign tools are now simply being copy-pasted to other industries. Some, particularly in the financial industry, have bought into the activist campaigns and are courting public favour by considering a degrowth strategy or a capitalism reset. But can such a beast seriously hide its stripes?
There are three key activist tobacconisation strategies being applied against most industries.
Tobacconisation 1: Adversarial Regulation
I have written a lot on one part of this tobacconisation process in my SlimeGate series where NGOs openly and unashamedly work with US tort law firms and a few disgruntled activist scientists to bypass the regulatory process. They essentially identify an uncertainty, create fear campaigns, produce some scientific data, assemble a number of victims, generate anti-corporate outrage and then sue the hell out of a company or industry until, facing potential bankruptcy, they submit to demanded changes or simply abandon a market. Activists have a word for this rather indirect imposition of policy outside of the democratic process: adversarial regulation.
I came across the word “tobacconisation” while reading an American activist conference report, Establishing Accountability for Climate Change Damages: Lessons from Tobacco Control, masterminded by Naomi Oreskes, the Union for Concerned Scientists and the Climate Accountability Institute in 2012 in La Jolla, California. This meeting of lawyers, activists and scientists argued that the tobacco industry lobby did not capitulate in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement because of the science, regulatory restrictions or public outrage. They gave in because of the insurmountable financial costs of endless waves of tort litigation that threatened to wipe out the industry. So the La Jolla Plaintiff Playbook was to take that same strategy and apply it to the petroleum industry – to destroy public trust and then litigate the hell out of oil companies for damages due to climate change until they either go bankrupt or change their business model.
Shortly after the La Jolla report, actors from the conference were involved in cases around the New York State DA’s subpoena of ExxonMobil leading to lawsuits against the company (for not disclosing what they knew about climate change). This is only the beginning of a long line of climate damage lawsuits targeting the petroleum industry.
A few years later, when IARC concluded that the herbicide glyphosate was a probable carcinogen (the only scientific agency to have ever reached such a conclusion), US tort law firms, who had paid at least four of the scientists on that IARC panel, filed more than 100,000 lawsuits against Monsanto. During this time the company was taken over by Bayer (which then lost half of its market value). We are now seeing scientists funded by these same US tort law firms trying to generate scientific evidence linking brain tumours to mobile phone use.
I’m sure these zebras are going to deny that a tobacconisation strategy against their business exists.
Tobacconisation 2: Limit Communications and Ban Advertising
Activists have a key role in this playbook to raise public outrage against targeted companies, not only to ensure maximum jury bias but also to move regulators to be more willing to impose harsher regulations. To do this, they need to ostracise the company or industry and exclude them from any role as a societal actor. They need to be villainised. To achieve this, NGOs returned to the successful strategy of denormalising the tobacco industry and the banning of tobacco advertising.
Is it any surprise then that a group of anti-industry NGOs led by Greenpeace launched a European Citizen’s Initiative to try to ban fossil fuel industry advertisements. They are not even trying to be creative any more.
Central to the denormalising strategy is the recognition that Big Oil is not an acceptable societal actor and its companies must be added to some sort of environmental offenders registry. An organisation that is prohibited from communicating to its consumers will lose its legitimacy and authority (it is blacklisted even while its products remain on the market). But society still relies on fossil fuels and consumers should be able to benefit from information from all parties. Silencing the petroleum industry will alienate their brands, limit the attraction of their innovations, make them unable to properly respond to campaigns and reduce market share. And that is the point.
Tobacco was only left on the market because of government excise revenues which were habitually hiked. Expect the same at the pumps once the present fuel crisis passes. Who will cry as fuel taxes go through the roof while the green lobby subsidises less efficient alternatives? Serves you right, dumbass petrolhead, for not quitting (ie, not buying an electric car). It doesn’t matter that electric cars are not exactly green or that most consumers can’t afford them.
Furthermore, little has been made of this, but the European Commission has now prohibited any of its EU officials or functionaries from speaking directly to corporate employees outside of trade associations (although any NGO lobbyists can easily meet individually with EU officials). This was an honour previously only bestowed upon lobbyists from the tobacco industry.
Tobacconisation 3: Public Outrage Trumps Bad Science
Public outrage against Big Tobacco meant that poor science (on the health risks of second-hand smoke or vaping) could be glanced over with little scrutiny in the policy process. People were fed up with the industry and just wanted to believe the research claims were accurate. We can see similar baseless scientific claims against glyphosate gaining traction grounded mainly in outrage against Monsanto and regulators too afraid to stand up for farmers. From conclusions literally manufactured by several activist scientists (paid very well by US tort law firms to go to IARC with the task of producing a sentence that could be used in lawsuits against Monsanto), the public is now prepared to accept the banning of all pesticides (except, of course, those produced for organic farming).
Opportunistic public officials wanting to play to the loud activist mobs need simply reach for the precautionary safety pin to gain favour without any risk of data or evidence interfering with this strategy. For policymakers, it is a no-brainer to play the precaution card (demanding that the substance is proven with certainty to be 100% safe prior to acting) rather than lock horns with angry activist groups with friends in the media. Which sensible policymaker would ever want to speak up for scientific facts and wear an “I Stand with Monsanto” pin on their lapel. Today we see how the European Commission’s Farm2Fork “strategy” plans to remove 50% of pesticides in use today and 20% of fertilisers by 2030 without any scientific foundation … and no one seems to have the courage to speak up (outside of a few farmers and the voiceless, denormalised crop protection industry). Then again, European Commission Vice-President, Frans Timmermans ignored the advice of his own European Commission scientists warning against his Farm2Fork strategy, so what hope would industry data have of making an impact.
Policies clearly lacking scientific data and evidence are passing through the EU regulatory process on a daily basing covering a wide range of issues, including: many pesticides reauthorisations (including glyphosate), minerals like lithium, chemicals like formaldehyde, nanomaterials in cosmetics and plastic packaging waste. At the same time, policymakers are blindly promoting well-lobbied green alternatives like renewables, electric cars and chemical alternatives without sufficient data or studies. Is there any pan-industry, pan-scientific organisation standing up to defend evidence-based policy or fight against the arbitrary use of the precautionary principle? Industry science has no voice; their data has been denigrated (tobacconised).
If most stakeholders and the public are perceived to be against industry interests and engagement, then unelected, aspirational policymakers like Frans Timmermans don’t need to burden their ideology with scientific reality. Welcome to Brussels.
Who will be the Next Big Tobacco?
Successes against the tobacco industry have merely been copy-pasted into activist strategies against other industries (to what looks like similar success trajectories). So who will be the next industry to be tobacconised? Which zebra will be tomorrow’s activist NGO lunch?
The answer to that question depends on where your interests lie. Today there are just so many hungry lions (with growing fundraising objectives). If you are concerned about globalisation, labour conditions in developing countries and fair trade, then the textile/fast fashion industry is ripe for forced reformation. If you work for the organic food industry lobby, then your interests lie in crushing conventional agriculture and the pesticide industry. If you have been pulled into the climate movement or have an interest in renewables, then Big Oil is poised to be the next tobacco. The blood-thirsty US tort lawyers (the grease of the tobacconisation machinery) seem to be salivating over 5G and mobile phone health risks (that would turn companies like Apple and Samsung into tobacco-like honey pots). As for Big Pharma, well, pick your poison: opioids, vaccines, medical devices…
Every industry seems to be ripe for tobacconisation and the emerging consequences are frightening. The only hope is that crises arrive before the industries are completely delegitimised. What would have happened during the COVID-19 crisis if outrage against plastics persisted at the policy level? The energy crisis (following a fact-free energy transition strategy) has resulted in a desperate search for any available fossil fuels that have not yet been divested. With shortages and food price increases following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some leaders, like Emmanuel Macron, are suggesting that the European Commission’s Farm2Fork strategy may need to be dialled back. To ideologues like Frans Timmermans, these are merely temporary setbacks in their relentless deindustrialisation strategy. What do the public, and industry, need to see happen for them to wake up to this nonsense?
As long as the business sector does not protect itself and fight back against shallow tobacconisation strategies, all industries are vulnerable. All policy decisions that ignore scientific evidence need to be collectively opposed; all cases of activist groups acting dishonestly or non-transparently need to be forcefully condemned; and all regulator populist opportunism need to be met with a united stakeholder opposition (ie, pull out of the policy process). There should be no discrepancy or cherry picking over which industries to defend. If the pesticide industry is fighting policy processes that ignore clear scientific data, then the cosmetics industry should also speak out. If the petroleum industry is being excluded from the room, then the pharmaceutical industry should stand up and walk out until all stakeholders are heard. The NGO community in Brussels has been successful because they work together with one voice, forcefully demand changes and insist on being heard. They don’t scatter like zebras.
The lions are circling the entire herd. Let’s not pretend any zebra is safe.
Zebras don’t have Teeth
The herd needs to pull together and fight back rather than scatter and run. Until now, their record has been dismal and the terrible consequences, well, have been as expected.
- When Volkswagen was being savaged in the media and the courts for Dieselgate, not one automotive manufacturer stood up to focus the attention on the ridiculously low and unachievable California emission restrictions (even though most of the industry was using the same Bosch technology, they sat back and let VW pay the price). Today diesel will soon become a legacy fuel.
- Three decades of activist attacks on brominated flame retardants and PVC hurt smaller chemical producers and many OEM supply chains. The science against these substances was weak but the small companies were left alone to defend against the activist onslaught. Sadly many larger companies promoted their less sustainable, less efficient alternatives while public trust of all chemicals waned. Today all plastics in the supply chain are under fire.
- Weak data and poor science has been used in energy, pesticides, tobacco, seed breeding, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and mining regulatory processes in Brussels with little to no public understanding or outrage. There was once a Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, Anne Glover, tasked with defending the use of the best available science, but activists eliminated that post because of her pro-evidence based position on GMOs. No other industry group bothered to speak up and today we have a European Commission which is, at best, scientifically illiterate, and in most cases, driven by aspirational ideologues with no interest in facts or data.
Time to Bite Back
So how can the herd fight back? First of all, the savannah landscape is in the lion’s favour. Industry needs to come together and demand a White Paper articulating a rational strategy on the use of the precautionary principle within a clear risk management process (and abandon any EU policy process that does not respect it). There does not seem to even be a risk management strategy within the European Commission (they have a naïve zero-risk strategy). The hazard-based policy approach has to branded for what it is: irrational.
Secondly the lions are pretending to be lambs. As NGOs break rules, act without respect for moral principles (unlike industry, very few NGOs have an ethical code of conduct that guides their behaviour) and ignore evidence and data in their campaigns, more light needs to be shone on their transgressions. Often these groups are being funded by other interest groups (like the organic food industry lobby). Seriously, The Risk-Monger should not be the only one in Brussels with the courage to highlight activist hypocrisy.
Furthermore, lobbying rules need to apply to all. Any restrictions on engaging with EU officials have to be the same for industry and NGO stakeholders. There is no reason to denormalise entire sets of innovators, problem solvers and employers and if such restrictions continue, against any industry, then all industries should stand up, speak up and threaten to abandon the regulatory process until the regulators become fair and respectful.
Industry, finally, needs to “divide the pride”. In the early days of stakeholder dialogue, there were some NGOs and CSOs like conservation groups, WWF or EDF that were willing to work with industry to promote more sustainable technologies while other, more radical organisations sought to attack the right for industry to be involved in the policy process. The latter group succeeded and today many NGOs (like Corporate Europe Observatory, US Right to Know, Extinction Rebellion…) have simply defined themselves as anti-industry and arbitrarily attack any policy that might be favourable to capitalism. When these Trotskyites behave despicably, the other NGOs sheepishly remain silent. These activists though represent only a small minority of the population and while the public is rightfully outraged when zealots, for example, wrongfully deface classic works of art, they should equally be outraged when they wrongfully deface employers, innovators and problem solvers.
The situation does not look good for the zebras as fear seems to dominate the savannah and there is no pressure on the regulators to act to control the savagery. As nobody in industry seems willing to defend others as their innovations come under activist attack, while bad science and regulatory indifference go unconfronted, the entire herd will suffer. The same playbook used against the tobacco industry is being used against all industries with impunity and public indifference. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.
Tonight the second slowest zebra will sleep soundly. But tomorrow you had better change your strategy … or run a lot faster.