The Truth Shall Set You Free

Not to mention deflect criticism, build goodwill, and accelerate progress.

I had a meeting last week that I think makes for an interesting (and important) parable. 

I met with the CEO of an excellent environmental NGO — one that I very much respect and am pleased to advise. The organization is planning to initiate some new strategies that I believe will be positive. But the CEO is concerned that some of his traditional supporters might disapprove of the new initiatives, as the projects would engage a few corporate partners that left-leaning environmentalists might view as bad guys. To stave off any opposition, his team had devised a plan to “hide” these potentially unpopular moves in a complicated web of subsidiaries. He wanted to know what I thought. 

I said I thought it was a terrible idea. 

The activities he was considering were good ones in my view. More importantly, the CEO believes they make sense. They are things he wants his organization to do. So what exactly is he afraid of? 

If some supporters doubt the wisdom of his strategy, so what? That should make for some good discussion with them — discussion where they might come to better appreciate his approach. Or they might persuade him to improve his plan. Both good outcomes. If the criticism generates some controversy along the way, that’s not necessarily so bad either — the buzz would shine a spotlight on important new initiatives for the organization. And if the NGO does lose some supporters along the way, the organization can probably pick up enough new ones to more than offset the loss. Donors admire bold organizations who take on promising but risky initiatives.

Hiding any activities, on the other hand, would not only miss such an opportunity for increased visibility and healthy debate, but also look quite suspect if they were to come to light, which in all likelihood would eventually happen. 

I learned all of this firsthand when I led TNC. We did a number of things that supporters questioned and criticized. We learned that in such circumstances the best thing to do was to say to our critics, “Thank you for engaging with us. We want what you want — better outcomes for nature. That’s why we’re doing XYZ. Here is why we think our strategy will work. We will keep everyone posted every step of the way by being totally transparent. If you think we’re missing something, or if you see opportunities for us to do better, please let us know.” 

This approach always seemed to work. We got credit for our new ideas. Sometimes we got input from outsiders on things we missed, which led us to refine and improve our plans. We got attention for doing new, big things (most of which worked out quite well). And the criticism eventually dissipated, usually sooner rather than later. 

This advice — to commit to full transparency and disclosure — applies to everyone in the climate arena: NGOs, activists, government agencies, corporations and institutional investors. But my main focus here is the private sector. 

In general, companies today are doing more on the environmental front than they get credit for. But at the same time, because they disclose such activities in vague and glitzy ways, they end up being accused of greenwashing. This is a crazy outcome. 

Furthermore, since voluntary decarbonization and net-zero pledging by companies are now such critical climate strategies, improving everyone’s understanding of what is underway is important. We all have a lot riding on the private sector’s environmental commitments. Even landmark legislation like the recent IRA bill is mostly an effort to incentivize more voluntary private sector action.

So what should corporations do? Just tell the truth.