‘Killing off customers’

Recently we have seen a number of reminders that there are many things that big business is doing around the world which threaten to do lasting damage on many fronts, including to their customer base – both directly and indirectly. Without customers a business cannot thrive and yet it seems that short-term thinking and chasing a ‘quick buck’ is still far too dominant in the way that a number of powerful corporations go about their businesses. What they are doing not only impacts on their customers but perhaps also the future of the human race. An outrageous statement? Check out these examples.

Example 1

The recent breaching of a dam storing what is now said to be ‘toxic mine waste’ in Brazil has been called that country’s ‘worst environmental disaster’. The associated iron ore extraction project was managed through a subsidiary jointly owned by BHP Billiton and Brazilian-based Vale Corporation. Their initial statement after the dam collapse said the waste wasn’t toxic but a UN report says that it contained ‘heavy metals and other toxic chemicals’. The waste stream has polluted the Rio Doce, killed thousands of fish and affected the lives of 250,000 people living in the immediate catchment. It is now contaminating the Atlantic Ocean off the Brazilian coast. The government has announced plans to sue the companies for USD 5 billion. This latest disaster is one of a series of serious environmentally damaging events that the global mining and resource extraction sector has been responsible for in recent years.

Example 2

Once more in 2015, as in preceding years, huge clouds of smoke generated by illegal burn-offs of forest and peat lands in Indonesia have had a serious impact on the lives of people, not only living in that country but also neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. Pollution levels caused by these fires have often been significantly above internationally recognised safe levels and created concerns amongst those living in the region that it is affecting their health. It certainly has had economic impacts e.g. on tourism to the region. The driver behind the fires is the global demand for palm oil. It is used by many corporations and businesses internationally as a cheap ingredient in many products. As a result companies operating in Indonesia (including some offshore corporations) have been involved in illegal burn-offs as a way to clear natural forest and peat land for expanding a monocultural agricultural commodity business. Corrupt officials and ‘paid-off’ community leaders have made it easy to break the law without being held to account. The negative impacts of their illegal (and immoral) actions upon the customers of not only their own businesses but many other non-related businesses does not seem to feature on their radar screen.

Example 3

There seems to be no doubt that climate change is now a real issue for the planet. There are too many examples of changes linked to global warming that mean it cannot be ignored. But the reality is that the potentially serious impacts of increased warming continue to be largely ignored. As a result the world is heading into unknown territory, territory that could well impact upon the future of the entire human race. One commentator recently wrote a column asking why so many governments still heavily subsidise the global oil and gas sector when it is clear that fossil fuel combustion is a major reason why the planet is getting warmer. He quotes the International Energy Agency as saying, ‘if we want to avoid dangerous climate change we cannot afford to burn even half the fossil fuels already discovered’. Based on that statement he asks,’ ‘why the hell are we searching for more oil?’ India is hell bent on mining and using vastly larger amounts of coal – even though the environment is already heavily polluted in many parts of the country. They say global warming is ‘someone else’s problem’ but increasing numbers of local citizens disagree. Of course there are large vested interests involved in the fossil fuel sector internationally which have a lot of power commercially and politically and these will influence what happens in Paris in early December.

So what?

Jack Tame, an opinion writer in the New Zealand Herald, titled a recent article as ‘Save our species? Too boring.’  He begins, ‘the silliest thing about the potential end of our world is (that) it’s so boring, people don’t care.’ He also ponders that after the human species has killed itself off perhaps a more advanced species at some future date would find evidence of our existence on Earth and say, ‘they must have been smart enough to know they were warming the Earth… So, why didn’t they do anything about it?’ He continues, ‘nah. We just kept drilling and burning and the last thing anyone heard from a human being was someone complaining about the price of gas.’ The reality is that only a few percent of humans are leaders and lead thinkers. The vast majority just ‘go with the flow’. If the leaders at the business and political levels are pursuing agendas which lead to ‘killing off customers’, then Jack Tame’s future scenario may well become a reality. It’s a lose - lose scenario all round – except maybe for planet Earth which will, as Tame suggests, be able to press the ‘re-set button’ after we have all gone. Sounds dramatic, but when you see examples such as the three mentioned above (and they are just three of many in recent times), then you have to wonder how intelligent many of our top business leaders and politicians really are. Killing off customers and ourselves is a dead end story. But it seems that we may be doing it – slowly but surely. Is it really all so 'boring'?