lf Liz Truss firmly believes in one thing, which is that no one likes to be told what to do. People don’t want to be nagged about their weight, or encouraged to eat less and exercise more. They don’t want to hear what they can say on social media. And above all, companies want the freedom to make piles of money, unfettered by regulation and bureaucracy and what David Cameron called the famous “green mess”. But when she said she didn’t mind making herself unpopular in the process of unleashing all that growth, she wasn’t referring to the people doing the growth.
What about the fact that this week more than 100 big business names, from Ikea to Amazon, Coco-Cola and Sky, signed an open letter calling on the government not to go back to net zero, following hints Truss sent maybe considering doing just that? This was not in the script, neither for the deregulatory right, nor for that section of the left that is convinced that capitalism loves nothing more than to warm its greedy hands over a bonfire of crackling red tape while watching the planet burn. What exactly is going on?
CEOs aren’t monsters, of course. They see the same fires, floods, and droughts on the news as everyone else, and presumably the same teenage kids called them names over breakfast. They know it’s important to be seen as green for younger customers and employees alike as Generation Z becomes more and more prudish about working for brands that see their friends as toxic.
For some, such as a water industry experiencing its driest summer in 30 years, the climate crisis is already posing a direct threat to their operations; others, such as renewable energy suppliers, have built their business around decarbonization. But what has really changed after the conflict in Ukraine is that big companies are now much more concerned about rising fossil fuel prices. Cheap, safe, renewable energy seems increasingly important to their ability to continue to make a profit.
That said, it would be naive to think that major polluters aren’t already lobbying this new administration to water down some net-zero policies, or that many companies haven’t made the adjustments they’d like to make. But there is a surprisingly large number of things that would now be disrupted by a sudden change of direction.
The letter was drafted by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), whose recent poll of 700 senior business leaders found that nearly 70% already had their own net-zero plan for the company (some no doubt more compelling than others, but that’s a other column) and 80% had earmarked funding. Telling them at this late stage that they really shouldn’t have bothered spending the money seems more irritating than liberating.
The same goes for removing the sugar tax now, after companies have already gone through the pain barrier of reformulating snacks and carbonated drinks to evade the tax. Sometimes bureaucracy isn’t just about protecting the public, but creating stable and predictable conditions for making money, plus a level playing field of obligations where well-run companies aren’t undermined by bad ones or made to feel like suckers. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to the CISL survey said tellingly that far from being a barrier, regulation was important to their company’s business model.
Granted, it often shifts costs from the state to business, which business obviously hates. But the logical, albeit unpopular, corollary is that cutting it would only shift those costs back to taxpayers, something the government seems less willing to discuss. As Polly Mackenzie, the former chief executive of the think tank Demos, recently tweeted, you can cut the rules that stop companies from fueling things like obesity, stress at work or air pollution, but “your health costs will be huge,” not to mention of the human suffering caused. Someone still has to pay: the only question is who.
Mackenzie knows this area well, having served as a special Liberal Democrat adviser in the 2010 coalition government whose own much-hyped bonfire of bureaucracy failed to materialize when it turned out that most rules actually exist for a reason, and the reason is often that people like it. them. An early candidate for scrap was apparently rules on the flammability of children’s sleepwear, as most families now have radiators, not riskier fireplaces. Still, is someone screaming for kids’ pajamas that go up in flames faster? Is that really what progress means?
Even rules that were vehemently rejected at first tend to settle and become part of the wallpaper over time. The Working Time Directive, which protects workers from forced labor more than 48 hours a week, was controversial in 1998 when it was first introduced. But throwing it out — as Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly contemplates — feels odd in the last century, in a world where companies looking to boost productivity are instead experimenting with four-day weeks.
The idea of freedom, or getting the government out of your life, remains a heady one, and for many leavers, it was part of the itching for Brexit. But if it still excites a certain kind of Tory voter, it feels more and more retro. We’ve come a long way from the days when greed was good, lunch for wimps and only hippies taking care of the planet. If you want to drag Britain back to the 1980s, don’t expect us to come quietly.