Can an inherently “bad” company actually positively contribute towards a sustainable future?
Long standing topics like sustainability and environmentalism are no longer just buzzwords, but active principles that are shaping the way consumers react to the world around them.
Alongside this, companies are called to act in line with the sustainability movement and actively present their contribution. However, we should consider whether inherently "bad" companies are proactively contributing to a sustainable long-term future when using ESG tactics.
Philip Morris in the sustainable age
Philip Morris, the multinational cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company, is actively aiming its actions towards a better future, in line with the UN's Sustainable Development goals.
Specifically, to target the goal of better health and wellbeing (SDG 3), the company is shifting its future towards smoke-free products through their IQOS brand. This is a range of tobacco heating products which focus on heating tobacco just enough to release a nicotine vapour, without the harmful effects of burning the tobacco.
From their perspective: The best way to avoid the harm of smoking is never to start, but for those who do smoke, to quit. However, it is well known that most smokers unfortunately do not quit in the first place. Phillip Morris wants to give these people access to alternative products that can act as a healthier option.
Transitioning to smoke-free products
From the sustainability report, reliable studies show that up to 95% of harmful constituents are reduced through IQOS when compared to traditional cigarettes. By this, the IQOS aerosol significantly reduces the impact of key mechanisms involved in the development of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Following the success of this invention, the company has invested over 8.1 billion USD in IQOS and aims to transition its product range completely away from traditional cigarettes in the UK by 2030.
We question as to what extent Philip Morris’ transition is derived by the prospect of a healthier population, rather than commercial ambition and the fear of market decline.
Truths hidden behind words
In the 2020 integrated report, Philip Morris claims that “72 percent of smokers who switch to IQOS stop smoking cigarettes”, implying their products have quitting effects.
However, there is no independent reference of such data and there is rare evidence that IQOS acts as an effective tool to discourage traditional smoking.
Philip Morris also takes advantage of the ambiguous term “smoke-free” when describing their products, as “smoking” can be denoted in different ways. In some way, this tagline makes IQOS, which contains tobacco, sound better than it really is.
Another type of temptation
Additionally, their claim of “very low levels of use of IQOS among youth and non-smokers” is less trustable. Several studies show that around half of IQOS users and those who show intention to try IQOS have never smoked cigarettes.
The advertisement of “healthier alternative to cigarettes” plays a role in inducing non-smokers towards tobacco consumption, an act they probably never would have tried before introducing this substitute.
“Innocent” tobacco conveyor
IQOS also greatly appeals to youth because they can easily hide from parents and teachers using these products that produce no ash and less smell. For the same reason, bars and pubs in some countries allow customers to use IQOS, which leads to more intensive use of tobacco, pushing the smoke-free future even further away.
We believe that the positive social effects generated by the less harmful features of IQOs would diminish with an irresistible increase in tobacco use.
Long way to go
What if Philip Morris’ promotion of a sustainable smoke-free future is merely a strategy to escape the inevitable end of the tobacco industry itself by creating a new profitable segment for the remaining years?
Their strategy to evolve as a responsible company should be viewed carefully as it can be argued that the 3rd SDG goal has not entirely been reached. The company needs to evaluate its internal values with transparency. Reports concerning numbers of non-smokers buying IQOS should be clear, and the company should rather focus on impactfully making a difference through sharing regulatory responsibility towards the use of their products.
Consumers have their share of responsibility too, and should align their actions toward achieving the SDG. Execution of healthier life choices is something that starts with individuals and the responsibility should be shared with companies.
Falling fantasy of unsustainable companies
Considering the current socio-economic climate, sustainable objectives may look positive on the surface, and rightfully so, companies may even truly be trying to make a positive change. However, perhaps it is necessary to lower our sustainability expectations for certain inherently bad industries and leave them to be.
In the Philip Morris scenario, the short-run idea of a "smoke-free" future sounds promising, but when considering the long-term effects, they may be fueling a new culture that is more addicted via the trending “smoke-free” revolution than before.