There's a Small, Elite Group of Companies That Basically Controls the Global Environment, Study Finds

Never has the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" rung so true. A report published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution concludes just a handful of transnational corporations (or TNCs) wield a disproportionate influence when it comes to the environment and long-term sustainability success.

The report's authors reel off a list of disconcerting—or impressive, depending on your worldview—list of stats. Approximately 10 percent of the world's corporations reap 80 percent of global profits. Around 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the Earth's atmosphere each year can be attributed to 100 companies.

The world pesticide market is essentially monopolized by four companies.

This is a predictable feature of economic development, they say. A handful of TNCs will consolidate their position on the market until they come to own the lion's share, and essentially monopolize the industry. They ascertain their dominance through various means from navigating worldwide regulatory schemes opportunistically to establishing barriers to entry that squash out competition from smaller companies. In the end, you are left with a small and elite group of companies at the very top.

"In fact, the scale at which TNCs operate, and the speed and connectivity they galvanize across the world is unprecedented in history," the authors write.

"TNCs have become a defining feature of the interconnected planet of people and nature, with humans as a hyper-dominant species in the biosphere affecting global patterns of ecological change."

But this dominance comes with a silver lining or, at the very least, an opportunity, say the authors—provided they adopt sustainable practices that can influence others and produce a greater effect than just the national level. Simply put: their outsize influence can extend to the environment—but they need to be given a "seat at the table."

"The leaders of these companies should be at the table when we're talking about issues of global sustainability," co-author James Watson, an assistant professor specializing in sustainability science at Oregon State University, said in a statement.

"In the past, you would not have imagined them at the table. But to create sustainability around the globe, we can't act alone in one place. We have to act in concert."

Watson et al. argue that the dominance of these companies put them in a very special position when it comes to promoting sustainability on a global scale—and put forward six key "actions" that alongside tighter regulations and more effective policy could boost green practices in the long-term.

Stock image of a globe. Researchers say just a small group of corporations have a huge amount of influence on the fate of the planet. iStock

This includes creating guiding frameworks based in scientific fact to identify problems and offer a space to find solutions, as well as initiatives to create transparency from the supply chain to the sourcing of raw materials. Other recommendations include aligning vision and setting norms across industries, divesting pension funds from unsustainable practices, and engaging with the scientific community to improve sustainability efforts.

While many of these larger companies have been slower on the uptake—and some, such as Shell and Exxon Mobil, have actively hindered the transition to more sustainable practices—public opinion has swayed in favor of political action to tackle climate change.

This is especially true among Democrats—80 percent of of whom rank climate change as their top concern (more than even healthcare.) GOP supporters may swing more climate-skeptic but recent polls show young Republicans are bucking the trend. Two-thirds said they are concerned that human-caused climate change is damaging the planet.

But if the welfare of the planet—not to mention the health of their children and grandchildren—is not enough to speed up the adoption of greener policy among transnational organizations, Watson warns poor sustainability practices will damage their bottom line and hurt finances in the long-term.

"Lots of companies have rules about maximizing profit for shareholders. But if you act unsustainably, your profits will be zero at some point in the future. Issues of sustainability are completely in line with the long-term profitability of companies," he explained.

And while these recommendations are geared towards larger, multi-national corporations, they can be applied on a smaller scale too.

"Everyone has agency. It's important to take ownership of your position in the global economic marketplace," Watson added. "Ensuring the long-term viability of the planet is a collective action problem. Everyone has to participate."

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This story is part of a Covering Climate Now project from the Columbia Journalism Review.