‘I’m an activist in business clothing’: the CEO getting political over climate change

Dale Vince, CEO of green energy provider Ecotricity, is not afraid to lobby government on climate change – and believes other business leaders should follow suit
Ca Dale Vince

Dale Vince wears his politics on his sleeve. As a former hippy, and founder and chief executive of Ecotricity, the UK’s first clean energy company, he makes no secret of his financial support for the Labour Party, for example – or his backing for controversial climate activist groups such as Just Stop Oil. 

So, what’s the rationale for his overt political activism? After all, most business leaders tend to keep their political views under wraps. 

For Vince, it’s about two things: first, the urgency of the climate crisis, and second, who has the power to address it. For instance, he argues that while individual businesses can and should act to reduce their immediate greenhouse gas emissions, it is ultimately governments that can “pull the levers” to effect meaningful change at a macro level. 

Given that logic, should more business leaders follow his lead? Or is political activism riddled with risk and best left to private citizens and their placards? 

Vince is unequivocal: “If I look like an activist in business clothing, it’s because I am. I’m an activist using business as a tool to change the world. It’s as simple as that.” 

Why businesses need to get political on climate change

Most companies are less mission-minded. Yet even for the most profit-focused of firms, keeping out of climate politics is both unwise and self-defeating, Vince argues. 

Why? Because, like it or not, uncontrollable climate change is inimical to the long-term profitability of all companies, whatever their service area or industry. Ducking out of the political debate on climate change, he says, therefore leaves a ticking time bomb unattended. 

I’m an activist using business as a tool to change the world. It’s as simple as that

Governments’ regulatory powers are another reason why he believes business leaders should adopt a more proactive political stance. The logic is the same as traditional political lobbying; the closer companies are to policy-making, the greater their influence over its final shape.

Of course, the traffic is not all one-way. Fossil fuel companies have been employing similar tactics to stymy meaningful action on climate change for decades. Progressive companies should follow suit, Vince maintains – only with the opposite end in mind. 

By way of example, he cites the UK’s Renewables Obligation. Introduced in 2002, the law places a requirement on licensed electricity suppliers to source a minimum level of their electricity from renewable sources. 

When he was consulted at the time, Vince pushed hard for an ambitious target: “I said to set a target of 10%, to be delivered incrementally at 1% per year. And when the report came out that’s exactly what they said.” 

How can businesses inform climate policy?

After all, businesses have valuable experience of what works in the real world – and what doesn’t. Feeding those insights into policy discussions can help avoid public policies that look great on paper but prove a flop when rolled out in practice.

To do just that, Vince has set up a think-tank, the Green Britain Foundation, with the goal of bringing business nous to bear on climate policy. Its areas of focus are characteristically ambitious, ranging from installing offshore tidal lagoons to generating gas from grass. Yet each idea is grounded in practical, business-based insights, he insists.

As he explains: “What I’m doing is focusing on policies to support the innovations that are part of the puzzle of greening Britain, to inform public debate and really lay it out in detail.” 

Is there a risk in staying silent on climate change?

Politics, though, is about tone as much as substance. Most businesses opt for a softly-softly approach to political advocacy, preferring to keep their heads below the parapet and work through industry associations.

Not so Vince. A regular voice on national radio and television, he happily wades in with a view on controversial topics. Nor does he mince his words (he recently published a book with the telling title, Manifesto).

It’s a tactic which has put him in the eye of numerous media storms. While he claims not to relish seeing his name in the headlines, he says the attention offers an invaluable “platform to communicate” about climate issues.

This is about what we’re going to leave for our children… That’s not politics, that’s life

He recognises that not all business leaders enjoy his freedom to speak out. Not only is he the owner of his company but, as buyers of green electricity, Ecotricity customers typically welcome his strident activism on climate issues.

That doesn’t let other business leaders off the hook, mind you. Such is the “existential threat” posed by our heating planet, says Vince, that company bosses should speak as stridently as their position allows – even if that leads to reputational repercussions.

Leaders are understandably nervous about doing so. Just look at the Brexit debate, says Vince. Companies decried the UK’s departure from Europe and “they got hammered”. Yet climate change presents a different level of urgency, he argues. “This is about what we’re going to leave for our children and their children to live in. That’s not politics, that’s life.”

Likewise, he doesn’t buy the fear commonly expressed by businesses concerning a customer backlash. The overwhelming evidence suggests that the public want greater action on climate, not less, he says. Employing “neutral language” on climate, as many companies do, arguably runs the opposite risk, of being seen as disengaged or disingenuous. 

How to navigate the culture wars around climate change

Endorsing Vince’s view is Ursula Woodburn, director of CLG Europe, a cross-business group that lobbies in favour of climate action at an EU level and whose members include the likes of Microsoft, Unilever, Sky and Ikea.

In today’s “polarised political debate” on climate, adopting a vocal position can present risks, she admits, but there are also “enormous risks linked to not speaking up” – of which customer frustration is one. 

That said, businesses considering a more activist stance need to ensure they first walk the talk. As she puts it, “the credibility of companies’ climate leadership can and will be judged alongside their actions on the ground.”

Vince agrees, although he warns corporate leaders not to wait until their own climate performance is without reproach before taking to the political stage. Why? Because it’s a sure-fire route to silence, as no company can ever have a “perfect” record on climate.

“Ultimately, it’s politicians who hold the power to set the economic playing field,” he concludes. “Everything else is here; technology, economics, people… we just don’t have a government or politicians who are giving us the right policies.”