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Forever chemicals: What ExxonMobil is lacking is a ‘Forever SOI’

ExxonMobil has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons again this month. In addition to revelations that they are actively manufacturing and using ‘forever chemicals’, it has also been disclosed that their lobbying activities have contributed to the delay of legislation relating to PFAS (forever chemicals) and plastic pollution. 

It’s glaringly apparent that the Oil & Gas industry as a whole faces significant challenges when it comes to operating in a way which makes them part of the solution not part of the problem. Their entire business model is built on the continued production and sale of resources that cause significant environmental damage. In a world where there is increasing pressure to cut carbon emissions and explore clean energy alternatives, they risk becoming obsolete unless they can shift their entire existence towards more sustainable outputs. 

Like many of its counterparts, ExxonMobil purports to take the global climate effort seriously. 

A quick look at ExxonMobil’s sustainability report provides us with the following statement ‘​​ExxonMobil is committed to producing the energy and chemical products that are essential to modern life and economic development, in a way that helps protect people, the environment and the communities where we operate. This includes mitigating the risks of climate change.’ These recent revelations would indicate that their actions are not aligned with this sentiment, and in fact, are working directly against it. In a nutshell, it’s ‘purpose washing’.

What’s more, leaked documents in 2020 reported by Bloomberg reveal that ExxonMobil projections would see their emissions increase by 17% by 2025. As these figures pre-date COVID-19, the subsequent drop in global demand for oil means the company has undoubtedly entered panic mode. A Channel 4 report was quoted as saying ‘ExxonMobil’s strategy is all about doing anything, everything, so it can go on doing one thing, pumping oil and gas to make money.’ 

None of this is surprising when you consider that the company has never made a commitment to lower oil and gas output and does not appear to be working towards becoming carbon neutral. They are also suspiciously cagey about releasing their emissions forecasting. 

Turning a blind eye, not totally committing or just doing enough is a risky business. ExxonMobile are what I would classify as a ‘Squatter’. It doesn’t pretend to have a social purpose and maximisation of profit for the satisfaction of their owners or shareholders is the ultimate goal. They are short term merchants who aren’t going anywhere fast, but, be under no illusion, they face eviction at any time. 

In its current guise ExxonMobil’s days are numbered, of that I have no doubt. The businesses of the future will be ones who don’t produce ‘forever chemicals’. Instead, they’ll be based on ‘forever SOIs’, where sustainability is placed at the very core of their business strategies .

An SOI (Single Organizing Idea) does exactly what it says on the tin -- it’s a::

  1. Single: one
  2. Organizing: systematically coordinated
  3. Idea: concept that benefits all

An SOI ties together both the economic and the social strategies of a business into one single strategy, the outcome of which is not only commercial viability, but societal sustainability. SOI is about meeting the demands of today’s employees, consumers, and investors. It’s about total commitment of all its resources towards to a progressive plan of action that can be executed, monitored and measured in real time. It’s not about ticking a box or making cheesy ‘doing well by doing good’ platitudes. SOI is the means to get on and do it. 

Examples of forever SOI’s set at the heart of strategy include Volvo’s ‘Safety’, Logistics business Euro Pools Groups ‘Maximising Circular Value’ SOI and New Zealand construction business Hawkin’s ‘Building Better Communities’. There are many more.

SOI is not a silver bullet and questioning long-established conventions, taking on indifference, and convincing people of a better way takes leadership, patience and guts. But the process is much more straightforward than those invested in the status quo would have us believe and with an SOI at the core, unlike ExxonMobil, any explanations about what your business is doing and why will always be anchored in truth and what actually matters to those invested in seeking a better way forward for their businesses, people and the planet. 

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