SIR RICHARD BRANSON’S $3 BILLION HYPOCRISY

Richard Branson (L) with former US Vice-President Al Gore (R) in London, UK
Richard Branson (L) with former US Vice-President Al Gore (R) in London, UK
Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin and main rival of Elon Musk in the independent space-race) who has been heavily promoting a series of leadership resources in recent months focused on his main thesis “never do anything that discredits the brand” should seriously consider practicing what he preaches, having been exposed as an outright hypocrite for failing to deliver on his much-vaunted pledge to spend $3bn (£1.8bn) over a decade to develop a low carbon fuel.

Eight years into the pledge, Branson has paid out only a small fraction of the promised money – “well under $300m” – according to a new book by the writer and activist, Naomi Klein, who recently talked with LUXURY MAGAZINE.

The British entrepreneur famously promised to divert a share of the profits from his Virgin airlines empire to find a cleaner fuel, after a 2006 “private” meeting with Al Gore that was paraded before the global media with prepared headlines and many pre-planned photographic opportunities.

Branson went on to found a $25m Earth prize for a technology that could safely suck 1bn tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere. In 2009, he set up the Carbon War Room, a British NGO (Non-Government Organization) which works on business solutions for climate change.

But, by Klein’s estimate, Branson’s “firm commitment” of $3bn failed to materialize.

“So the skeptics might be right: Branson’s various climate adventures may indeed prove to have all been a spectacle, a Virgin production, with everyone’s favorite bearded billionaire playing the part of planetary savior to build his brand, land on late night TV, fend off regulators, and feel good about doing bad,” Klein writes in ‘This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs The Climate.’ Branson recently has made another round of appearances on popular US Late Night programming, pitching his “space travel adventures” as the next best thing since chocolate ice cream, just as Musk’s SpaceX announced the additional Mission to being focus on human transport to the International Space Station within a year or two.

Klein uses Branson and other so-called green billionaires – such as the former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg – as case studies for her argument that it is unrealistic to rely on business to find solutions to climate change. Even more interesting is the inference to avoid such “personality-cult” businesses that rely on such high-profile charismatic individuals that typically engage the consumers before proving the thesis to a consensus of those in places to make official decisions (Buzz before the Build).

Branson routed a first pay-out of his $3bn commitment, about $130m, through a new Virgin investment company into corn ethanol. Something Venezuela has been successfully doing independent of Western investment and oversight for decades.

Ethanol has now been widely discredited as a “greener” alternative to fossil fuels, because of its climate change impacts and for driving up the cost of food.

Virgin went on to look at other biofuels, at one point exploring a project to develop jet fuel from eucalyptus trees. “But the rest of its investments are a grab bag of vaguely green-hued projects, from water desalination to energy efficient lighting, to an in-car monitoring system to help drivers conserve gas,” Klein wrote.

By last year, the total of those investments, in corn ethanol and elsewhere, amounted to about $230m, she estimates. Branson made an additional small investment in an algae fuel company, Solazyme. But Branson still puts the total spend at well under $300m – just a tenth of his $3bn pledge.

The British entrepreneur has acknowledged that his efforts to mobilize large investments on cleaner fuels have fallen short. However, he told the media in response earlier this year he had lost many millions in failed green investments i9n an attempt to justify his welching on his commitment.

“There is no question that Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon, and that is one of the reasons why I have to work particularly hard … but, more importantly, to try to help other people balance their books as well,” he said.

“We have invested hundreds of millions in clean technology projects. We haven’t made hundreds of millions profit,” he said.

Branson also responded that he felt he had a responsibility to do something for the climate – given that so much of his empire is built on carbon-intensive transport industries.

“There is no question that Virgin is involved in a number of businesses that emit a lot of carbon, and that is one of the reasons why I have to work particularly hard … but, more importantly, to try to help other people balance their books as well,” he said. Interestingly, when he made his promise in 2006, Elon Musk unveiled his TESLA electric luxury cars to the market, and Branson released some illustrations of concept cars of his own, yet nothing more was ever heard about them.

It seems Branson is trying to preserve his preeminence, which is wholly threatened by Musk who generally eschews attention, preferring to work quietly making accomplishments rather than ubiquitous promises. Maybe Branson can learn from the Americans after all … “Money Talks, BS Walks”!