McKinsey employees call out firm for advising globe's largest polluters

29 October 2021 3 min. read
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More than 1,100 employees at consulting firm McKinsey and Company signed a letter earlier this year calling for the company to do more to encourage its clients – many of whom are among the most environmentally damaging companies – to cut their emissions. 

The open letter, signed in spring, called on McKinsey to not only redress its own emissions, but to also publicly disclose the carbon that its clients produce in aggregate and commit to helping them cut their emissions in line with meeting the Paris Agreement's 1.5 degrees celsius target.

Several of the letter’s authors have since resigned from McKinsey, which advises large corporations and governments across the globe. The New York-headquartered firm has worked with at least 43 of the 100 biggest corporate polluters over the past half-century, including BP, ExxonMobil, Gazprom, and Saudi Aramco, according to a report from The New York Times.

Reducing emissions “requires engaging with high-emitting sectors to help them transition,” said DJ Carella, a McKinsey spokesman, in a statement. “Walking away from these sectors might appease absolutist critics but it would do nothing to solve the climate challenge.”

McKinsey employees call out firm for advising globe’s largest polluters

Critics contend that the majority of McKinsey's work with the world's largest polluters does not involve helping them transition to environmentally conscious entities. Instead, the firm focuses on traditional tasks like cost-cutting, productivity, and increasing profits. 

Teck, one of the world’s largest exporters of steel-making coal, in an annual report from 2019 stated a McKinsey engagement helped the company “improve productivity and lower costs.” The Vancouver-based firm – which when accounting for coal burned by its customers produces the equivalent of one-tenth of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions – named former McKinsey managing partner Dominic Barton its chairman weeks after he stepped down from leadership of the consulting firm in 2018. Barton subsequently left Teck after he was named Canada’s ambassador to China in 2019. 

In Asia, McKinsey posted a video boasting it helped a coal company increase production by 26%, according to Eric Edstrom, a McKinsey consultant who is leaving the firm over concerns about its environmental impact.

The employee letter, which was not reported on until an October 27 NYTimes article, cautioned that failing to address clients’ emissions would risk damaging McKinsey’s reputation and its ability to attract and retain talent. 

In an Earth Day event on April 22, former managing partner Kevin Sneader announced the firm would help clients reduce emissions to reach the 1.5-degree goal. “Our aim is to be the largest private-sector catalyst for decarbonization,” he said.

McKinsey a month later launched its McKinsey Sustainability unit, which offers solutions and services to help organizations attain net-zero carbon emissions.

The firm also had previously made a pledge to have net-zero operations by 2030. 

Rizwan Naveed, a McKinsey consultant who worked on sustainability projects and co-authored the letter, sent an email to colleagues in July as he was departing the firm. “Having looked at the actual hours billed to the world’s largest polluters, it is very hard to argue today that McKinsey is the ‘greatest private sector catalyst for decarbonization,’” he wrote. “It may well be the exact opposite.”