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This is why we can’t have nice things

7 June, 2024

Business sponsorship of the arts, culture, and sport runs into the hundreds of millions of pounds each year. While sport, and football within that, accounts for the biggest share by far of the total annual spend, much of the country’s cultural life is built on the foundations of corporate sponsorship. From blockbuster exhibitions at the big galleries to music festivals and Christmas lights, many of the events we take for granted wouldn’t happen without business support.

Whether or not that investment is under threat remains to be seen. But sponsorship, which was once seen as a safe way to boost a company’s reputation and visibility with the public, is starting to look like a good way to undermine rather than enhance corporate reputation – from BP’s support for the British Museum to the evergreen debate about the ethics of Coca-Cola sponsoring the Olympics. Latest in the firing line is Baillie Gifford, the Scottish investment firm, that sponsors the Hay Festival and (until recently) the Edinburgh international book festival. Baillie Gifford has come under fire from groups including Fossil Free Books who have looked at it and decided they don’t like what they see, and the organisers of Hay suspended its agreement with the firm in response after several speakers announced they would not be attending.

The primary complaint against Baillie Gifford is that it invests in fossil fuel companies. This is true, but only 1% of its funds under management are invested directly in fossil fuel companies, way below the industry average of 11%. It also has a track record of investing in clean energy and transport, and a policy of long-term engagement and responsible stewardship. If you’re looking for an investment villain in the climate wars, it almost certainly wouldn’t be Baillie Gifford. As this excellent blog post from climate activist Mark Lynas argues, this whole debacle has achieved nothing apart from threatening the viability of a festival that has reduced its own carbon footprint, provides a platform for authors to discuss environmental issues, and celebrates and promotes literacy more broadly. No less money will be available to fossil fuel companies, and no less carbon dioxide will be put into the atmosphere. It also makes it less likely that a business will step in to fill the funding gap. The calculation of social and commercial risk versus return looks increasingly unattractive. No one has entirely clean hands, and it would be a brave – or foolish – business that would be prepared to put its head above the parapet given what has happened.

We won’t address the climate emergency by shaming people at a book festival, particularly a book festival that has a proud track record of giving a voice to people thinking about and writing about climate. We are all complicit in our ongoing consumption of fossil fuels, transitioning away from them will take years, not weeks, and going after Hay at best does nothing to change the status quo and – at worst – turns people away from discussion about climate completely. We don’t have good answers, but as we often do, we would say that the way forward lies in better and more transparent conversation. The world is complicated, and these are difficult problems that need dialogue and engagement. So – if you’re brave (or foolish) enough to take on the role of sponsor at Hay, bring people in. Invite the critics to the table to talk, openly and publicly, about their criticisms and possible ways forward. Let them put forward their arguments, listen to them, and respond. Show where you can change, and talk about where you can’t change. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, or even just the not-as-bad.

By Claire Jost

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