Students Urge Bank of America Chairman to “Walk the Talk” on Sustainability

posted by Rainforest Action Network

On Saturday, December 15, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville will award Bank of America chairman Charles Holliday an honorary doctorate, citing his leadership in business sustainability. A graduate of UTK, Mr. Holliday has made a career as a corporate advocate for sustainable business; in 2002, he co-authored a book titled “Walking the Talk” which detailed the importance of ecological balance and corporate social responsibility.

Given all the talking Mr. Holliday does about sustainable business, it is a crushing irony that his “walking” includes presiding over Bank of America, the single largest funder of mountaintop removal coal companies.

Students at the University of Tennessee have noticed this significant inconsistency, and they are organizing a response. Mr. Holliday has been invited to a teach-in that will feature Coal River Mountain Watch president Bob Kincaid on the devastating impacts of mountaintop removal and what Bank of America, and Mr. Holliday, can do to stop it.

The following editorial was written by University of Tennessee Student David Hayes, and appeared in the UT Daily Beacon on December 4th, 2012.

Sustainability deserves bank chair’s attention

Upon looking back through their emails to Nov. 9, students will find an email from Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, informing them of UT’s decision to award an honorary doctorate in engineering to the leader in business sustainability and current chairman of Bank of America, Charles O. “Chad” Holliday. This is no small feat, and only three people before him can boast of this achievement. Holliday has a well-deserving résumé, highlighted with his past position of CEO of DuPont and his experience of providing leadership in national and international committees, summits and organizations centered on sustainability.

As a result of Holliday’s honorary degree, he will speak to the graduates during commencement and probably offer a few inspirational and optimistic words to the newest editions of the workforce. For me, this begs a question: is Chad Holliday doing his part to contribute to the glowing future he will speak of?

Most would say yes; however, I would have to disagree. Holliday has an extraordinary opportunity to inject his obvious belief of environmental sustainability into a situation that desperately needs it. Among many controversies, Bank of America is the nation’s largest financer of the coal industry and has funded destructive business practices, such as mountaintop removal (MTR). MTR is a particularly deadly form of coal mining which blasts the tops off mountains and fills the valleys with the toxic, displaced rubble. Hundreds of mountains in the Appalachians have been destroyed and hundreds of streams erased due to this destructive practice. If that weren’t enough to cause Holliday to act, communities across Appalachia have suffered due to the activities of Bank of America-funded coal companies. Studies have shown that MTR sites have life-threatening health impacts, such as contaminated drinking water and poor air quality, and a multitude of deaths can be contributed to this dangerous form of mining.

All this, and Holliday still will not stand up for the devastated communities, which is strange for someone who is known for being a champion in business sustainability.

As scientists keep reminding us, the impact of humans on climate change is real and already impacting the lives of people across the globe. This summer’s drought and Hurricane Sandy have taught many Americans about the cost of unsustainable practices, not unlike what Bank of America funds. Furthermore, the coal industry is suffering an increasing amount of criticism for being America’s largest source of climate emissions and devastating so many communities nationwide. The pressure is building and the internationally renowned expert on business sustainability has an excellent opportunity to lead Bank of America to a brighter and greener future.

Coincidentally, Holliday wrote a groundbreaking book called “Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development.” The book stresses that sustainable growth, which inherently has strong commitments to environmental and social justice, is necessary to add value to businesses. Funding businesses that overtly destroy Appalachian ecosystems and lowers the quality, and sometimes length, of lives for so many would seem to contradict his message.

Holliday will be a great speaker at commencement and will undoubtedly provide a memorable experience for all of those in attendance; however, for him to truly live up to all of the praise he will receive, Holliday will need to walk the talk and stand up for what he has said believes in. Holliday must strive to take to the first step toward a cleaner and sustainable future by ceasing loans to coal companies that practice mountaintop removal, and take further responsibility by setting a goal of emission reductions that includes all of its financed businesses.

David Hayes
Sophomore in Logistics

University of Tennessee at Knoxville