Is there any company in the world ethical enough to sponsor the Hay Literary Festival?

As the Hay and Edinburgh literary festivals are forced to drop their headline sponsorship following accusations of ‘greenwashing’, perhaps well-intended protestors should be more discerning about their targets

June 01, 2024
Image: Sally Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Sally Anderson / Alamy Stock Photo

How is your hay fever this year? If unusually bad, I hope you will not be using Sudafed. If struck down with a tummy bug, on no account should you reach for the Imodium. Do not power your TV remote with a Duracell battery. Throw away your Jo Malone candles; do not think of gargling Listerine; forget navigating by Waze. Never book an AirBnB—and avoid all literary festivals.

Why? Because these brands, and many others like them, have been in the spotlight recently for being their allegedly less-than-immaculate ethical credentials.

Reaching the very highest levels of ethical purity these days is not easy. Before attending an event or using a particular product, you would be well advised to Google to discover if it’s on any boycott list—though, actually, Google is itself suspect and you should probably stop using it.

Google reportedly has a £960m contract with Amazon to provide Israel’s government and military with cloud computing and AI infrastructure, and has just sacked 28 workers who protested against it. You might want to use Bing instead.

Oh, hold on—Microsoft has just opened a giant data centre in Israel, so forget that.

But literary festivals are surely all right? What could be more harmless than the Hay Festival, held each year in the sheep-dappled Welsh countryside? After your early morning session with the Hay Yoga Collective you can settle down with Chris Skidmore to discuss net zero; or hear George Monbiot on how neoliberalism came to control your life; or a series of Planet Assembly workshops on facing up to the climate emergency.

Was there ever a greener festival than Hay? It is, in every way, sustainable, recyclable, compostable and biodegradable. If you must drive there, you’re advised to offset your CO2 emissions. Spare food goes to community centres. Warmth for the windier tents comes from air-source heat pumps. These guys deserve a halo.

Except Hay has just been weighed on the scales, and found wanting. This year’s festival had barely begun before performers and authors started receiving letters suggesting that they should withdraw from the festival.

A handful of writers, comedians and politicians duly pulled out and suddenly the festival was plunged into crisis. These things can snowball remarkably quickly—and, as big-name events were threatened with cancellation and security concerns piled up, the organisers felt they had no option but to haul up the white flag. The alternative was, they feared, economic wipe-out.

Hay’s offence was to have accepted a little more than £100k in sponsorship from a Scottish asset management company. If you’ve heard of Baillie Gifford at all it’s probably because it has, over the years, been extremely generous in funding festivals—in Hay, Cheltenham, Stratford, Henley and Edinburgh—as well as an eponymous prize for non-fiction.

But, like Sudafed, Imodium and Jo Malone candles, Baillie Gifford is apparently not quite pure enough—at least not to everyone. Some of its clients’ money is invested in fossil fuels; and others in companies which are said by protestors to “profit from Israeli apartheid, occupation and genocide”.

Baillie Gifford does not quite see it like that. It says that only 2 per cent of its clients’ money is invested in businesses connected with fossil fuels—compared, it says, with a market average of 11 per cent. It argues that it is misleading to complain about its investments in companies such as Amazon and Meta on account of their own commercial dealings with Israel—and that it has tiny sums invested in companies such as Air BnB which have been criticised for their activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

If Baillie Gifford hadn’t lavished so much money on literature festivals, it’s quite possible that few people would have paid much attention to them. But by sponsoring enlightened gatherings of debate and learning they pinned a giant target on their own backs—and made the festivals themselves feel somehow toxic.

At his last press conference at the end of his 1962 presidential bid, the failed candidate scowled: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” The same, I suspect is true of Baillie Gifford. On Thursday evening , the Edinburgh Book Festival duly dropped them after 20 years of sponsorship—it seems likely that other festivals and prizes will follow.

So we won’t have Baillie Gifford to kick around any more. They can slink back to relative obscurity—because, actually, when it comes to the climate crisis or the catastrophe in Gaza, there are a multitude of much bigger culprits to blame.

You have to ask: is there going to be a queue of whiter-than-white companies willing to sponsor Hay or Edinburgh in future, thereby making themselves targets? Or will the organisers just trim their cloth, close down, or bump up their ticket prices so that only the elites can attend?

I find myself conflicted. I believe in, and have indeed campaigned for, divestment from the most polluting companies on the planet. Target them. There are 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions. We already have at least three times the amount of oil and gas we can burn and still have a safely habitable world. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see banks run a mile from such companies.

It would be ridiculous to have the Chevron, ExxonMobil or Gazprom Hay Festival. Everyone would see that for what it was: an attempt to launder a stinking reputation by association with the world of ideas and literature.

But does anyone seriously think that, by bunging Hay or Edinburgh a hundred grand or so, Baillie Gifford was in some Machiavellian way trying to greenwash its brand? I don’t.

I am scared by what’s happening to our climate—at, it seems, hurtling speed. I approve of climate protesters in general and believe in the decent motives of Fossil-Free Books, the organisation which targeted Baillie Gifford. I’m sure they genuinely wanted to stimulate a debate about divestment rather than to trigger the near collapse of an impeccably green forum of ideas.

But consequences, if unintended, can be predicted. In a perfect world, protestors would be a bit more discerning about their targets; companies would more rigorously check their moral compasses. And Baillie Gifford would be welcomed back into the world of Socratic debate. What are the chances?