Forest fire

The Address


Bezos & Branson in space while rest of us dream of Camber Sands

Space tourism is damaging to the environment and the brands involved

By jeremy lee

The definition of hubris was propelled to a whole new level today with Jeff Bezos following Richard Branson with the launch of his space tourism rocket.

Bezos, the world’s richest person, has seen his personal wealth soar this year due to the pandemic. And while Amazon has undoubtedly performed a valuable service to the enforced housebound, it was not entirely motivated by altruism (I’m not naïve enough to think that it often is). The company he founded has frequently been criticised for the conditions in which his employees toil.

Equally, Branson’s Virgin Group, which has not had such a fortunate pandemic, has attracted unfavourable headlines when he asked the government to bailout Virgin Atlantic of which Virgin Group is the biggest shareholder. While a public backlash meant that no state help was forthcoming and that an alternative refinancing package was found, the airline was forced to cut more than 4000 jobs as international travel collapsed. The sight of Branson’s grinning face on the news last week will probably have been cold comfort.

Elon Musk, a more controversial billionaire still, has also set his sights on the moon.

But why does this matter? So what if a bunch of billionaires want to spend their money chasing childhood dreams, or launching a space tourism service for which only the super-rich (and the odd former adman) can apply?

First, the optics don’t look great. With an estimated 4 million-plus people having died of Covid, which still ravages parts of the world and particularly poorer areas, the timing is well off. But that’s a moral issue only those involved will have to wrestle come judgement day.

From a brand perspective both Amazon (from which Bezos recently resigned as chief executive) and Virgin Group have positioned themselves as challengers – on the side of their customers and entrusted to make their lives a bit easier. Space tourism for a global elite doesn’t really fit comfortably with this.

But more importantly as climate change is returning to the agenda (and for which both Amazon and Virgin Group publicly claim to be committed to helping) and the frenzy that is environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives - using carbon fuels to send rockets into space for a joyride seems as consistent with environmental good as the bottles of ‘Truckers Tizer’ found in lay-bys discarded by hard-pressed delivery drivers, but on a far grander global scale. Each rocket launch is estimated to release 300 tons of carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere where it can remain for years (and that’s aside from the heat at launch that adds ozone to the troposphere).

Sat here, on one of the hottest days of the year that has prompted a Met Office weather warning to health, I just can’t help thinking that the communications job of making these two companies look warm and caring, which was already tough, has probably gone up in smoke.

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