No, Arms Dealers Don’t Count as “Environmentally and Socially Responsible” Investments

Arms industries across Europe and North America are trying to get credentialed as “ESG”-friendly options for environmentally and socially conscious investors. That’s absurd. As long as their products are used to perpetuate war, they will remain sin stocks.

M1A2 Abrams tanks in Nowa Deba, Poland, on April 12 2023. (Artur Widak / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

Military sectors are ramping up efforts to “green” warfare. To support the rebranding of the military as a “driver of climate action,” arms industries from Europe to North America are demanding recognition as ESG-friendly sustainable investment options. That is: environmentally and socially responsible businesses. Arms industries bring security, we are told. And security is a precondition for “any sustainability.”

What hides in this statement? What is lost as we allow military actors to monopolize the meaning of a sustainable future? Unless we want to see the real definitions of both security and sustainable practices silenced — those needed to actually address climate and social crises — military investments must remain “sin stocks.”

Monetizing and Militarizing Sustainability

We live in a time of compounding environmental and social crises, from climate change to armed conflict to systemic human rights violations. As a result, financial investments in arms — the means of death and destruction exacerbating such crises — have acquired an increasingly bad aftertaste for investors with a concern for environmental and social sustainability. At present, this trend is facing a dangerous U-turn as weapons lobbies are putting minds, money, and manpower to co-opting sustainability in theory and practice.

This is made painfully clear by the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, who define military security as intrinsic to sustainability. “Security is the precondition for any sustainability,” they write. Through “helping to ensure security,” the argument then goes, the European arms industry “de facto makes a vital contribution to a more sustainable world.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given this narrative wings. One month into the war, Swedish bank SEB backtracked on its celebrated blanket ban against weapons investments to include parts of the arms industry in their brand-new sustainable investment policy. Similarly, in March 2022, Citibank noted that “We believe defence is likely to be increasingly seen as a necessity that facilitates ESG as an enterprise, as well as maintaining peace, stability and other social goods” — foreboding the growing acceptance of military sectors’ “ESG credentials.” The signal rings clear: with the return of total war to Europe, investing in arms and dual-use systems is our only hope to protect democracy and so achieve sustainability.

What we are witnessing is a concerted effort across European and North American state, finance, and military sectors to cement the link between the arms industry and sustainability, through naturalizing military security as intrinsically linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Particularly Goal 16: “Peace, justice and strong institutions.” So far so good — that is, in a world where militarized forms of security are so normalized that we accept the arms industry’s usage of the terms at face value. Few stop to ask, what kind of security is invoked here? Unless we ask this, we will fail to apprehend what kind of sustainability military industries can guarantee.

Security and Sustainability for Whom, at What Cost?

What security arms producers stand as gatekeepers to is well captured by the industry’s propensity for secrecy and corruption or its habit of profiting from war crimes and social unrest. Dictatorships pay as well as democracies, and importing states are all the same to Euro-American arms suppliers, especially if they are engaged in active conflicts. Well, as long as the buyer regime is militarily involved in countries of less strategic and symbolic value to the “West” — like Saudi Arabia in Yemen or Israel in Palestine. As for Russia in Ukraine, this logic was easily flipped on its head with profitable consequences for Euro-American arms dealers. Russia’s war against the “free world” has instead instigated “a new era for the defense industry” — the era in which Euro-American arms can be classified as socially responsible goods as they “defend” that world.

The coupling of military security with sustainability is buttressed by another myth that sustains the industry: that arms exports are guarantors of peace. What peace, one might ask? The peace associated with eight years of humanitarian disaster in Yemen, generated by a war armed by Euro-American companies? The peace associated with political repression and police violence among the world’s worst human rights abusing states, propped up by Euro-American surveillance and population control equipment? The peace associated with the exacerbation of armed conflict from the uncontrollable proliferation of Euro-American arms across war-torn regions throughout MENA and the Sahel? Arms seldom stay where they were intended to go.

The military sector is wired toward maintaining control — read: securing an unjust status quo — and reacting to symptoms rather than addressing root causes behind conflict. This predisposes the sector’s understanding of sustainability as one that serves the interests of those with power and resources to the detriment of those without.

Yet, in today’s society, the military’s voice is institutionally prioritized. It carries a veneer of rationality and objectivity that only the military can muster, in a world where militarism has become so commonplace that we do not react to subways featuring adverts for fighter jets while prohibiting those that raise voices for peace. A world where schoolkids go without lunch or nurses are denied adequate pay rises after carrying a whole nation through a pandemic, while the military sector receives billions in budget bumps on a yearly basis.

Will wasting more money on arms make us safer in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis? Will the production and export of these arms pave the way for practices that protect the environment? Any claim to sustainability made by military actors is destined to be reactive and superficial, not preventative and profound.

Saving Power and Profit Over People and Planet

Like with all arms industry politics, the paradoxes are ripe. While military contractors are touting their sustainability horn, they are also lobbying their governments to be exempted from novel EU legislation mandating companies to respect human rights and the environment. As some of the EU’s largest arms exporting governments support this exemption plea, the European arms industry is given the go-ahead to prioritize profit over people and planet. This is telling of how serious the industry really is about stepping in as the guarantors of a sustainable future, beyond their conscientious hyperbole.

In 2022, we saw the highest total of world military expenditure ever. On top of this, NATO nations, from Germany to Poland to the UK to the United States, now embark on recent historical military spending sprees — as if military spending was not already disproportionate to the real-world needs of both people and planet, representing an utter misplacement of vital resources. The stakes are high for military contractors to get their sustainable label in time to harvest this spending. Yet, the stakes are much higher for the populations bearing the brunt as the arms industry flourishes.

As more is lost to the militarization of environmental and social crises, less is spent on addressing root causes and preventing further environmental and social breakdown. Far more sustainable would be to prioritize diplomacy and development over “defense” and invest in the practices that stop wars from erupting — from climate solutions to peacebuilding to global health and beyond — rather than the industries that depend on the perpetuation of war to line shareholders’ pockets.

Challenging the militarization of sustainability by foregrounding people-centered nonmilitary security frameworks and just social and environmental transition experiences and solutions, is our only hope.