French artist Joanie Lemercier has publicly challenged Autodesk to stop selling its design software to fossil fuel companies. Behind the scenes, the firm is giving executives and workers advice on how to quietly block him on social media.
By Maddie Stone
Autodesk, the world’s leading computer-aided design software company, brands itself as a leader in corporate social responsibility.
But in internal social media guidelines, the firm has advised employees on how to quietly block a well-known critic of Autodesk’s business dealings with the fossil fuel industry, frustrating some current and former employees who believe the activist has raised valid criticisms that the firm should address.
Autodesk no longer responds in public to French artist Joanie Lemercier. But leaked documents show that Autodesk is paying close attention to Lemercier, who has been publicly calling out the Silicon Valley giant since early 2019 for selling its 3D-design software to German energy conglomerate RWE.
According to Autodesk promotional materials, RWE has used Autodesk software to design replacement parts for the towering 300-foot-tall diggers it operates at sites that include Tagebau Hambach in Germany, among Europe’s largest surface coal mines.
The Tagebau mine borders one of the continent’s last remaining ancient forests, a 12,000-year-old oak-hornbeam woodland dating back to the end of the last Ice Age. Local residents have fought for decades to stop the mine’s expansion into the forest’s remaining acres, which are habitat for dozens of bird species and other rare animals.
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According to social media guidelines disseminated ahead of Autodesk University, or AU, the firm’s annual conference and software training event that was held virtually from November 16-20, company executives should “ignore all communication attempts from Joanie Lemercier via social media and/or email.” But these executives should refrain from blocking him, the guidelines state, “as this action is visible” and “may add fuel to the existing fire.”
Other, lower levels of Autodesk employees are allowed to “[b]lock him from their personal social media channels and email so he can no longer directly contact them,” according to the guidance.
Drilled News obtained the guidelines from current and former Autodesk staffers who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation against themselves or colleagues.
If asked about the company’s “perceived lack of response” to Lemercier, the guidelines suggest that employees can state that whenever “valid concerns are raised about our business” Autodesk will “take time to listen, assess and address those concerns.”
If employees are “pressed for historical context” on Autodesk’s interactions with Lemercier, according to the guidelines, they can explain that an Autodesk executive, vice president of sustainability Lynelle Cameron, had a call with the activist in May 2019 to “get a better understanding of his concerns.”
During that call Lemercier argued to Cameron that selling software to the world’s largest fossil fuel firms conflicted with Autodesk’s own sustainability goals, and Cameron said she would share his concerns with company leaders. But a few weeks later Autodesk cancelled a scheduled follow-up call between them, and has not directly communicated with Lemercier since.
If employees are asked about that interaction, the guidelines suggest replying that ending business relationships with any clients or business sectors, even those most accountable for the climate crisis, would contradict Autodesk’s “approach to supporting customers design and make a better world.” [sic]
In a separate email with the subject “Social Media Guidance for Joanie Lemercier / AU,” also leaked to Drilled News, corporate public relations manager Taylor Long recommends that any employees doing livestreams on LinkedIn or Twitter block Lemercier. For YouTube live streams, Long recommends that employees make Lemercier a “hidden user” and add the terms “RWE,” “coal,” “fossil,” and “fuel” to their blocklists.
Autodesk spokesperson Stacy Doyle stated in email that the firm created the guidelines because Lemercier has “chosen to bombard our employees, executives and others with his unfounded claims in multiple ways, including through company communication channels and social media platforms.”
But following them is not mandatory, Doyle says. “Far from directing employee responses, Autodesk leaves it to the discretion of each employee to engage (or choose not to engage) in social media channels in safe, respectful and productive ways, consistent with company policies and goals.”
Doyle did not clarify whether Autodesk is still licensing or selling software to RWE’s coal division.
Max Boykoff, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said that Autodesk’s response to Lemercier “seems like typical damage limitation operating behind the scenes for corporate interests looking to protect their profits.”
Autodesk’s recommended talking points offer “very little indication of any meaningful, significant or even sincere engagement with the content of the challenges,” Boykoff said.
Lemercier said that it surprised him to learn that Autodesk management has recommended that employees ignore him, noting that the firm’s “Code of Business Conduct” lauds “the highest degree of honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior.”
Lemercier counts himself among Autodesk’s customers: He has used Autodesk 3-D modeling software for years to create his artworks. The fact that company insiders leaked the guidelines gave him hope, he said. “I find this really amazing that some people are willing to communicate [these guidelines] to someone outside the company. It requires some courage.”
Lemercier said that via private online messages, he has received “a lot of encouraging feedback” from Autodesk employees concerned about the company’s ongoing work with the fossil fuel industry. He declined to share any of the messages, saying that they had been sent to him in confidence.
Lemercier feels certain that Autodesk will choose to stop selling software to major carbon polluters. The question is how soon, given how fast the destructive effects of climate change are manifesting worldwide. “Even if I can shorten that time by a month, or half a year,” he said, “it would be great.”
Maddie Stone is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more. Twitter: @themadstone