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Conscience, corporations and the 'green' thing.

The emergence of environmental issues near the top of the global political agenda over the past few years has not escaped the notice of the business community. The new importance of "green" issues in boardroom discussions, public relations strategies and production processes cannot be denied. There are some shining examples of "corporate responsibility" in the area of environmental protection. There are at least an equal number of blatant examples of "greenwashing," where large quantities of public relations dollars are directed towards deceiving the public about the environmental policy of a company, or distracting the public's attention from fundamental issues.

In this brief essay, I'd like to touch on two aspects of what I believe to be the fundamental issue that underlies this question. First, the merits of a partnership between business and activists; and second, the role of business in environmental protection.

Activists and business: An (un)holy alliance

As with the business community, environmental activists and organisations come in all shapes and sizes. Greenpeace has made its reputation and derives its support through its uncompromising stand on behalf of the environment, and in opposition to those forces which contribute to its degradation. While we have achieved some of what we originally set out to do in the early '70s, i.e., attract public attention to the global environmental crisis, we now have a much more difficuk task. As the level of understanding of environmental issues has increased in all sectors of society, the environment is no longer a relatively narrow issue, but is a pervasive concern of all of society. The playing field in which we operate is a lot more crowded, and the rules are more complex.

As we have long stated, the protection of the global environment must be the number one long-term priority of all human endeavour, the sine qua non of our future. We at Greenpeace believe that we are in a race for time in a war for the survival of Planet Earth, and although the messages that we must convey are now more complex, the urgency of fundamental change in the way we go about the business of life on our planet has only increased. We have at very particular times engaged in productive dialogue and come to negotiated agreements with individual corporations on specific issues; however, we will not compromise our fundamental positions in an effort to be pleasant and cooperative. We tend to see an awful lot of the overtures by the business community as offers to have us assist in rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The legitimacy of our uncompromising position is evinced by the fact of our enormous support globally, and our effectiveness at winning campaigns. However, this is not to say that this is the only legitimate position, nor that we can do it all by ourselves. We can't. There is a legitimate role for organisations who wish to try and work with other sectors of society such as the business community to bring about incremental change-Good luck to them, and I sincerely wish them every success.

One of the strengths of the environmental movement, like all social movements, is its diversity. We will never win a war of attrition with the forces we are up against, and our strength lies in our diversity and creativity, rather than brute, unified force.

Corporate conscience: A contradiction in terms?

On the face of it, environmentalists who look upon the "greening" of business with a cynical eye may seem churlish and ungrateful. After all, businesses are run by people, many of them are people of conscience, and many of them are concerned for their children's future. However, there are a few fundamental points to be made here:

One --the raison d'etre of any business is to make a profit, by definition. This is, in itself, neither good nor bad - it is a fact. Whatever societal values are reflected in corporate policy are just that, a reflection, and not fundamental to the core of the business itself. Therefore, it is my thesis that it is unreasonable to expect the business community to do anything more than to respond to public, political and market pressure in a search to fulfill its fundamental aim. The only way to ensure that this is effective in the long run is via the public, political and market restraints put on the business community. Notions of "self-regulation" are positive gestures, but in the absence of concrete, societally imposed restraints, will be only gestures.

Two - the role of the "market" in solving environmental problems is grossly overstated. With the collapse of communism and command economies, we are living in the age of the triumph of liberal free market capitalism. There are many reasons to be happy about this epochal shift, not least of which is the exposure of the gross inefficiencies and utterly irresponsible devastation of the environment wrought by the common economies of the former U.S.S.R. and former Eastern bloc. There are major fears as well, associated with the opening up of "trade" for the purposes of exploitation and potential environmental devastation of areas formerly closed to transnational corporations by the ideological power struggle between East and West. If we have one message in this area, it is to remind the global community that we live on a finite planet, with finite resources and finite "carrying capacity." Opening up of markets, reduction of trade barriers, etc., must be limited in recognition by the fact of the finitude of Planet Earth. The notion of the "market" somehow "solving" environmental problems is, to me, absurd on the face of it. Those decisions can only be taken by society as a whole, not by Adam Smith's unseen hand.

Three - the "limits" within which the market is allowed to operate must be delineated by the public and governments. Environmental organisations have an obligation to ensure that this is done in a publicly accountable fashion, globally, nationally, regionally as well as on a community level. One hopes that the triumph of free market capitalism brings with it an ascendancy in public accountability and democracy that will ensure that these decisions are taken through public processes, informed by the maxim that "the price of democracy is eternal vigilance." Greenpeace and other organisations are part of that vigilance, but all of the institutions of society must be realigned in the face of the enormous challenges facing us.

In summary, I would say that while there are some aspects of the "greening" of business which are a welcome recognition of what we have been saying for the last 20 years, there is at least an equal portion which is cynical marketing and pure public relations, designed to depict environmentalists as radical Cassandras out to destroy the economic fabric of society. In the end, what is required is a business community free to operate as efficiently and effectively as possible within limits imposed by the democratic institutions of government and society which are held accountable to an informed and ever-vigilant public. This is the only bright future scenario for life on this planet to continue.

Steve Sawyer is executive director, Greenpeace International, Amsterdam. Greenpeace has five million members worldwide, and offices in 30 countries.
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Title Annotation:How Green is Green? International Environmental Groups Debate the Wisdom of Partnerships with Business; environmental protection as a corporate responsibility
Author:Sawyer, Steve
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Words:1202
Previous Article:Profiles in green: the role of communication in worldwide corporate environmental management.
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