I couldn’t ignore the big scandal about Conservation International’s apparent willingness to greenwash the biggest arms company in the world. That this story should break just after my post In defence of BINGOs is unfortunate.
The scandal raises many issues, but let’s start with the notion of greenwashing. The allegation is that a seat on CI’s ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ somehow absolves a corporation of all their eco-guilt. Whilst to a certain extent CI’s corporate relations officer was clearly peddling that line in the video, I don’t think that anyone really believes that. Just sponsoring a few conservation projects around the world did not give BP a free pass on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greenwashing value of membership of that council is not far off from CI’s price of under $40k per year.
Should we take these guys’ money?
Next up is the question of whether conservation organisations should take big polluters’ money. I’ve been part of groups faced with this question several times. Each time our answer has been: “Yes. We can do something good and worthwhile with this money, and that outweighs any minor symbolic good we would achieve by rejecting it.” As above, we have tended to believe that the greenwashing value of our individual projects is fairly minor, although when put into a portfolio maybe that is less true. But then to overcome that problem we need to face down the tragedy of the commons; my guess is that there’ll always be conservation projects out there will to take the polluters’ grubby cash.
Certainly some organisations, especially campaigning outfits such as Greenpeace, need to steer clear of dirty money lest their campaigns be tainted and undermined. But for on the ground conservation work I am not so sure. What I can tell you is that corporate donors tend to be much more flexible than institutional donors with their myriad rules as to how we can and cannot spend money. So just as the greenwashery may be worth more to the polluter than they are paying, so can the financial support provided be worth more to a conservation project than the headline dollar figure.
Should we even be talking to them?
This kind of suggestion, which unfortunately comes up far too often from deep green types, I find most disappointing. I am very happy that the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are out there screaming from the rooftops about all the eco-crimes being committed around the world, many of them by these big, bad corporations. They are there to keep everyone on their toes, although sometimes they have been known to get it wrong, as with Greenpeace’s complaints about Shell’s plans for disposal of a North Sea oil rig ~15 years ago.
But equally we need to engage with these big companies on less emotionally charged levels and to understand their issues and their concerns. Most people working for these companies are not inherently evil, they are just working from a different starting point than we are. (If environmental degradation externalities are ever priced properly into accounting standards maybe this will change.) Some people work to change from within (the Gorbachev approach), others from without. I think it is right that conservation BINGOs talk to big business. When Greenpeace or someone else gives a company a PR beating (which they probably deserve), then they need to be able to turn to someone to advise them on how to fix it (and not just the PR but their underlying failings too). Importantly, big business needs to believe they can trust this organisation.
In addition, we need to remember that, as with the Asian sweatshops supplying multinational sports good companies, that often the risk aversion of big business, especially with respect to corporate reputation, tends to ensure that they are often far from the worst environmental offenders. Chinese mining and oil companies tend to cause more environmental damage than their western counterparts. We want everybody to improve, but if you beat up on the not-so-bad guys too much, they’ll just pull out leaving the field to the even-worse guys.
I have previously discussed NGO accountability on this blog. It seems there is now a new kid on the block to keep us accountable. Overall I think this is probably a good thing. Suggesting, as one commenter did on the Ecologist article, that this is undermining the environmental movement, and that we should instead seek solidarity misses the point: such thinking leads to arrogance and poor responsiveness by BINGOs.
But, nonetheless, apart from the damage done to CI, and, by extension, other conservation NGOs, I am sad about the implications of this exposé. CI were naïve in how they responded to the journalists’ approach. Next time they will be less so, but more caution comes at a price. Lawyers and managerial checks get inserted into the system, gumming it up; conservation BINGOs will be less open in future.
Conservation International clearly need to clean up their act a bit, and I guess the ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ has now lost all credibility. Other conservation NGOs will learn important lessons. But I really hope that after this storm has blown over conservation NGOs continue to engage pro-actively with big business, balancing positive and negative, and that, as a result, big business continues to improve its environmental performance.
UPDATE 25/05/11: See my discussion of CI’s response here.