Posts Tagged ‘greenwashing’

CSR and Tropical Conservation

J from the ’Hood has challenged aid bloggers to write something about Corporate and Social Responsibility. This is my contribution focusing on my specific area of expertise.

I’m going to start with a bold assertion unsupported by anything more than my gut feeling. Corporate donors to tropical conservation are mostly big polluters and destroyers of landscapes, i.e. they are consciously attempting to atone for their ‘bad’ acts elsewhere that have harmed the cause of conservation. I think this unpacks in two ways: firstly such companies have a clear motivation in trying to give themselves a better name by supporting conservation projects, and secondly companies who do not suffer from such negative press tend to find other (humanitarian) causes worthier of their support.

Thus CSR in the conservation context is qualitatively different from a lot of other CSR. This leads to charges of greenwashing which pose tricky problems. In my experience each of us tends to draw the line in a slightly and subtly different place. As I discussed in my reaction to the exposé earlier this year of CI’s corporate cosying, I am generally happy to accept the polluter’s shilling on the basis that we, at least, can do some good with it, and that, greedy as we are, there will always be someone willing to take it, so better us than some charlatan. But, I also accept the validity of the more principled position that treats people such as us as Judases.

Wrapped up in all this is one of the big questions of CSR: compensatory philanthropy versus integration into core business practices. I think just about everyone agrees that it is better not to sin in the first place, than to make some later atonement, and thus conservation BINGOs need to be wary of cosying up to big polluting businesses who are fundamentally uninterested in changing their ways. (For more on this again see my previous post on CI’s screw-up. Also see Richard Black’s excellent analysis of the good cop / bad cop division of the conservation NGO sector.) But on the other side of the coin, we must be realistic: the modern world consumes an awful lot of resources (hydrocarbons, minerals, timber, food) whose production or extraction is inevitably messy. So, yes, we should constantly push polluters to improve their acts, but we should accept that some environmental damage is unavoidable, and welcome their attempts to atone for this elsewhere.

Finally, and as I have previously noted: corporate donors tend to be rather more relaxed that institutional and government (or multi-lateral) donors: their grants come with less strings attached. Arguably this is just because the donor is more interested in a little bit of our perceived halo rubbing off on them, but the halo effect will be much more pronounced with an effective project, so it would be naïve to suggest that corporate donors are uninterested in results, and they might counter that their own experience of ‘getting things done’ is that trusting the discretion of a good project manager is much more effective than a raft of restrictive regulations.

CI’s Defence

Conservation International have hit back at their accusers over the ‘scandal’ of their engagement with big business with CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann’s robust defence of their approach. I note that Seligmann raises many of the same points I did last week.

Seligmann also points fingers of his own, accusing the investigators of using all the usual journalistic dirty tricks of taking things out of context, thus highlighting the supposedly inappropriate elements of the conversati0n without the balance of the safeguards that Seligmann claims CI always seek. There is a simple solution to this; Don’t Panic TV should release the entire recordings and other correspondence that they had with CI, then others can decide for themselves.

On CI’s side, though, they could do with highlighting what specific improvements to business practice have they been instrumental in achieving through their money-spinning engagement with big business. What do they mean by their “expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices”? Without a bit of substance to this CI might appear to be just spinning around the same old greenwash they’ve been accused of providing.

My guess is that the business improvement aspect might have been a bit weak, and that CI and other conservation BINGOs that engage with big business may need to tighten up their acts a little bit. If that happens then this storm in a teacup might have been no bad thing.

CI screws up

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.

Greenwashery?

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.

The fallout

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.

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