Is Big Business Buying Out The Environmental Movement?

Publisher Name: 
Good Jobs First


In the business world these days, it appears that
just about everything is for sale.
Multi-billion-dollar deals are commonplace, and even
venerable institutions such as the Wall Street
Journal
find themselves put into play. Yet
companies are not the only things being acquired.
This may turn out to be the year that big business
bought a substantial part of the environmental
movement.

That's one way of interpreting the remarkable level
of cooperation that is emerging between some
prominent environmental groups and some of the
world's largest corporations. What was once an arena
of fierce antagonism has become a veritable love
fest as companies profess to be going green and get
lavishly honored for doing so. Earlier this year,
for instance, the World Resources Institute gave one
of its "Courage to Lead" awards to the chief
executive of General Electric.

Every day seems to bring another announcement from a
large corporation that it is taking steps to protect
the planet. IBM, informally known as Big Blue,
launched its Project Big Green to help customers
slash their data center energy usage. Newmont Mining
Co., the world's largest gold digger, endorsed a
shareholder resolution calling for a review of its
environmental impact
. Home Depot introduced an Eco
Options label
for thousands of green products.
General Motors and oil major ConocoPhillips joined
the list of corporate giants that have come out in
support of a mandatory ceiling on greenhouse gas
emissions
. Bank of America said it would invest $20
billion in sustainable projects over the next
decade.

Many of the new initiatives are being pursued in
direct collaboration with environmental groups.
Wal-Mart is working closely with Conservation
International
on its efforts to cut energy usage and
switch to renewable sources of power. McDonald's has
teamed up with Greenpeace
to discourage
deforestation caused by the growth of soybean
farming in Brazil. When buyout firms Texas Pacific
Group and KKR were negotiating the takeover of
utility company TXU earlier this year, they asked
Environmental Defense to join the talks so that the
deal, which ended up including a rollback of plans
for 11 new coal-fired plants, could be assured a
green seal of approval.

Observing this trend, Business Week detects
"a remarkable evolution in the dynamic between
corporate executives and activists. Once fractious
and antagonistic, it has moved toward accommodation
and even mutual dependence." The question is: who is
accommodating whom? Are these developments a sign
that environmental campaigns have prevailed and are
setting the corporate agenda? Or have enviros been
duped into endorsing what my be little more than a
new wave of corporate greenwash?

An Epiphany About The Environment?

The first thing to keep in mind is that Corporate
America's purported embrace of environmental
principles is nothing new. Something very similar
happened, for example, in early 1990 around the time
of the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
Fortune
announced then that "trend spotters and
forward thinkers agree that the Nineties will be the
Earth Decade and that environmentalism will be a
movement of massive worldwide force." Business
Week
published a story titled "The Greening of
Corporate America."

The magazines cited a slew of large companies that
were said to be embarking on significant green
initiatives, among them DuPont, General Electric,
McDonald's, 3M, Union Carbide and Procter & Gamble.
Corporations such as these put on their own Earth
Tech environmental technology fair on the National
Mall and endorsed Earth Day events and promotions.

A
difference between then and now is that there was a
lot more skepticism about Corporate America's claim
of having had an epiphany about the environment. It
was obvious to many that business was trying to undo
the damage caused by environmental disasters such as
Union Carbide's deadly Bhopal chemical leak, the
Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the
deterioration of the ozone layer. Activist groups
charged that corporations were engaging in a bogus
public relations effort which they branded "greenwash."
Greenpeace staged a protest at DuPont's Earth Tech
exhibit, leading to a number of arrests.

Misgivings about corporate environmentalism grew as
it was discovered that many of the claims about
green products were misleading, false or irrelevant.
Mobil Chemical, for instance, was challenged for
calling its new Hefty trash bags biodegradable,
since that required extended exposure to light
rather than their usual fate of being buried in
landfills. Procter & Gamble was taken to task for
labeling its Pampers and Luvs disposable diapers
"compostable" when only a handful of facilities in
the entire country were equipped to do such
processing. Various companies bragged that their
products in aerosol cans were now safe for the
environment when all they had done was comply with a
ban on the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Some of the
self-proclaimed green producers found themselves
being investigated by state attorneys general for
false advertising and other offenses against the
consumer.

The insistence that companies actually substantiate
their claims put a damper on the entire green
product movement. Yet some companies continued to
see advantages in being associated with
environmental principles. In one of the more brazen
moves, DuPont ran TV ads in the late 1990s depicting
sea lions applauding a passing oil tanker
(accompanied by Beethoven's "Ode to Joy") to take
credit for the fact that its Conoco subsidiary had
begun using double hulls in its ships, conveniently
failing to mention that it was one of the last oil
companies to take that step. 

At the same time, some companies began to infiltrate
the environmental movement itself by contributing to
the more moderate groups and getting spots on their
boards. They also joined organizations such as
CERES, which encourages green groups and
corporations to endorse a common set of principles.
By the early 2000s, some companies sought to depict
themselves as being not merely in step with the
environmental movement but at the forefront of a
green transformation. British Petroleum started
publicizing its investments in renewable energy and
saying that its initials really stood for Beyond
Petroleum-all despite the fact that its operations
continued to be dominated by fossil fuels.

This paved the way for General Electric's
"ecomagination" public relations blitz
, which it pursued even
while dragging its feet in the cleanup of PCB
contamination in New York's Hudson River. GE was
followed by Wal-Mart, which in October 2005 sought
to transform its image as a leading cause of
pollution-generating sprawl by announcing a program
to move toward zero waste and maximum use of
renewable energy
. In recent months the floodgates
have opened, with more and more large companies
calling for federal caps on greenhouse gas
emissions. In January ten major
corporations-including Alcoa, Caterpillar, DuPont
and General Electric-joined with the Natural
Resources Defense Council and other enviro groups in
forming the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. A few
months later, General Motors, arguably one of the
companies that has done the most to exacerbate
global warming, signed on as well.

A Cause for Celebration or Dismay?

Today the term "greenwash" is rarely uttered, and
differences in positions between corporate giants
and mainstream environmental groups are increasingly
difficult to discern. Everywhere one looks, enviros
and executives have locked arms and are marching
together to save the planet. Is this a cause for
celebration or dismay?

Answering this question begins with the recognition
that companies do not all enter the environmental
fold in the same way. Here are some of their
different paths:

Defeat. Some companies did not embrace green
principles on their own-they were forced to do so
after being successfully targeted by aggressive
environmental campaigns. Home Depot abandoned the
sale of lumber harvested in old-growth forests
several years ago after being pummeled by groups
such as Rainforest Action Network. Responding to
similar campaign pressure, Boise Cascade also agreed
to stop sourcing from endangered forests and J.P.
Morgan Chase agreed to take environmental impacts
into account in its international lending
activities. Dell started taking computer recycling
seriously only after it was pressed to do so by
groups such as the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Diversion. It is apparent that Wal-Mart is
using its newfound green consciousness as a means of
diverting public attention away from its dismal
record in other areas, especially the treatment of
workers. In doing so, it hopes to peel
environmentalists away from the broad anti-Wal-Mart
movement. BP's emphasis on the environment was no
doubt made more urgent by the need to repair an
image damaged by allegations that a 2005 refinery
fire in Texas that killed 15 people was the fault of
management. To varying degrees, many other companies
that have jumped on the green bandwagon have sins
they want to public to forget. 

Opportunism. There is so much hype these days
about protecting the environment that many companies
are going green simply to earn more green. There are
some market moves, such as Toyota's push on hybrids,
that also appear to have some environmental
legitimacy. Yet there are also instances of sheer
opportunism, such as the effort by Nuclear Energy
Institute
to depict nukes as an environmentally
desirable alternative to fossil fuels. Not to
mention surreal cases such as the decision by
Britain's BAE Systems to develop environmentally
friendly munitions
, including low-toxin rockets and
lead-free bullets.

In other words, the suggestion that the new business
environmentalism flows simply from a heightened
concern for the planet is far from the truth.
Corporations always act in their own self-interest
and one way or another are always seeking to
maximize profits. It used to be that they had to
hide that fact. Today they flaunt it, because there
is a widespread notion that eco-friendly policies
are totally consistent with cutting costs and
fattening the bottom line.

When GE's
"ecomagination" campaign was launched, CEO Jeffrey
Immelt insisted "it's no longer a zero-sum
game
-things that are good for the environment are
also good for business." This was echoed by Wal-Mart
CEO Lee Scott, who said in a speech announcing his
company's green initiative that "being a good
steward of the environment and in our communities,
and being an efficient and profitable business, are
not mutually exclusive. In fact they are one in the
same." That's probably because Scott sees
environmentalism as merely an extension of the
company's legendary penny-pinching, as glorified
efficiency measures.  

Chevron Wants to Lead

Many environmental
activists seem to welcome the notion of a
convergence of business interests and green
interests, but it all seems too good to be true. If
eco-friendly policies are entirely "win-win," then
why did corporations resist them for so long? It is
hard to believe that the conflict between profit
maximization and environmental protection, which
characterized the entire history of the ecological
movement, has suddenly evaporated.

Either corporations
are fooling themselves, in which case they will
eventually realize there is no environmental free
lunch and renege on their green promises. Or they
are fooling us and are perpetrating a massive public
relations hoax. A third interpretation is that
companies are taking voluntary steps that are
genuine but inadequate to solve the problems at hand
and are mainly meant to prevent stricter,
enforceable regulation.

In any event, it would
behoove enviros to be more skeptical of corporate
green claims and less eager to jump into bed with
business. It certainly makes sense to seek specific
concessions from corporations and to offer moderate
praise when they comply, but activists should
maintain an arm's-length relationship to business
and not see themselves as partners. After all, the
real purpose of the environmental movement is not
simply to make technical adjustments to the way
business operates (that's the job of consultants)
but rather to push for fundamental and systemic
changes.

Moreover, there is a
risk that the heightened level of collaboration will
undermine the justification for an independent
environmental movement. Why pay dues to a green
group if its agenda is virtually identical to that
of GE and DuPont? Already there are hints that
business views itself, not activist groups, as the
real green vanguard. Chevron, for instance, has been
running a series of environmental ads with the
tagline "Will you join us?"

Join them?
Wasn't it Chevron and the other oil giants that
played a major role in creating global warming?
Wasn't it Chevron that used the repressive regime in
Nigeria to protect its environmentally destructive
operations in the Niger Delta? Wasn't it Chevron's
Texaco unit that dumped more than 18 billion gallons
of toxic waste in Ecuador? And wasn't it Chevron
that was accused of systematically underpaying
royalties to the federal government for natural gas
extracted from the Gulf of Mexico? That is not the
kind of track record that confers the mantle of
environmental leadership.

In fact, we shouldn't
be joining any company's environmental initiative.
Human activists should be leading the effort to
clean up the planet, and corporations should be made
to follow our lead.

AMP Section Name:Environment