UK: Does it Pay to Get into Bed with Business?

Publisher Name: 
The Guardian

Do environmental and
other non-governmental groups need to get into bed with big business in
order to change its behaviour? The question is preoccupying NGOs as the
number of them forming partnerships with corporations grows.

Greenpeace,
the environmental group, decided some years ago that the occasional
corporate partnership on specific issues could help it to achieve its
goals. It has mounted campaigns on chemical pollution and climate
change, but on the issue of wind power it decided that offering
practical solutions was a better option.

Accordingly,
it helped npower - a company owned by RWE, the German utility giant -
to promote Juice, a renewable energy product, to thousands of consumers
in the UK as a clean energy option.

Not
everyone agrees with Greenpeace partnering with npower. The World
Wildlife Fund, for example, refuses to work in any way with RWE because
it burns coal in power stations and operates nuclear facilities. Other
critics say such partnerships do not create lasting change.

In
the case of Greenpeace, its partnership with npower led to the creation
of the North Hoyle wind farms off the coast of Wales. The second
offshore wind farm in the UK, North Hoyle produces Juice for the
national grid and is marketed jointly by npower and Greenpeace.

David
Threlfall, npower's chief executive, told a conference on corporate-NGO
partnerships in London this week that npower has "not sacrificed
economic performance to partner with Greenpeace" and spoke of the
"common ground" the two found in marketing wind power.

Mr
Threlfall said the number of Juice customers had leaped from 5,000 to
around 50,000 in five years, far more than either organisation had
expected.

While
the desire of Greenpeace to tackle climate change was the driving force
behind the partnership, both parties stressed that the product had to
be competitively priced to appeal to consumers.

Despite
widespread awareness of climate change, and a strong desire for green
products among consumers, Stephen Tindale, the head of Greenpeace UK,
said there "shouldn't be an extra cost [to consumers] to doing the
right thing".

The value of the partnership for Greenpeace, Mr Tindale said, was in "getting green electricity out of the green ghetto".

The
organisations jointly decide how to market the product to customers.
Greenpeace pushes Juice to its supporters, taking no income from the
arrangement.

Mr
Threlfall spoke of the "serious brand value" his firm had gained for
Juice by working with a well-known NGO. He said that, without
Greenpeace, sales growth and customer loyalty for the product would not
have been as high. "Consumers will not pay premiums for environmentally
friendly products," he said.

The
alignment between Greenpeace and npower seems set to last longer than
some other such corporate/NGO partnerships, which are often
philanthropy-driven and peter out after several years.

The
venture with npower is one of only three corporate partnerships
Greenpeace has entered. The other two were a campaign with the Co-op
Bank to remove PVC in credit cards and another with the retailer
Iceland to promote their greenhouse gas friendly "Kyoto" refrigerators.

Corporate-NGO
partnerships have their critics on the left and the right. Rightwing
groups, such as the Washington DC-based non-profit organisation
CSRWatch, claim that business engagement with activist groups
undermines democracy as NGOs are not elected and are not accountable in
the same way that companies are.

Left-leaning
groups argue that such alliances amount to "greenwash" efforts on the
part of large companies attempting to clean up their image on the
cheap. Handing over several million pounds to an NGO over a few years
is peanuts compared with the costs of real change or a global
advertising campaign, they say.

Michael
Jacobson, of the American lobby group the Centre for Science in the
Public Interest, says: "Organisations that receive substantial funding
from companies don't want to offend their supporters. It's natural."

Despite
the criticism, NGO partnerships with companies seem set to increase as
a growing number of non-profit groups around the world approach
business to fund their efforts to tackle social and environmental
problems. Many activists hope to change corporate practices along the
way.

Mr
Tindale, from Greenpeace, describes such alliances as "difficult". The
key to the successful relationship between Greenpeace and npower, he
says, is that the group maintains its independence and in no way
endorses npower's other products and activities.

"Have we gone soft?" he asks. "No".

AMP Section Name:Environment
  • 116 Human Rights