Does Working with Business Compromise the Environmentalist?

Does Working with Business Compromise the Environmentalist?

Debate between George Monbiot and Jonathon Porritt, published in The Ecologist, September 2000

Dear Jonathon,

Corporate power is not the only threat to the environment, but it is surely the most pressing. By lobbying and cajoling our governments, corporations have undermined or avoided the environmental laws which would restrict their destructive activities. Globally, making use of the World Trade Organisation and other shadowy international bodies, they have forced down standards, to minimise environmental protection.

Corporations behave like this not because the people who run them are evil, but simply because the directors have a “fiduciary duty” to maximise their share value. Even if they wanted to act like philanthropic organisations, they could not. This means that they must, legally and constitutionally, seek to offload as many of their costs onto other people or the environment as they can. This is why they clamour so loudly for deregulation, in the hope of diluting the health and safety, consumer protection and environmental standards which force them to carry their own costs.

Our duty as environmentalists is also clear: we must fight to ensure that companies are subordinated to democratic control, re-regulated and held to account. As a result of our activities, the corporations have acquired a further duty: to co-opt and capture us, in order to prevent us from reducing their market value. They seem to be encountering some success.

The Cheshire Wildlife Trust was one of the most outspoken opponents of Manchester Airport’s second runway. But after it lost the public enquiry, it took money from both the airport and the runway contractors. At the same time, its position switched from outright opposition to cooperation, leaving the protesters who were still trying to stop the development exposed and bewildered.

Robert Napier, the new chief executive of the World Wide Fund for Nature, was formerly a senior manager at the mining company RTZ (now Rio Tinto) and the peat diggers Fisons, and the chief executive of the quarrying firm Redland. They are all among the UK’s most destructive corporations. Mr Napier announced that he would “increase our engagement considerably with companies”. Some of WWF’s employees have reported a corresponding decline in the radical content of the organisation’s work.

Your own organisation, Forum for the Future, also makes a virtue of working closely with big companies. The forum claims that its partners all “have a demonstrable commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development”. Among other defenders of the environment, they include BP Amoco, Blue Circle Industries and Tesco. Could this be the same BP Amoco which is building the world’s first offshore oil development in the Arctic? It’s surely another Blue Circle that has been seeking permission to use tyres, chlorinated solvents and heavy metals as fuel in its cement plants. Perhaps there are also two Tescos. The one I’ve heard about has squashed the government’s out-of-town parking tax, and is pursuing its expansion plans as vigorously as ever before. It seems to me that these companies have a demonstrable commitment to the most unsustainable development they can get away with.

By allowing yourselves to become dependent on corporate funding, and allowing them to use you as a public relations opportunity, you surely put yourselves in a position of weakness. Where is the power disposed in this relationship? What do you tell them if you don’t like what they’re doing – do what we say, or we won’t take your money any more?

And it’s not just a question of funding. Going for Green, for example, struck a deal with McDonalds to print environmental messages on the company’s sugar sachets. Going for Green was praised by the McDonalds’ chief executive for being a “non-political campaign. The role of the individual in protecting the environment should not become a political issue”. The deal, he added, “encourages … the feelgood factor”. An environmental group, in other words, was helping McDonalds to create the impression that it was protecting the environment, without changing any of its practices. Compromised? We’re being cauterised.

I have no objection to talking to corporations, or indeed to efforts to encourage them to moderate or improve their technical processes. But it is both naive and dangerous to imagine that gentle persuasion can change their core activities. They will do what is most profitable, whatever the impact on the planet might be. Their destructive activities become unprofitable only when campaigners turn their customers against them. This is much harder to do if other environmentalists are convincing their customers that the companies are not half as bad as the radicals say. By working with them while witholding from public criticism, you allow them to appear both credible and reasonable, undermining the only people who could really hold them to account.

We must deal with corporations on our own terms or not at all. In the absence of draconian democratic controls or new market imperatives, they will remain the enemies of the environment. Their fiduciary duty demands it.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

Dear George

It would seem we share the analysis, but not the prescription. Part of the problem (as you say) is the way companies are incorporated and held accountable. Their “fiduciary duties” do indeed oblige them to pursue unsustainable profits, whether they feel happy about this or not. That’s precisely why I have been fighting “to ensure that companies are subject to democratic control, re-regulated and held to account” for the last 30 years, and why I continue to do so today – though in a different way.

Your prescription is to campaign against large multinationals as the source of all Earth-bashing evil, and to go on hammering them until they change their wicked ways. Paradoxically, as an upholder of democracy, you have little respect for the notion of promoting diversity within the Green Movement, and expect everybody instantly to tow your particular tactical line.

By contrast, even though I think your arguments are flawed, I am delighted that you should keep firing off your weighty anti-corporate salvos, and delighted that organisations like Greenpeace keep biting corporate ankles with undiminished vigour. Unlike you, I believe we all need each other, pursuing the same goal (of an equitable, sustainable world) in different ways.

In that more pluralistic, less authoritarian context, we each put our energies where we think they can more effectively be deployed. In 1995, after 25 years of campaigning against people, principally through the Green Party and Friends of the Earth, I chose to put my energies into forming partnerships with companies, local authorities, universities and professions to help accelerate the transition to a sustainable society. I chose to work within – in your moral universe, “to work with the enemy” – not because my views are any less radical now than they were in 1970, but because I am convinced that solution-based partnerships are a key part of the overall picture.

For one thing, I have much less faith in the power of consumers or the efficacy of government than you appear to have. Campaigners fool themselves if they think the odd triumph against a Monsanto, Shell or Nike are evidence of some radical consumerate (ie an electorate that prefers to shop rather than vote). Relative to other factors, there is not a lot of consumer pressure on companies today; indeed, the vast majority are quite happy to go on buying their products and services regardless of their impact on other people or the planet.

You would seem to prefer to avert your eyes to your uncomfortable reality, precisely because it is so much easier to hit the companies than it is to hit out at the hundreds of millions of people buying their way into an ecological meltdown. Yet the reluctance to look upstream at the source of the problem – namely, us – is both politically naive and vaguely dishonest.

As to governments, you are of course right to keep coming back to regulation as the most effective way of ensuring corporate social responsibility on our terms, of transforming the very concept of fiduciary duty. That’s why I keep campaigning to drive that particular agenda. But how well do you think we are doing, George? The occasional tweak of the regulatory ratchet is as much as we can get these days – precisely because people like you and me have persuaded too few voters to give these issues the overarching significance they deserve.

In the meantime, there’s a huge amount to be done by working to bring about change from within companies as well as from without. The companies we work with do not pretend to be exemplars of sustainable practice, and go on getting a lot wrong, with damaging environmental and social consequences. But in a way that would have been unthinkable even five years ago, they all accept the need to change over time, and are quite genuinely looking for help in effecting that change. That’s where Forum for the Future comes in, to help change mindsets, incrementally improve performance, drive innovation, improve the dialogue with stakeholders and so on. We engage forthrightly (as a campaigning charity, not a business consultancy), but always on the basis of trust and shared challenge.

A “position of weakness”? In an odd kind of way, our work with companies is both mundane and high risk at the same time. We understand the risks of co-option and “selling out” rather better than I suspect you ever will. Yours, after all, remains the easy option, looking down with (occasionally patronising!) moral superiority, secure in your absolutist world view that multinationals are the principal engine of environmental destruction, that the individuals who work for those companies are amoral, incapable of being influenced by cogent analysis or moved by fears for their own children, and that those who work with them must by definition be morally inadequate and politically compromised.

Your final argument (that people like me, working with companies, undermine the efforts of people like you, working against companies) is interesting but unsubstantiated. There has, for example been no diminution in campaigns against BP Amoco since that particular company entered into partnership with a number of different non-governmental organisations – including, I might add, Greenpeace itself! If anything, external pressure has increased since then. And like Greenpeace, we too feel that we are dealing with corporations “on our own terms”. And that our work complements everything that you and others are doing at the same time.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathon Porritt

Dear Jonathon,
We agree that corporations behave as they do because their fiduciary duty demands it. So why do you go on to insist that I think it’s because their directors are “amoral”?

If you accept that corporate bosses do bad things not because of the badness of their hearts but because they are obliged to, then surely you can see that they also do good things, not because of the goodness of their hearts, but because they are obliged to. Monsanto collapsed not because we asked them nicely, but because we made their corporate strategy unworkable. Conversely, when Malcolm Walker, the head of Iceland, received a BEMA environment award last year for his company’s stand against genetic engineering, he commented, with commendable honesty, “you are rewarding me for pure self-interest”.

Perhaps you could point to some historical occasions on which gentle persuasion has led to dramatic political change. I can’t think of any. As the freed slave and anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass remarked in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Have you really unlearnt this lesson to the extent that you believe we can persuade corporations to abandon their core business practices, by appealing to the good grace of their directors?

I am concerned that your will to believe has allowed you to be used. Your magazine, Green Futures, carries adverts for Lafarge Redland Aggregates, the company seeking to turn the proposed Special Area of Conservation in South Harris into a gigantic superquarry. But this is not mentioned. Readers are instead assured that the firm has a “long-standing commitment to environmental improvement”. The magazine insists that members of your “Forum Business Network”, such as BAA and Vodafone, are “interested in tackling sustainability issues”. Yet nowhere does it tell us that BAA is still seeking to build Heathrow Terminal 5, the biggest and most fiercely contested greenfield development ever conceived in the United Kingdom, while Vodafone is now constructing its world headquarters on greenfield land in one of the most sensitive places in southern England. Why do you tell us only one side of the story? Why are you helping your corporate partners to mislead us?

You compare your approach with that of Greenpeace. Yes, Greenpeace has been lobbying to persuade BP’s shareholders to demand more investment in renewables. But it has also been taking direct action against BP’s attempts to drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. Greenpeace, in other words, is prepared to use the stick as well as the carrot. It’s not clear to me that you are using either.

Isn’t it obvious that this leaves you compromised? By publishing misleading corporate propaganda while refraining from attacking malpractice in public, you surely help to legitimise and validate the way these companies operate. By insisting that, with the right voices in their ears, corporations will regulate their own behaviour, you surely help them to avoid the external regulations we both agree are necessary. If they can wear the Jonathon Porritt badge of approval before they have changed, then what incentive to change are you offering?

Of course I support pluralism and a diversity of approaches. And, as you know perfectly well, I also campaign to persuade consumers to change their buying habits: I wasn’t aware that contesting corporate malpractice precluded this. But I do not support uncritical collaboration. Talk to corporations, by all means, but don’t allow yourself to be used, by them, against the rest of us.

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

Dear George

What a touchingly naive world you live in to suppose organisations like
Forum for the Future seek to change business behaviour “by appealing to the
good grace of their directors”!

Our task is really rather different: to show the world as it is, and as it
will be; to explain what sustainability is and isn’t – confusion is still
chronic; and then, one way or another, to elaborate “the business case” for
that company in committing proactively to more environmentally and socially
responsible behaviour.

As your quote from Malcolm Walker demonstrates, self-interest (often of the
“enlightened” rather than “pure” variety, by the way) works far more
powerfully than vapid moralising when dealing with the company as a whole –
ie as a legal entity with pre-existing fiduciary duties. It is different
for the individuals in that company, who it is possible to inspire and
motivate in a quite different and less pragmatic way.

Your lack of logic about this is overwhelming. On the one hand you
acknowledge that these companies (and the individuals in them) are in no
position to leap from their wholly unsustainable present to a wholly
sustainable future in one fell swoop – precisely because of those
pre-existing duties. They must therefore set out on the long journey
towards sustainability, inevitably, doing both good and bad in the short
term, but hopefully moving in the right direction.

On the other hand, your absolutism compels you to deny any positive benefits
arising from the steps taken on that journey. For you, it has to be all
bad, all the time. So you talk of BAA and the proposed Terminal 5 at
Heathrow, but would never allow yourself to admit in public that BAA may
also be doing many good things ( So why
do you tell us only one side of the story? Why do you seek, in everything
you write, to mislead us by ignoring those elements in the journey that are
so inconvenient to your particular approach?

Your reading of environmental change, by the way, is as jejune as those who
read the history of nation states purely in terms of wars, dramatic events
and mighty rulers, as if these things could ever define a nation and the
changes it goes through. The history of the environment movement is indeed
punctuated by the occasional “dramatic” moment, but its real success lies in
unceasing, undramatic persuasion and pressure, leading to steady,
incremental change amongst both politicians and business people. So fixated
are you on a macho, “them and us” battleground that you deliberately ignore
this rather more humble model of transformation.

For me, that approach is just beginning to work. What was unthinkable for
most companies even five years ago is now thinkable, do-able, and in some
commendable cases, already done. But you’re absolutely right to point out
that such incrementalism will never get us far enough fast enough – which is
why we both campaign hard for tougher regulations, new controls, far higher
(and mandatory) standards of corporate governance, and so on You just
choose to put all your eggs in that one basket; I prefer to work on both
fronts simultaneously, and do not believe (as you do) that the one excludes
the other.

“Compromise” to us is therefore not the offensive insult you would like it
to be. In the work it does with companies (which is only one aspect of our
work, by the way!), the Forum for the Future has consciously chosen to
embrace compromise as part and parcel of the business of accelerating
change. We do that purposefully, and free of the absurd illusions with
which you believe we are imbued. That means I do indeed allow myself to be
“used”, in the admittedly simple belief that commending and multiplying the
take-up of good practice is as likely to prove effective in securing change
as constantly castigating bad practice. For you, that means the “Porritt
brand”, in conferring that “badge of approval”, is terminally contaminated.
You might well be right, but I rather hope others will see it differently.

Jonathon Porritt

Dear Jonathon,

If you have managed to change some corporate practices, I’m very pleased, but this doesn’t mean that you have to help companies whose net impact is deeply negative to create the impression that they are the friends of the environment. Isn’t it sufficient that the editors of most national newspapers and TV stations sit in their back pockets? That adverts everywhere tell only their side of the story? That there are precious few outlets for the people trying to expose malpractice? Do they really need your help to spin a partial picture of their activities?

I don’t believe that the battle to save the environment is all about dramatic events, but I do believe it is about them and us, for corporate interests, as we have agreed, are at variance with those of society as a whole, and they will exploit us if they can get away with it. This is why we must be so wary of helping them to pull the wool over our eyes.

This needn’t, of course, prevent us from praising good practice when we see it, but I believe there is a world of difference between this and lending our brands to a corporate public relations programme. You might believe that your endorsement of BAA has nothing to do with Terminal 5, but as far as they are concerned, bringing the former director of Friends of the Earth on board, while the current director is fiercely opposed to their plans, is a brilliant coup. Why do you lend them your name when they are still planning to go ahead with this development? Why not make your approval conditional on their withdrawal? Or would that threaten your own “enlightened self-interest”? Wouldn’t your case be more robust if you weren’t taking their money?

Yours Sincerely,

George Monbiot

Dear George

I suppose if you’ve only got one song, you’d better keep on singing it. Just weave in a bit of holier-than-thou personal abuse to spice it up – though I hope you won’t mind me mentioning that I haven’t noticed you refusing to work for The Guardian unless they stop carrying adverts for the companies you so despise. Or would that threaten your own enlightened self-interest?

We’re all compromised, in one way or another, even pious George. We all draw the line in a slightly different place, as activists, consumers or citizens, depending on our judgement of how we can be most effective. To a certain extent, we have deliberately built up Forum for the Future to be effective with precisely the kind of people and organisations you wouldn’t give the time of day to.

In turn, that’s because your effectiveness depends on your absolutism. It must be all black or all white, with no shades of grey in between. You know as well as I do that the world isn’t quite like that, but you couldn’t be the media person you’ve become if you did the kind of “on the one hand, then again on the other” stuff that I do.

And thank God for that absolutism! Over the last ten years, I have learned just now much those working “the inside track” – with companies or government – depend on those hammering away from outside. Many of the companies we work with, for instance, live in dread of being targeted by Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, and that’s no bad thing. In fact, it would be a disaster to the Green Movement as a whole if those organisations renounced confrontation and embraced the Forum’s “solutions-based partnerships”, or if you started writing corporate puff pieces instead of your sustained and powerful invective.

So enjoy the contrast, George. I need you to do the work I do; sure as hell you don’t need me!.

Yours sincerely,

Jonathon Porritt