In a Relationship Between a Corporation and an Environmental Group: Who Wears the Pants?

in a Relationship between a corporation and an environmental groupIn the past 20 years a surprising transformation has occurred in the relationship between environmental groups and large corporations. Historically their relationship has been based on skepticism and disinterest, but a recent transformation has seen dynamics change to mutual dependence. The burning question is then, why the change of heart now? Have corporations chosen the ‘green’ side to accommodate pressure from environmental groups, or is their perceived commitment to the environment nothing more than a greenwash campaign?

The marriage between a business and an environmental group can take one of two general forms. One consisting of a distant, simplified alliance that involves corporations encouraging their employees to partake in environmental practices, while contributing financially to environmental programs. Or the later would be developing marketing partnerships with environmental groups to help them gain public visibility. Such an approach has been adopted by IBM, PepsiCo, General Motors and Motorola. Companies such as HomeDepot, Unilever, Starbucks and DuPont have opted for a more integrated managerial partnership whereby, for example, their material sourcing policies is supervised and certified by environmental groups or they work with environmental NGOs on particular projects relevant to their business sector.  Starbucks and DuPont have even agreed to share internal data and business practices with their environmental partners.

The primary concern for corporations is to maximize profits and it is no secret that business environmentalism can significantly contribute to this by cutting costs and attracting the expanding environmentally/socially conscious community. Though many green business solutions are rejected as greenwashing tactics, coalitions have formed between corporations requesting to be regulated by their environmental peers, such as the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which, some suggest, represents an increasingly inherent  environmental influence in business agendas.

So, what’s in it for the environmental group? For those who assume they are driven by financial motivation too, you should know that most of them, such as Environmental Defense, actually refrain from accepting financial contributions, preferring to depend on citizen donations. For this reason, many environmental groups try to maintain a degree of separation from corporate interests. In fact, environmental groups tend to remain quite pragmatic about their alliance with large corporations, realising that their primary interests remain fundamentally different but that helping businesses contribute positively to the environment is better than not doing anything at all.

“Of course, anything that they would find acceptable would be very different from something that we would find acceptable,” admits Josh Dorner, spokesman for the Sierra Club.

I cannot help but ask myself, who is getting the better deal out of this bargain then? Then again, perhaps it is an irrelevant question, as long as corporations and environmental groups continue to work together to establish environmentally friendly business solutions.

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2 Responses to In a Relationship Between a Corporation and an Environmental Group: Who Wears the Pants?

  1. Dominic says:

    This is a good question and an important one to consider when addressing the ‘greening’ of big business. The unfortunate reality is that corporations wear the pants in the relationship, and most of them have ulterior motives.

    This article mentions eco contributions to cost cuts, which can be true — often far down the line — but it doesn’t mention the added costs that come with environmentally minded action: new standards in waste disposal and emissions management, new legislation that forces companies to alter whole production lines (physically and chemically), elevated costs passed on from partners. These add up, and the giants of industry will never risk their overhead without careful image consideration and cost-benefit analysis.

    Regardless of what’s driving it, environmental voices are now being heard and positive discourse is flowing. It’s up to policy makers and the green consultants within these corporations to keep the pressure on. We shouldn’t worry too much whether the ends justify the means. Let them ride high horses into the sunset and be happy it’s sustainable.

  2. RelevanSi says:

    Thanks Dominic for your comment – you are right in pointing out that being environmentally minded, as you put it, does have its costs as well but trends would suggest that companies are bearing those costs for the benefit of gaining the ‘green’ image. At the end of the day, as you mention, what is most important is that issues raised by environmental groups are being exposed and changing the way that people see environmental causes.

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