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Green NGOs cannot take big business cash and save planet

Hands up for the environment. Cathal McNaughton/PA

When she wrote recently that “big green groups” are doing more harm than good when it comes to saving the planet, Naomi Klein was was right to be concerned.

In recent years the environmental agenda has become heavily corporatised. Unimaginable a few decades back, partnerships between environmental NGOs and big-brand companies have become common. The Environmental Defense Fund led the way in 1990, partnering with McDonald’s to introduce more sustainable packaging. Today, the WWF receives funding from and works with Coca-Cola to “save” polar bears, and acts as “conservation partner” to IKEA.

Conservation International has partnerships with Starbucks and Walmart. The Nature Conservatory has partnered with Boeing, British Petroleum, Shell, Monsanto, and Walmart, among many others. Even Greenpeace, one of the more traditionally anti-corporate NGOs, is now cooperating with Unilever and Coca-Cola to promote “Greenfreeze” refrigeration technology (though unlike others, Greenpeace does not accept corporate funding).

Ties between environmental NGOs and the world’s largest oil and gas companies have also deepened. To name just a few examples, Time magazine reported in 2012 that “between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club, a US grassroots conservation network founded in the 19th century, accepted over US$25m in donations from the gas industry”. The majority of these funds came from Chesapeake Energy, one of the world’s biggest gas drillers.

The Nature Conservancy has accepted millions of dollars from British Petroleum (BP) and is currently working with BP to “ensure their oil exploration efforts in the West are done sustainably”. And Antony Burgmans, a non-executive board member of BP, sits on the board of WWF International. While not completely new, such links between environmental NGOs and the biggest retail and energy corporations in the world are now commonplace, and growing in number.

As Peter Dauvergne and I argue in our forthcoming book Protest Inc., corporate-NGO partnerships do not represent a simple business takeover of activism. But they do demonstrate a significant shift in the strategy and ethos of many NGOs. They reflect the acceptance of corporations as allies rather than adversaries, and of the market as an efficient and acceptable tool through which to pursue environmental objectives. As many of the big environmental NGOs morph into global business-style institutions, they have come to value win-win moderate calls for “concrete and measurable progress” and impact over more radical disruptive demands to transform the system.

A consequence of environmental NGOs opting to co-operate with corporations has been that more effort has gone into market-friendly and consumer-driven activism - eco-certification and eco-labeling, for example, which helps legitimise rather than challenge business as usual.

For instance, the WWF/Coca-Cola campaign to “save” polar bears has driven sales of over one billion cans of Coke adorned with a white polar bear. The Sierra Club’s partnership with Clorox rents out the club’s century-old logo to help market a line of “green” cleaning products, in exchange for a percentage of sales. One can only imagine that John Muir, the Sierra Club’s first president and staunch advocate of ecological preservation, would hardly be impressed at the extent of his group’s compromises.

Efforts such as these may improve the ecological footprint of individual products and bring revenue to cash-strapped environmental organisations - but they are not fundamentally helping the planet, in fact they reinforce unsustainable patterns of production and consumption worldwide.

The great danger of corporatisation is that while environmental NGOs tinker at the edges with efforts to improve recycling and packaging (such as Greenpeace’s campaign to remove the illegal Indonesian paper fibre in Mattel’s Barbie boxes), overall consumption is rising exponentially. So too is the power and profit of the oil and retail corporations whose unsustainable business models drive climate change.

Grassroots environmental movements and groups continue to resist and challenge corporatisation. But this does not mean they are unaffected by it. Our research has found that at as global leaders praise corporate-NGO partnerships, politicians, police forces and court rooms in nations such as the UK, US and Canada treat street-level activists — particularly those involved in direct action — increasingly harshly. When credible alternatives are smeared by association, such actions only enhance the power that corporations have to weaken environmental activism.

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