Only a mindless anti-business zealot (and unfortunately there are still too many of those) would argue that environmental groups should not cooperate with big business when they have shared interests. Even activist groups like Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace work closely with big companies like Citigroup and Coca-Cola, to help them make their operations more efficient or their strategy more environmentally friendly.
But there’s lots of debate about whether NGOs should accept money from their corporate partners. Does it compromise their independence? Threaten their credibility? Or enable them to bring in more money, and therefore have a bigger impact? That’s the topic of today’s Sustainability column.
By coincidence, I spent the day at the Net Impact conference in Philadelphia where corporate-NGO partnerships were one topic on the agenda. (Net Impact is an organization of business students and young business people who are committed to using business to make the world a better place. Some 2,400 people attended the very impressive event at Wharton.) I moderated a conversation about a corporate-NGO alliance with John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, and then listened to another where Ken Mehlman of private-equity firm KKR and Elizabeth Seeger of Environmental Defense Fund talked about their work together. CCE’s Brock and KKR’s Mehlman both said their firms got real value out of the partnerships—in terms of advice on how to better manage their operations, and from the public-relations value of the association with a green group. ”If we’re going to save the plant, we’re going to do it by making a profit,” says Mehlman. “That is the only way tit will be truly sustainable.” (When private equity firms, which are notoriously unsentimental, get serious about “going green,’ then you know the business case has become truly compelling.)
Interestingly, CCE and its sister company, Coca Cola, pay the WWF for its advice, and make donations to the group to help restore rivers and streams. But no money changes hands between KKR and EDF.
There are good arguments for both models, and you can read them in the column. My belief is that the NGOs, at a minimum, need to be transparent about their dealings with business. That is, they need to disclose how much money they are taking from their corporate partner over what period of time, and what services they are providing in return. One controversial partnership, a deal between the Sierra Club and Clorox, fails to meet this test. Here’s how the column begins:
Some environmentalists attack bottled water. Not Conservation International, a Virginia-based nonprofit that aims to protect the earth’s biodiversity.
When Fiji Water announced a sustainability initiative last spring to help protect forests on the remote Pacific Island of Fiji, Conservation International Peter Seligmann praised the move.
“We applaud Fiji Water for offsetting the climate impact of its products, reducing the impact of its operations, and funding crucial conservation efforts that support local communities and protect some of the last remaining forests in the South Pacific,” he said in a Fiji Water press release.
The endorsement didn’t surprise anyone who understands the relationships between Fiji Water and Conservation International. The privately-owned bottled water company pays Conservation International – neither party would say how much – to finance the work they do together. Stewart Resnick, who owns Fiji Water with his wife, Lynda, sits on Conservation International’s board and donates to the group.
Such cozy arrangements are increasingly common as big companies work side-by-side with big NGOs (non-government organizations). Clorox secured the endorsement of the Sierra Club – and the use of its logo — for a line of eco-friendly cleaning products, called GreenWorks that the company introduced late last year. Neither will disclose how much cash is involved.
You can read the rest here.