Sometimes I can barely keep up with the pace of the sustainability debate. After the great response to my open letter to Asia Pulp & Paper (see http://tiny.cc/sac5j ), no sooner had I put the finishing touches to that blog post when news reached me that Sky is currently running adverts for APP, whilst promoting a ‘partnership’ with WWF to save rainforests. In turn this coincided with last night’s UK Channel 4 Dispatches programme, ‘Conservation’s Dirty Secret’, in which WWF and Conservation International (see http://tiny.cc/e2u09 ) were, to put it charitably, embarrassed, not helped by dismal media performances from their respective leaders. The upshot: when WWF’s UK CEO is not on national television saying turtles are amphibians, his organisation is taking money from a conservation partnership with a broadcaster taking advertising revenue from one of the greatest enemies of rainforest conservation in the world. This can’t go on. And an awful lot of people are saying so, at least in private.
Some people would use this perfect storm to turn on the conservation movement. They would hijack this PR misfortune as proof that the green movement is full of hot air and bad science. That is the wrong reaction. We must not abandon conservation, or the (good) organisations that promote it, but we must do a lot better. My colleague Charles Secrett offers a manifesto blueprint for change in the NGO movement in today’s Guardian. You can read Charles’s open letter to the green movement here http://tiny.cc/xkvex
Big NGOs risk becoming a total irrelevance if they do not take a long hard look at themselves. Not only are they jeopardising hard won victories through poor leadership, bad communication and a lack of ideological coherence. They are playing into the hands of those who would like the environment movement to disappear, allowing the world’s worst firms to carry on their exploitation of the planet’s dwindling resources unhindered.
Today, I went to a stakeholder forum convened by L’Oreal in London. Their sustainability director, Francis Quinn, was infinitely more eloquent about global challenges and the conservation agenda than most NGO leaders and, needless to say, all politicians. It depressed me that it should take a cosmetics firm executive to reaffirm my commitment to sustainability at a time when its greatest public champions are letting down the cause so terribly badly. I could have listened to Quinn for hours, whilst I found my finger on the off button for most of last night’s Channel 4 documentary. I only stayed with it in the way you stay with a dreadful reality show – you wait for the car crash moment to happen. It did last night, long before the programme ended, along with my respect for big NGOs who take the corporate shilling.
In the end, business will tackle these issues and resolve as many of them as possible, for their own self interest. And yes, they will do so in partnership with NGOs. But it will be the NGOs who are truly independent of vast corporate financial relationships, or those that deliver grassroots, ground level, measurable conservation improvement. I’ll be backing the kinds of groups in those two categories. Where that will leave the new NGO behemoths, I’m really not sure.