May 202011
At last, a response from CI to the Don’t Panic sting. It’s here, in the Huffington Post, in case you missed it (as I had). 

I find it troubling. There is no suggestion that there was some breach of CI procedures or protocol. There is no answer on whether discussing PR plans to help neutralise cluster bomb civilian casualties was either morally sound or wise, whether being taped or not. There is no explanation as to what the due diligence and ethical processes in choosing corporate partners are. There is no pledge to review the organisation’s practices. No word on whether the employee has been spoken to.

It actually reads like the sort of meek response that laggard companies offer when accused of wrongdoing. To my knowledge, no one at all has said NGOs shouldn’t work in partnership with corporations. They’ve been doing so for decades. No one has claimed that business isn’t a large part of the answer to some of the world’s most pressing problems. And no one has said that no NGO should ever take money from a company (even though some choose not to). 

The fact is (and of course the ‘sting’ was selectively edited, just as presumably Conservation International’s response was carefully edited) that we heard a CI executive pricing up membership of a CI business forum on the basis it would show  ‘leadership’ by an arms firm. We heard an absurd attempt to link the company’s aviation interests with a possible partnership on endangered birds of prey. We heard about how PR support would be costed into any proposal. Selectively edited or not, these things were all said. 

The fact that Don’t Panic were using fake identities isn’t really the point. Indeed, that’s what makes it so troubling – that CI thought it was dealing with a real situation. 

If a company responded to allegations in this manner, it would be accused of dodging the issues. If it failed to set out a series of remedial actions, campaigning against it would continue until it had (ask McDonalds, Kimberly Clark, Nestle et al). You don’t have to take corporate money to be an effective change agent for business (Greenpeace is more effective than most at influencing commercial practices – again, ask the companies I mention). All three are now far down the path of implementing progressive, ambitious and game-changing policies on areas where campaigners held them to account. They are deservedly winning praise from their erstwhile critics as they do so. 

Similarly there are countless NGOs who work effectively with business where there is a financial relationship. Companies like M&S, WalMart, Unilever, Nike, Timberland and Kraft would not have made the strides they have in recent years without supporting organisations who can advance their mission to better business practices. But they tend not to sign cheques to join talking shops that make little difference. They lead from the front. 

I didn’t feel any of these nuances came across in the CI response. It is a blunt, arrogant reply that sidesteps a debate in which they are now deeply embroiled. This was an opportunity to engage in that debate, and show a little humility and contrition, promising such a ghastly episode will not happen again on the current leadership’s watch. That is, after all, what would be asked of a corporation by any conservation group worth its salt. In my opinion, the whole episode and its response are an inevitable consequence of an organisation now so large that it has forgotten its core purpose. Which is bad news for conservation, as the dollars raised and spent could achieve so much more. 

May 162011
So today Puma joined the ranks of sustainable business leaders, stole a march on competitors, and fielded that invaluable asset, a smart and human CEO, to unveil an ambitious way of accounting for the Puma supply chain’s impact on biodiversity, putting a price on eco system services from cotton field to consumer use. There’s coverage aplenty on all good news sites, but it’s worth reiterating briefly why this news is getting good coverage despite several other global news stories.
  1. It’s new, different and can claim a level of innovation not seen in the sports apparel sector (and indeed many others) to date
  2. The company isn’t saying it’s green, it’s illustrating how hard it is to be green, by highlighting the negatives of its supply chain impact
  3. The company CEO is not only leading, you can tell he’s been involved throughout by the way he answers tricky questions
  4. The communication is authentic, doesn’t overclaim, and addresses emerging challenges. It’s therefore hard to attack as greenwash
  5. The business case is being made effectively for why ignoring ecosystem services is a commercial risk. Others will copy it – which is good.
All enough to win a fair hearing by cynical London media, a John Snow treatment of the CEO, from which the latter emerged unscathed, and tons of favourable social media buzz. I don’t know who was behind today’s communications, but hats off to them. And well done Puma. 
May 132011
The sting on Conservation International (CI) by ‘Don’t Panic’ (see video  raises big questions for big NGOs. In case you missed it, a corporate relations executive for CI was taped in London offering a partnership to reporters posing as representatives from a major arms company. Other than the usual price list of ‘engagement opportunities’ that they were offered came the more absurd suggestion that a partnership on endangered birds of prey (in the Middle East, conveniently) might tap nicely into the arms company’s ‘aviation’ business. The video is worth a look. 

It would be quite wrong to say this is business as usual for CI. We don’t know all the facts, and clearly this particular CI representative is as stupid as she is unprincipled. CI is a big organisation and can be forgiven the odd staff error. But this episode is important because of the ongoing conversation going on, beneath the media radar, about the behaviour of some of the big NGOs and their relationship with companies. 

Last week in a session I chaired at the Responsible Business Summit, one NGO executive stood up and introduced herself as a ‘senior account manager handling a number of large corporate accounts’. For a second I thought I had misheard the name of her organisation (which I won’t repeat here) and that she was from a public relations company. Sadly, I was wrong. 

The growing dominance of fundraisers and corporate marketing staff in big NGOs is becoming a real concern. What they gain in funds they lose in policy expertise. For every hour spent helping companies with their PR they lose an hour achieving change at ground level. Partnerships between the giant NGOs and multinationals often achieve little in the long run – they are as much about co-branding as they are about lasting change. That’s why certification groups are so important – they do at the farm, forest or fishery level what others can’t and don’t. 

I have seen this ‘conservation by price list’ in action many times, when I’ve taken clients round some of the bigger ‘business-friendly NGOs’. For this much you get that, add £25,000 and you can join this. It’s wrong. And it’s unsustainable. 

I’m sure this dismal slip up will lead to some serious debate at the highest levels of CI and comparable organisations. But the more these groups behave like global PR firms, the more they will be tarnished with the same brush. There’s a reason PR firms are increasingly in the spotlight, over companies like APP, BP, Trafigura. It’s that they will work for anyone on anything, for the right price. The CI video suggests the particular executive involved might be better off leaving the NGO sector for one of the big marketing groups – the values set is just about right. Not only has she tarnished her own organisation, the has tarnished NGOs and even principled consultancy firms (yes, they do exist). In doing so, people who want the sustainability movement to disappear have been given some nice ammunition of their own to add to their narrative. Appropriate, given the conversation included a section about cluster bombs and weapons recycling. It beggars belief really.

In my firm we would never entertain a conversation with any client or prospect such as the one caught on tape. We’d never give such idiotic advice for a start. We are very clear about what will and won’t work, what is credible and what is pointless. My own criteria for what I will and won’t work on are here, in cased you missed them. It’s a sad day when a for profit consultancy applies a stronger values system than a global non profit NGO. I don’t agree with some of the inferences about CI’s other corporate partners, by the way. There are plenty of companies with imperfect histories who are not only moving in the right direction but absolutely pivotal to progress on the planetary emergency. The arms trade isn’t among them though, and CI should make sure this never happens again, as well as having a long hard think about its whole approach to corporate engagement. 
May 092011
I voted to change the voting system in last week’s UK referendum, not because I particularly love the Alternative Vote system (or indeed any system), but simply because I wanted to make it harder for politicians to do anything. In general, other than a few global treaties over the decades, politicians are so far behind companies and NGOs on the environment that when they eventually wake up it is usually to obstruct, cause muddle where clarity and consensus reigned, and impose stale old thinking of limited use to anyone, let alone the natural environment. 

The recent botches over solar power, the forest sell-off, Sustainable Development Commission and the Green Investment Bank have all made a mockery of the ‘greenest government ever’. On fundamental issues of food security, eco system services, tropical commodities and their deforestation footprint, resource depletion and biodiversity, renewable energy and countless other policy issues, government is largely asleep. Whatever good thinking comes out of government is commissioned externally. And seldom implemented. 

It’s probably better this way. When I worked in sustainable seafood, nearly all interactions with governments around the world were a disaster. For the fish. Here, the government woke up over palm oil. About six years after multinationals and NGOs were starting to sort out the problem.  When I worked in communications, I learnt not even to contemplate bidding for government contracts, such was the frustration and disappointment involved in winning them. It is simply a sign of the times that business has become the (potential) solutions provider to the planet’s system failures, often working in partnership with NGOs whose policy ambition and credibility far exceed those of any politician, whatever electoral system put them in office. 

So when given the opportunity to create more muddle, confusion and magnify the tradeoffs and stalemates that are inherent in coalition government, I jumped at the chance. The rest of the country didn’t. Let’s hope the ‘strong and stable’ governments that future elections will bring don’t keep getting in the way of what needs to be done. I’ve reached the conclusion that the more government keeps out of the environmental debate the better. The market will decide. That sounds laissez faire and Thatcherite, but it isn’t. The NGOs now act as the framework setter that ought to make markets perform better and deprive them of their excesses. Although this regulatory role was once the role of government, politicians aren’t interested enough in this agenda for them to meet their responsibilities. 

So they should simply own up to the fact they don’t care about or understand sustainability, and get out of the way. The conversations between business and civil society at last week’s Responsible Business Summit underlined again just how behind our politicians are in a world of which they understand little. It used to be said that the problem with business is that it only thinks two quarters ahead. That is no longer the case – companies are having to think decades ahead, to plan for resource scarcity, climate volatility and lock in supply chain resilience. Politicians are now the short term gamblers, with a mere three to five year electoral and budgetary cycle to worry about. In my opinion, that rules them out of the game when it comes to sustainability. 
May 052011
Just back from the excellent Ethical Corporation Responsible Business Summit. The biggest and best crowd of speakers and delegates yet, and a sharp agenda. A highlight for me was to be asked to present the Lifetime Achievement Award at the awards dinner on Tuesday. The recipient is a close friend and colleague of mine – you can see who won and what I said about him here

I chaired an interesting discussion led by Transparency International, Greenpeace and Christian Aid on how they handle business relations, from positive engagement to playing hardball. All three organisations are sophisticated in how they design their formal (and informal) liaison with business. Loretta Minghella gave a powerful speech about the moral imperative to end poverty, and described some of the distressing things she had seen in her first year as Christian Aid’s Director. As she put it – ‘I hope you never have to see what I’ve seen’. Charlie Cronick was blunt and entertaining in equal measure about Greenpeace’s climate activism – pointing out that the company that makes the world’s greenest car also lobbied heavily against legislation in California that would have required less pollution from the automotive industry. Jermyn Brooks from TI shared the golden rules for corporate engagement of NGO stakeholders. 

In the graveyard shift (4.45pm on day 2 of a packed agenda), we managed a somewhat lively discussion about how to engage marketing and brand directors on sustainability issues. I had noticed that of the 450 plus delegates at the conference, very few if any were marketing directors. They all appeared for the awards dinner on Tuesday evening though. A revealing symbol of some of the challenges we face in connecting sustainability directors with their marketing colleagues.. .

Ethical Corporation will be releasing the audio of all key sessions in a couple of weeks so you can check their site if missed the event but want to catch up on any content. 

Lastly, we’ve redesigned and updated the Robertsbridge Group website – do drop in!