Welcome to our new feature; The Big Green Debate! The idea is to generate an interesting and thought provoking discussion about campaigning and the issues we care about. Please do tell us your thoughts about the issues raised, and the feature more generally at email@example.com, if it is successful we’ll do it as a regular feature.
This first Big Green Debate is about how much charities and NGOs should work with business, with Imogen Rattle making the case for greater partnership, and Roxanne Green pointing out the pitfalls. Please note that there may be a certain amount of devil’s advocate in this debate, and the views expressed may not be the real opinions of the writers.
The 21st century so far has been the century of the multinational company. Over half of the world’s largest economies are now not countries but businesses. There has been a corresponding shift in the roles of state, civil society and business away from centralised environmental regulation to hybrid agreements between communities and businesses, such as payment for ecosystem services and a rise in public-private partnerships to manage environmental issues. Meanwhile, global environmental summits such as Durban COP-17 and Rio +20, which focussed on the role of national governments in delivering a sustainable future, have struggled to make headway.
In this context, a refusal by NGOs and charities to engage with businesses, and to instead pursue relationships only with government and community groups, not only reduces their ability to influence some of the most powerful players in the environmental arena, but also isolates them from the community and government groups with whom they seek to engage. If everyone else is working with business, NGOs risk losing touch with the debate if they do not.
This is not to suggest that the third sector has to uncritically accept the business agenda. Businesses undoubtedly cause environmental damage, and their social effects are at best mixed. However, surely it is better for NGOs to work with them directly to mitigate and prevent that damage, while campaigning for tighter environmental legislation, rather than focussing efforts solely on encouraging governments to regulate business, an activity which, in a time of economic downturn, they seem unwilling to undertake and reluctant to enforce. Initiatives such as that between Oxfam and M&S to encourage clothes swapping, show how such NGO-business collaborations can provide innovative mechanisms to encourage sustainable behaviour, providing the elusive triple win of social, environmental and economic benefits.
In the long term, to achieve a sustainable future we need an economic model that does not rely on infinite growth within finite environmental limits. The role of business within this has yet to be determined. But, in the short term, business is likely to play a critical role in addressing issues such as climate change, which they have helped to create. Designating them as the enemy and refusing to engage ignores the complexity which is at the heart of many sustainability issues.
It’s no secret that charities and NGOs have been having a tough time of it over the past few years, and it can be tempting to think that to survive they need to work with companies from the private sector, either for financial reasons or for other perceived benefits such as increased profile. Although there may be instances where this is true, collaboration with private companies carries a lot of risks and should be approached with caution.
A lot of large multi-national corporations now have corporate social responsibility policies, which mean they will be looking to work with charities to deliver these responsibilities and demonstrate positive values. While it could be argued that it is about time big business redressed the ethical balance and undid some of the damage it has done, more often than not there is a sales angle for corporations and the motivation is still profit. ‘Greenwashing’ has become an insidious scourge.
Work carried out in collaboration with large corporations tends to carry heavy PR requirements that overshadow any actual community activity. Companies will generally insist on their logos featuring prominently and the charity that has actually done the work gets no recognition or publicity. In these instances, the community is reduced to tools to be used in a marketing campaign and their needs are not responded to at all.
By working with the private sector, charities may feel that they are having a positive effect on business practices and actions, but even if this is true they are adding an appearance of legitimacy and endorsement to these companies – which will encompass their entire activity, the good and the bad bits. A company will want to work with a charity because of the benefit it will have on its reputation, but the charity needs to be very wary of the effect that will come to its own reputation.
If we say that we need a new economics and criticise the powers that maintain the status quo, how much credibility will we have if we then work with the same organisations that profit most from an unequal society? Charities need to remain independent to maintain their relevance and to offer a meaningful alternative for a better world.