Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

Since 1990, when the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and McDonald’s formed a groundbreaking partnership to reduce waste at the fast-food chain, big environmental nonprofits — EDF, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council — have formed numerous partnerships with big companies.

“Corporate partnerships have been a cornerstone of our approach ever since we launched our first partnership with McDonald’s 25 years ago,” says EDF.

Even Greenpeace, which is best known for its hard-hitting campaigns, formed an alliance with Coca-Cola and Unilever to push for natural refrigerants.

The partnerships have paid off, to a point: Dozens of big companies, from AT&T to Walmart, have worked closely with the green groups to reduce waste, buy renewable energy, curb their carbon emissions, eliminate harmful chemicals and build more sustainable supply chains to protect rainforests or biodiversity.

But, as the Trump administration prepares to launch what is shaping up as unprecedented assault on environmental regulations, the environmental groups are getting little help from their so-called partners in corporate America. At a perilous moment for the environment, big business is mostly silent.

Why won’t American business push for action on climate? That’s the question that I tried to address in a story last week for the Yale Environment 360 website. There’s plenty to worry about. The Trump administration says it intends to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, repeal the Obama’s administration Clean Power Plan, develop fossil fuels including coal and pare back other environmental protections. Its new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” and that’s according to his own bio.

Corporate America’s reluctance to spend political capital on climate/environment issues stands in contrast to its willingness to speak out on other divisive matters. When the new administration tried to restrict immigration and ban Syrian refugees, Silicon Valley and Wall Street objected, loudly. Last year, big companies strongly opposed efforts by state governments in North Carolina and Indiana to curb anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people; some firms took their business out of North Carolina.

Despite  all the corporate rhetoric about sustainability, there are few such protests from business now. As my story says:

This poses a problem for environmentalists and their allies in Congress, particularly on the climate issue.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat and a persistent advocate for climate change action, puts it this way: “One of the dirty secrets that we have to live with is that even the good-guy corporations don’t show up in Congress to lobby for doing something about climate change. Collectively, they do zero or less than zero to support climate legislation… That leaves the field to the bad guys.”

Without support from business, the environmental movement will struggle to defend itself against what David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls an “incredible onslaught from both Congress and the administration.” What’s more, if environmentalists are to have any chance of convincing the federal government to enact stronger laws or regulations to curb climate change — a long shot, admittedly, for now — they will need big companies to use their political clout to turn around the Republicans who control Congress and the White House.

Why is this a big deal? After all, some optimists argue a clean energy revolution is inevitable, no matter what Trump does. I’m skeptical. [Here’s a smart analysis by Brad Plumer in Vox.]

My believe is that if we can’t awaken business on the climate issue, we’re in a heap of trouble. Here’s my logic:

  1. Barring an unexpected technology breakthrough, such as much cheaper solar power and batteries, strong US legislative action will be needed to avoid the worse impacts of climate change. Without US action, it’s highly unlikely that China and India will keep their commitments under the Paris agreement (which doesn’t go far enough, but that’s another story).
  2. Strong US climate legislation will require bipartisan support. No major environmental law has been passed without the support of Republicans as well as Democrats.
  3. Today’s Republicans have formed a near-united front against climate action.
  4. To unlock Republican support for climate action, corporate America will have to use every bit of its political clout. They’ll have to lobby on climate with the urgency and effort that they bring to issues like taxes and trade that hit closer to home.

All this makes me wonder what those environmental-business partnerships were about. Some were sketchy from the start. When Conservation International praised Fiji Water years ago, you knew something was awry; it turned out that the bottled water company had paid CI for its consulting services. The Nature Conservancy and WWF also accept money from corporate partners, although those donations account for only a small portion of their revenues. Still, they can’t be expected to push back hard against their donors.

EDF, NRDC and Greenpeace don’t take money from companies. And their partnerships have delivered gains for the companies and for the planet. But they have not translated into political action by corporate America.

Actually, it’s worse than that. GM and Ford, through their trade association, are pushing for a relaxation of the federal fuel-economy rules that they agreed to during the Obama administration. After meeting with Trump, Mark Fields, Ford’s CEO, said“We’re very encouraged by the president and the economic policies that he’s forwarding.” Really? Policies like trade barriers and a rollback of environmental rules?

It’s clear what can be done to get companies to stand up at this #rightsideofhistory moment, as Claire Sommer put it on Twitter? Probably it will require grass-roots pressure from their own workers and from consumers–in other words, the mass movement for climate change that the green groups have yet to build.

Sen. Whitehouse said: “Consumer and public actions could really make a difference…If people start showing up in front of Ford and Chevy dealerships, politely holding up signs saying ‘please go to another dealer that isn’t trying to ruin our planet by dodging responsibilities they’ve already accepted,’ I think that will rocket its way through the dealers network and up into the companies pretty quickly.” 

For now, though, most big companies won’t stand up to Trump or Scott Pruitt on behalf of the environment. As Aron Cramer, who leads BSR, a network of companies dedicated to sustainability, told me: “Companies see a bully in the schoolyard, and they are off in the corner, doing their homework, and hoping the bully picks on someone else.” They fear Trump more than they fear EDF, NRDC, Greenpeace or the Sierra Club. That has to change.

3 thoughts on “Disappearing act: Corporate America, environmentalists and climate

  1. Zeynep Pinar Ozturk says:

    Very sincerely written, thank you. We need a “John Lennon” who will inspire people with his/her thoughts and life style.


  2. Kevin says:

    Excellent. So important. Got me fired up. Thank you, thank you.

    Picky point : To be fair, Fiji Water paid for a rain forest conservation agreement. Good stuff. Not consulting.


  3. Reid Detchon says:

    Marc, this one and your Yale piece are well done. We are seeing once again that companies by and large are followers, not leaders, with the exception of a few public-spirited CEOs. They evaluate their business interests (usually short-term) and evaluate risk and pressure from government and their customers. When they see that their business strategy is threatened by inaction (or worse) by Washington, or when (more likely) their customers demand action, they will respond – but in most cases, unfortunately, not before.


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