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Environmental Activism...

Environmental Activism’s Missed Opportunity

Wal-Mart has begun to take its first tentative steps toward sustainability: In a recent shareholder meeting, CEO Lee Scott discussed plans for increasing organic food sales, experimenting with renewable energy and recycled building materials, enforcing ethical sourcing policies, and further refining their already hyper-efficient operations.

What stuns me is not this remarkable move by the world’s largest corporation, but the reaction from the activist community. Rather than celebrate important victories on the long road to a sustainable society, environmental and social activists typically denigrate these first hesitant steps as greenwashing.

Paul Blank, campaign director for the Wake-Up Wal-Mart Campaign reacted that same day by saying, “The fact is that Wal-Mart is as concerned about doing the right thing as tobacco companies are concerned about the health of Americans.”

It’s not my intent to defend Wal-Mart. I’m concerned about its impact on society, and feel strongly the company must reinvent many of its practices. What worries me is the broader trend in the sustainability movement to criticize rather than praise a company’s first efforts towards corporate and social responsibility. We’ve seen this happen with companies like Ford, General Motors, BP, and ChevronTexaco, who The Green Life listed among the worst greenwashers in the U.S.

A pattern seems to be emerging: Top management attempts to move their company toward a more sustainable future. They began a few projects oriented toward sustainability and developed advertising campaigns to create public awareness around their shifts in strategy. Activists responded negatively, pointing out how little had changed other than the company’s marketing campaign.

While the activists may have a point as far as appearances go, there is likely more going on behind the scenes. It takes years for multinational companies to turn in a new direction, and it’s unrealistic to expect wholesale changes at such an early stage. These advertising campaigns are signs of an attitudinal shift and, I hope, a commitment toward a sustainable future.

While CEOs can develop advertising campaigns with minimal support, becoming sustainable requires engaging the whole company. Another purpose the ads serve, whether intentionally or not, is to shift internal opinion, and help employees imagine a new future for the company. Without employee support any effort at change will meet resistance at every turn.

Even when the intent is not pure, seeds are being sown at every level, and there is always a chance that those seeds may take root. (As Hunter Lovins, co-author of Natural Capitalism has said to me, “Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.”) When criticism is received at this early point in transition, it has the potential to stall a company’s efforts by creating doubt both internally and externally. At this most critical juncture, it’s important that all stakeholders believe the company has the ability to change.

This is not to say that these small early efforts are enough, or that we shouldn’t hold the company to a higher standard. But I think the first tentative steps on the path to sustainability are some of the most critical. Successful first steps will teach companies to walk—hopefully later to run. And run they must if we are to have any impact on the climate changes we’ve already set in motion.

Activists could have a greater impact by recognizing these early steps for what they are and respond with support to create an atmosphere of trust and shared background. Then, with a relationship in place, they can engage in a dialog with the company that focuses on solutions rather than problems. What I’m suggesting is that civil society can achieve more by partnering with business than it can by criticizing it.

Unfortunately, there seems to be something about human nature that inclines us to see the problems over the possibilities. Companies beginning a transition to sustainability should prepare for this, and forge ahead with their plans regardless.

One tactic that will reduce this interference is to radically increase transparency. Organizations beginning a transition to sustainability, especially after years of traditional business practices, cannot expect to clean all the skeletons from their closets immediately. Companies that understand their own failings, and are transparent about the changes they wish to make, will leave no fodder from which a naysayer might build a case against them.

When a company starts down the road to sustainability they are opening the door to a new paradigm. Should we invite them in to have a meaningful conversation, or should we slam the door in their face, telling them to come back another day with a better plan?
By Matthew Smith, an ndependent business consultant and author and an MBA Candidate (2007) in the Sustainable Management program at Presidio School of Management. He is the former vice president of product marketing at Liquid Audio, and has more than ten year’s experience introducing new products at Sony Electronics Inc., including the VAIO Personal Computer product line.

Related article: Go Green