The interplay between Greenpeace and corporations

By Jackie Rogers

The last two classes (on Aspen’s participation in the Kleercut boycott and McDonald’s efforts to create and maintain a sustainable supply chain) have highlighted to me the complex interplay between NGOs (such as Greenpeace) and profit-focused corporations. While I admit that I can’t quite shake my skepticism of Greenpeace and its often over-the-top activities, these cases did help me see some positives in how Greenpeace can 1) encourage operational changes in corporations, and 2) leverage the influence and scale of companies to create industry-wide change. My instinct (admittedly incorrect and emotional, even) was to see the relationship between Greenpeace and corporations as only antagonistic; I’m now convinced that that is not the case.

One of the more interesting takeaways for me is that while Greenpeace seems to typically start as an enemy of the corporation –by accusing firms of reputation-damaging business practices– it can evolve into a “friend” over time.  We saw this with McDonald’s, where Greenpeace was open to discussing resolutions with the company, and where the NGO also published a “McVictory” article praising McDonald’s for its leadership in addressing the issue of soya farming in the Amazon. While it’s easy to dismiss Greenpeace as an emotional, sensational and impractical organization, at the end of the day its goal is to enact change that positively impacts the environment.  Greenpeace may have had to take aggressive measures to get the attention of McDonald’s initially, but I imagine that future issues can now be raised and addressed with much less animosity and much more collaboration. It is certainly in McDonald’s reputational interests to be on Greenpeace’s “good side.” It is likely also in Greenpeace’s interests, as it gains greater influence –a seat at the table, even– in McDonald’s sustainable supply chain initiatives.

Developing the collaboration topic further, I wonder if environmental watchdog organizations such as Greenpeace serve a type of outsourced function for large corporations.  Is it possible that a large company such as McDonald’s –which struggles to map the full extent of its fragmented and many-tiered supply chain– could see and/or use Greenpeace as an outsourced function that executes on-the-ground investigations of the supply chain? Obviously there are a lot of problems with this suggestion (e.g. would a responsible company actually prefer to be reactive to Greenpeace’s findings rather than proactively discover problems on its own? Would Greenpeace’s independence be violated if it worked too closely with a corporation?). Nevertheless, it is clear that Greenpeace serves an important function of investigating tricky issues that companies have either neglected to or been unable to investigate on their own.  Even the most socially conscious corporations must make tough decisions on how to spend money on identifying issues in the supply chain and then addressing any issues that are identified. Greenpeace –and the donors who support Greenpeace– then, might potentially serve as a something of a cost-saver for companies like McDonald’s.  If McDonald’s only needs to verify supply chain issues based on the “dirty work” completed by Greenpeace, isn’t that a huge saving for McDonald’s in terms of project costs and avoidance of hiring employees and building an entire function around investigating supply chain issues?

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One Response to “The interplay between Greenpeace and corporations”

  1. This is a fascinating idea. I had a long conversation with a leading South American anti corruption lawyer the other week, and his belief was that corporations can only build industry wide cooperation to support investment in these kinds of public goods if they create aggressive “watch dog” organizations along the lines that you suggest. The danger, of course, is that such organizations are in danger of being captured by the industries they work with, but it would seem to be a particularly promising idea…

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