Interviews with a number of key Canadian environment NGOs reveal that the state of the union between Canadian business and NGOs is strong. There is a clear willingness on the part of NGOs to engage with the private sector on a wide range of mutual concerns relating to sustainable development, ranging from brokering conservation deals with mining, forestry or oil companies to securing corporate support for research programs or entering into joint marketing, educational and lobbying efforts.
Many interviewees attribute this trend to the fact that there has been a quantum leap, particularly in the last decade, on the part of corporations, which are taking sustainable development issues far more seriously.
According to Lois Corbett, a former director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, before the early 1990s there was vocal disagreement between the corporate and not-for-profit sectors over the extent of environmental problems.
Now, Corbett says, there is agreement, rather than foot-dragging, on both sides. 'The gap is narrowing,' he argues. 'A lot of early warning signals that the environmental community was citing are now being backed up by scientific and business data.'
This convergence of concern has paved the way for closer collaboration.
Paul Griss has been at the epicentre of this activity for more than a decade. In 1989, he was instrumental in the creation of the New Directions Group - a 'virtual institute' for NGO-business relations. He recalls: 'Ten years ago, we saw that the game was changing. Today the issues are mainstreamed. They are on the table.'
As a result, Griss says, the tactics have changed.
'Publicity stunts and slamming corporations may no longer be the best way to go,' he explains. 'You've got their attention, so now is the time for partnership.'
Mark Rudolph agrees. Rudolph is president of Rudolph & Associates, a Toronto-based environmental consultancy, and the driving force behind the 'CARE Coalition' of NGOs and businesses lobbying for tax measures to encourage renewable energy. According to Rudolph, you can lump most NGOs into one of two groups: purists and pragmatists. Similarly companies, he says, can be regarded as either progressives or denialists.
In Rudolph's view, good NGO-business relationships typically involve bringing together the pragmatic NGOs and the progressive businesses, 'and coming up with solutions that you can hand off to government'.
While a number of NGOs seem comfortable with the pragmatist label, they often describe themselves in more complex terms. Despite a greater openness to collaborate with business, most insist that they reserve the right to criticize business when dialogue or collaboration falters. Perhaps they should be called 'pragmatists with attitude'.
A good example is the Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development. Although the organization has an extensive practice which works with corporate clients, the Institute's web site testifies to its 'carrot and stick' tactics. Pembina's website prominently displays press releases which criticize government and corporate policies and practices which it regards as unsustainable.
Other environmental groups, such as Greenpeace Canada, are more circumspect about NGO-business ties. Although Greenpeace will participate in dialogue with the private sector, it refuses to accept corporate and government funding in order to preserve its independence.
Greenpeace campaigner Jo Dufay characterizes the organization's approach as one of 'creative confrontation'. Yet she stresses that Greenpeace sometimes works behind the scenes simultaneously. For example, despite playing an active role in the protests over logging in British Columbia's 'Great Bear Rainforest', Greenpeace was also involved in discussions between NGOs and the forestry industry.
For Dufay, a successful campaign is one where 'you spend three quarters of your time painting companies into a corner, and then the last quarter helping them out'.
Other NGOs may not be as effective as Greenpeace's formidable publicity machine at backing companies into corners, but they are increasingly willing to help companies out of the corner - provided that the firms in question are sincere about the need to change.
Indeed, some NGO bosses like Monte Hummel, president of WWF Canada, admit that pressure from more activist NGOs sometimes drives companies towards relationships with more pragmatic NGOs. These companies are 'seeking peace in the marketplace', Hummel believes, and they realize that the only way to attain this is 'to attack problems and show that you are making meaningful progress on them'.
Organizations like the Pembina Institute can help companies that have their backs to the wall, says Stephanie Cairns. 'Sometimes the biggest crisis will create the biggest opportunity for change,' she argues. The Institute uses a clear set of engagement criteria, whereby staff ask: 'Do we see an opportunity with that company, to change it?'
Cairns says those companies that are sincere about change can bring substantial resources to bear. Whereas it may take years to move governments an inch, it can be possible to move companies forward much more quickly.
Not all NGOs are as well equipped as the Pembina Institute to assist companies in such a comprehensive fashion. Paul Griss laments the fact that not all NGOs are capable of playing at the same level. As the corporate commitment to sustainable development has grown , NGOs are suddenly finding themselves the poor relations when compared to corporations which have deep pockets and substantial resources.
Thus a potential obstacle to closer NGO-Business relations may not be a lack of interest on the part of NGOs, but rather a lack of NGO capacity and resources.
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