Building green corporate partnerships – cooperation between companies and environmental groups

Building green corporate partnerships – cooperation between companies and environmental groups – How Green is Green? International Environmental Groups Debate the Wisdom of Partnerships with Business

Douglas Hall

The name of the game used to be finding out what the public wanted and supplying it. Now the question of how a product was made or what will happen to it once its usefulness is over may be just as important as any product attribute.

If it’s any consolation, life is also getting more complicated for environmental nonprofits. We recognize the opportunities for “cashing in” on the corporate world’s eagerness to be more responsive to the groundswell of public support for the environment. There is also the danger of crossing the line from “cashing in” to “selling out.”

In the long run, it doesn’t benefit either party for a nonprofit to simply take money for the use of a green 1ogo or to lend its name to the touting of green slogans and suspicious product claims. But where there is a serious and longterm commitment, corporate/nonprofit partnerships offer one of our best hopes for dealing successfully with some of the most serious environmental problems in the decade ahead.

For such partnerships to work, the ultimate question each party must ask is whether each believes that the environment is more than a transient trend.

For those who see green as a passing fad, take-the-money-and-run is the modus operandi. Any number of large and small businesses are willing to pump money into the coffers of environmental groups for a potential (if unlikely) PR slam-dunk. And some groups are equally willing to accept these one-time gifts before the well runs dry – as long as the donor had no oil spills last year.

The Nature Conservancy takes a different approach. First of all, the Conservancy does not blacklist businesses or individuals based on their past environmental records. Why should past deeds prevent future good will?

But while we will consider any potential partner, we look for signs of commitment beyond the initial handshake. The daily barrage of calls we get suggesting product endorsements, special events, and member list sales has forced us to think strategically about the nature and duration of our corporate couplings. Call us old fashioned, but we wisely favor long-term, multifaceted relationships.

For instance, when we decided to generate income and name recognition through the issuance of an affinity credit card, we went with Norstar, a bank that gave us one of our first loans and with whom we’ve worked for nearly 40 years. Corporate giants as diverse as Procter & Gamble, Chevron, and American Express began supporting our endeavors long before it was fashionable to do so, and we continue to diversify our work together to this day.

More recently, we’ve begun building a partnership with Honda of America that is indicative of the kind of relationship we seek. Honda not only is making cash donations to our ecosystem preservation model on the Big Darby Creek in Ohio, but it is also independently mobilizing its workers to participate in tree planting along the Darby. And Honda management is continuing to talk with us about other long-term ways to aid the economy of the region in a manner that also benefits conservation of the watershed. Among the returns for Honda is ongoing positive community relations near its assembly plants in Ohio.

The Conservancy also looks for partnerships that can be models for other businesses. Canon/Hewlett Packard provides customers with mailers to recycle laser printer cartridges and contributes 50 cents to the Conservancy for each cartridge returned. Tags identify The Nature Conservancy’s mission and encourage membership.

In another such partnership, Allied Energy Services (AES) funded the Conservancy’s acquisition of 140,000 acres of tropical rainforest in South America, which was turned over to local groups for management. AES and other energy companies are now looking at other possibilities for such voluntary mitigation as a conservation tool in the tropics.

In evaluating potential for corporate associations, the Conservancy sticks to what it knows. And what it knows nothing about is sportswear, cars, breakfast cereal, and household cleanser. As a result, we eschew corporate relationships based on product endorsement or an implied “green seal” of approval. If a manufacturer wants to donate a portion of sales from an appropriate product, we may agree if no endorsement of the product is implied and, frankly, if the potential return is substantial. With cause-related marketing, we know the value of our name and reputation and recognize the risk of oversaturation.

The Conservancy’s pragmatic approach, non-confrontational style, and measurable results have made it among the most successful nonprofits in forging working partnerships with business. Nevertheless, as the U.S.’ largest environmental group by income, the Conservancy receives just 17 percent of its annual budget from the corporate sector. We think the greening of corporations should also translate into even greater corporate giving.

There are those who advocate a healthy distance between environmental groups and corporations. They cite a corporate sector that encourages continuous resource consumption as the source of most environmental ills. Environmental action will be undermined inevitably by corporate influence, it is feared.

The Nature Conservancy thinks that change requires both protestors and accommodators; corporate support need not undennine the process. A number of recent efforts underscores the importance of environmental groups playing this dual role-good cop/bad cop, if you will.

McDonald’s may not have chosen to evaluate its practices without protest from grassroots environmentalists. But it was the Environmental Defense Fund that aided the fast food giant in analyzing and planning dramatic reductions in packaging waste. Dow Chemical may continue to raise the ire of Greenpeace, yet Dow has begun working with Ducks Unlimited, the Conservancy, and others to protect significant wetlands throughout North America and has made great strides in voluntarily reducing pollutants from its facilities. (See page 20.)

Smart companies know that environmental concerns will continue to affect their work (and customer base) far into the future. Smart nonprofits need to put more trust in the longevity of their issues by demanding quality and diversity in their relationships with corporations. Going for the quick buck, media gimmicks, and one-shot associations yields few results for business or the environment. Just as we continue to need advocacy groups to push agendas of both industry and the environment, we increasingly need groups who can act strategically as catalysts for a truer greening of business.

Douglas Hall is director of communication, The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Va. The Nature Conservancy has 6/0,000 members, offices m all 50 U.S. states, and programs throughout the Americas and the Pacific.

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