Two paths to sustainability

One environmentalist is trying to reform corporations from within, but an author says he’s become part of the problem

John Stauber, author of <i>Toxic Waste Is Good For You</i>, decries corporate “greenwashing.”

John Stauber, author of Toxic Waste Is Good For You, decries corporate “greenwashing.”

An increasingly caustic debate is raging within the environmental movement: What is the best way to foster real and lasting environmental reforms? Is it from the inside or outside?

The increasing allegiances that traditional environmental groups based in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., are forming with powerful business interests are creating a huge rift within the ranks of those who consider themselves to be environmentalists.

Increasing numbers of environmentalists now claim “the market” and its corporate occupants are the quickest path toward eco-salvation. At a recent conference in San Rafael sponsored by Bioneers, an eclectic group of futurists, Paul Gilding, a former executive director of Greenpeace Europe, said that working inside the walls of a corporation is the best way to reach the holy grail of “sustainability.” That’s the new buzzword among environmentalists taking the long, comprehensive view of the planet’s future.

“When I began working for Greenpeace in 1989, I relished in making corporate leaders look stupid, to embarrass them, disarm them personally and make them look like fools,” he said, in a thick, Australian accent.

Gilding has changed his tune radically and now espouses relying upon market forces to encourage near-term innovation in the environmental arena “because that is the way the world works.” Greenpeace is a market force in his world-view. “People lose faith in corporations, and then organizations such as Greenpeace emerge to provide a counterweight, a form of creative destruction that is a market force.”

Gilding said he discovered most corporate leaders “had no clue” about some of the legitimate concerns of Greenpeace and other environmentalists, so he “decided to work within the belly of the beast.” Among his clients are the Western Mining Corporation, Ford Motor Company and DuPont.

“I wish the market did work, but it doesn’t,” said John Stauber, author of the book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy of Madison, Wis.

Needless to say, Stauber and Gilding, who spoke at a conference session together, did not see eye to eye. “Companies such as Monsanto, which Gilding has also worked for, have pushed genetically modified organisms into food and refused to label it. Those products would be dead if the market really worked,” Stauber said.

Stauber specializes in exposing “green-washing,” a term that refers to corporations who seek to bolster their environmental image and credentials in order to boost their bottom lines. “Businesses hire people like Paul Gilding to confuse the issue,” Stauber continued.

As the debate went back and forth, Gilding argued that the urgent need to become more sustainable is what compelled him to infiltrate the inner sanctums of the global corporate elite.

“One could be a priest and argue the whole system has to be reformed—that the way to change the world is to dismantle the corporate system. But that represents at least a decade of work. If this is the case, we will have even more human suffering than we have now,” Gilding said. “We have an obligation to dismantle or reform corporations through market forces. I actually think destroying specific corporations is a good idea.”

Stauber’s response: “Let’s start with your client list, Paul.

“The environmental movement is not dead, but it has been co-opted and destroyed,” Stauber continued. As proof, he described an increasingly common tactic that large transnational corporations use to “dive and conquer” environmentalists.

Stauber said he believes there are three kinds of so-called environmentalists: radicals, realists and idealists. Large beltway environmental groups such as Environmental Defense Fund sit down with large multinational companies such as McDonald’s (which is opening up 28,000 new outlets every year) and announce they’ve made a deal to phase out the company’s use of wasteful packaging. Then, they work on getting the idealists on their side, and then they marginalize the radicals, a group no money can buy anyway.

“This greenwash is mutually beneficial,” Stauber said. “Environmental Defense can tout its success in its fund-raising appeals; McDonald’s can lay claim to reducing its waste stream.” The larger issue of the long-term health effects of hooking the whole world on fast food is never addressed.

Stauber’s bottom line: “The idea that business corporations should dominate our social, political and economic lives is completely opposed to a democratic society.”

Gilding’s closing point: “I tell corporations that they should not make reforms due to moral responsibility—because that is not sustainable. They need to enact environmental reforms to create new markets so that there is no disconnect between shareholder value and long-term business success.”

Stauber and Gilding may seem to be on opposite sides, but, in the end, they’re both part of the messy process of environmental progress. An increasing consensus in the environmental movement acknowledges the need to have environmentalists both inside the boardrooms and on the sidewalk outside corporate headquarters. Ultimately, the Staubers and Gildings are both needed.

Idealists, realists and radicals all have a role in efforts to rescue the planet from the excesses of an economy warped by short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability.