The UK’s activist NGOs have been happy to harry business. But recent years have seen an increasing trend towards collaboration rather than combat

The UK’s activist NGOs have been happy to harry business. But recent years have seen an increasing trend towards collaboration rather than combatIn 1995, Greenpeace activists forcibly installed themselves on an oil storage platform off the north coast of the UK. Shell, owner of the Brent Spar rig, didn’t want them there. So it sent in the water cannon.

Unfortunately for the company’s public image, environmental group Greenpeace caught the whole incident on video. Within hours, the offshore clashes were being played out on global news channels. Consumers grew incensed, other environmental groups piled in and boycotts of Shell’s petrol stations followed soon after.

The rest is history. The Anglo-Dutch oil major backtracked, the rig was decommissioned onshore (rather than dumped in the ocean, as previously planned), and Greenpeace had a huge corporate scalp for its war chest.

Greenpeace claims for itself a litany of subsequent “victories”; forcing Bayer Science to pull its cultivation of genetically modified crops, preventing plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport, blocking the first new UK coal power station in 20 years, and so forth.

The field of anti-corporate activism in the UK is by no means limited to Greenpeace. Other groups such as Baby Milk Action, Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), War on Want and Ash (Action on Smoking and Health) also occupy the list.

Boardrooms, not barricades

The high-profile battles and banners of campaign NGOs do not comprise the whole picture, however. Indeed, their place in that picture is arguably diminishing as less confrontational groups make their voices heard too.

The emergence of civil society groups that are willing to work with business has radically altered the NGO-corporate landscape, argues David Bent, head of business strategies at Forum for the Future, a sustainability NGO.

“Twenty years ago, it was almost exclusively combative. Now there is a more diverse range of relationships,” he says.

In many ways, Forum for the Future epitomises this move to a more collaborative approach. That leap in thinking is evident from its language. Phrases such as “help businesses”, “work with others” and “share what we learn” litter its public statements.

It even goes so far as to term the businesses with which it has dealings – a long list that includes the likes of PepsiCo, Vodafone and AkzoNobel – as “partner organisations”.

Established the year after the Brent Spar fracas, the London-based non-profit group has doggedly stuck to a policy of constructive engagement.

Forum for the Future has a close working relationship with Unilever, for example. The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant credits that partnership with helping it arrive at its impressive Sustainable Living Plan, unveiled in November 2010.

The UK’s third sector can point to other similarly constructive partnerships, both at a strategic and operational level. The alliance between UK-based bank HSBC and environmental charities WWF and Earthwatch on climate change is one of many. The tie-in between confectioner Cadbury and the Fairtrade Foundation is another.

Cooperative approach

The trend towards a partnership approach does not undermine the ongoing role of campaign organisations to force company management to sit up and take notice. In doing so, the Greenpeaces of this world make the job of engagement and collaboration much easier for their civil society peers.

For evidence, return to the Shell case. The oil major was an environmental pariah 15 years ago. Today, it is actively advocating a “new low-carbon energy future”. Would that have happened without Greenpeace? Probably not.

Tom Delfgaauw, Shell’s vice-president for sustainable development in the wake of Brent Spar, admitted that the incident “accelerated a great many needed corporate developments”.

More recently, campaign reports such as Oxfam’s Hero or Zero and WWF’s Influencing Power have played a key role in highlighting the inconsistencies between corporations’ public commitments and their lobbying activities.

By common perception, business associations occupy the middle ground between the campaigning and collaborative wings of the civil society movement.

The odd industry group has bucked that trend. The Mineral Products Association, which represents the cement sector, stands out as one such body. Under its leadership, the carbon dioxide emissions linked to cement manufacture have dropped by one-fifth. The group has set incremental emission reduction targets for 2015, 2030 and 2050.

In general, however, business associations tend to go as fast as their slowest member. Such an attitude is clearest in the debate over mandatory versus voluntary standards and targets.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the UK’s most powerful industry group, has led the charge in rejecting legislation or quasi-regulatory initiatives that would force the laggards to improve their performance.

“Business is already accountable for its activities over the diverse strands that now come under the ‘CSR’ umbrella … [which] should remain voluntary and market-driven,” is the CBI’s official position statement. The group declined Ethical Corporation’s invitation to comment further.

In terms of business-led NGOs, the most hope comes from those with a specific mandate to promote elements of the corporate responsibility agenda.

Royal assent

Traditionally, a large number have fallen under the Prince of Wales’s patronage. One example is the International Business Leaders Forum, which has driven corporate activities around international development for the past two decades. Its suite of activities includes partnership brokerage services and “fit to partner” assessments of companies.

Another royal initiative creating waves is the pan-industry Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. Linked to the University of Cambridge, the business-led consortium lobbies heavily at a domestic and international level for more progressive steps to counter global warming.

With more than 830 corporate members, the Prince of Wales-backed Business in the Community organisation is arguably the UK’s most influential business-led NGO devoted to corporate responsibility.

“A big part of what we do is to challenge companies to keep going,” says BITC’s chief executive, Stephen Howard.

Over nearly three decades, BITC has developed a wide range of frameworks, tools and guidance to encourage better practice among its members. Initiatives such as its annual awards and the CR Index also serve to share best practice and incentivise change, Howard argues.

BITC also boasts a range of issue-specific working groups, designed to bring business perspectives to critical social issues such as workplace inclusion, homelessness and public education.

“Each [issue area] has a group of business leaders that are crafting ideas that will resonate within the business community. It’s not a non-profit organisation chanting from the sides,” Howard says.


The increase in corporate and civil society partnerships is one reason why arguments for mandatory legislation have failed. Another is the proliferation of voluntary initiatives in the UK.

Many of the successful earlier examples focus on standardisation and labelling. Initiatives such as the Marine Stewardship Council, the Forest Stewardship Council and the Fairtrade marque all boast impressive records of effecting change. All were developed with input from business and civil society.

Another voluntary initiative that is making great strides towards increasing accountability is the Carbon Disclosure Project. The UK-based non-profit body works with investors and companies to publish corporate emissions data.

Naturally, progress by the private sector in the UK is too slow for many NGOs. Progress on pending climate change and biodiversity threats causes concern for many.

But the message from big business is now “much more progressive”, says Dax Lovegrove, head of industry and business relations at WWF, citing corporate advocacy at European commission level for a 30% cut in carbon emissions.

“Before it was only the laggards’ voices that were being heard,” he says.

Lovegrove also credits engagement with NGOs for increasing the quality of business’s understanding of the issues. Non-profit groups provide on-the-ground expertise and policy awareness that companies often lack, he argues.

So too the scope of their vision. Before, companies were solely concerned with “incremental decreases” in their impacts. Now, corporate leaders such as Tesco and Unilever are broadening their focus to suppliers, consumers and other areas where their influence is less direct.

“[NGOs] are helping reframe the debate … from an incrementalist mindset to the bigger picture of what sustainability really means,” says Lovegrove.

Despite the move towards cross-sector partnerships, the best NGOs in the UK remain independent minded. Some share their thoughts by scaling the roofs of parliament. Others prefer dialogue. It’s important for business to listen to both.

UK corporate-charity partnerships

Marks & Spencer’s tie-up with anti-poverty charity Oxfam is the most admired charity-corporate partnership in the UK, according to a new survey of practitioners.

The cross-sectoral alliance was singled out for praise in the Corporate-NGO Partnerships Barometer 2010, written by corporate responsibility consultancy C&E.

The initiative sees UK retailer Marks & Spencer offer a £5 sales voucher to all those who donate to one of Oxfam’s national network of charity shops. The items must have been previously bought in a Marks & Spencer’s store.

Runner-up is HSBC’s Climate Partnership, in which the UK-based bank has teamed up with environment group WWF and others to tackle global warming.

Also in the running was P&G’s alliance with Unicef. Through an online consumer campaign, the company’s Pampers nappy brand gives financial support to Unicef’s vaccine drive against newborn tetanus.

According to the survey, corporations identify the lack of clear process for measuring performance as the biggest challenge in non-profit partnerships. NGOs, in contrast, point to the lack of resources.

Published in November 2010, the report is based on the views of 93 corporate and non-profit representatives.

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