Why Environmentalists Must Work with Big Corporations

While federal leadership on climate change was AWOL for most of this decade, big business represented an opportunity to cut emissions and bring new technologies to the market now. One of those businesses was British Petroleum. My organization, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), worked with BP to test carbon-trading systems and recruited the company to join a coalition supporting climate change legislation. We didn't take any money from them, but these days, just saying you've worked with BP is like saying you've had dinner with Bernie Madoff. By implication, you're scum.

Yet the basic idea that we should cut greenhouse gas emissions -- and do so in a way that has been road-tested in the real world -- still seems to me to be a very good idea.

Now the environmental community is getting slammed for ever being in the same room with BP. Recent stories in The Economist and The Washington Post raised questions about BP's past work with EDF and other environmental groups. But EDF or others aren't pulling their punches, and have been vocal critics of BP's response in the Gulf.

The horror of the BP oil disaster is the scope and impact that it's having on the Gulf coast. Yet Fortune 500 companies, precisely because of their large scope and impact, can also use their leverage for good. EDF, for example, works with Walmart. The retail giant is hardly a darling among Progressives, but it provides unparalleled leverage in the consumer goods supply chain. If Walmart adopts higher environmental standards for product design and packaging, say, then those standards very quickly change operations at hundreds of thousands of factories around the world.

Here's another way to think of it. If I can convince one Walmart buyer to "go green" in his or her purchasing, it has the same impact as convincing the 200 million people who shop at Walmart to do the same thing.

At EDF, we don't help companies comply with environmental laws -- they own that responsibility, and they should be held fully accountable for their actions. And we don't take money from the companies we work with. Instead, we challenge them to create new environmental innovations, to share the results, and to forge progress even where laws and regulations don't yet exist.

Do we need environmental groups to confront big corporations, question their claims and scrutinize their actions? Absolutely. No company should be given a free pass in today's transparent society. But environmental groups must also engage companies, when we can, to apply their corporate clout in service to the environment. And that means that occasionally environmental groups will work with big corporate players. In both these roles -- critic and collaborator -- the environment is our only client.

Gwen Ruta, vice president for Corporate Partnerships at Environmental Defense Fund, spearheads the organization's work with leading multinational companies to develop innovative, business-based solutions to environmental challenges and drive change through the corporate value chain. Her post from EDF's Innovation Exchange blog also appeared on Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission.

Photo CC-licensed by Flickr user oooh.oooh.