Beyond partnerships: The fourth stage of environmentalism

Eric Pooley recently delivered a sturdy defense of EDF's eclectic collection of business partners, and well he should. After all, this isn't EDF's first rodeo. It has been criticized for its partnerships since the very beginning, when it worked with McDonald's to reduce the environmental impact of the hamburger chain's packaging waste back in 1990.

Reaction at the time ranged from skepticism to outrage. "EDF has watered down its stands in the last decade to please big business and the federal government," the Boston Globe said, quoting "environmental activists."

Lois Gibbs, famous for her leadership in organizing a response to New York's Love Canal tragedy, told the Chicago Tribune, "I think it's really selling out."

Even EDF staff had concerns, with one describing the work as "more like an arms negotiation than a marriage."

Fred Krupp foretold the situation in 1986. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, no less, he argued it was time to move to a "third stage" of environmentalism. The first stage, he explained, focused on conservation and dated back to Teddy Roosevelt's creating national parks. The second, from the early 1960s, was characterized by the beginnings of environmental regulation. In the "third-stage," environmentalists were to move beyond lawyerly obstruction and help solve environmental problems while allowing business to meet legitimate social needs.

And it has worked. Pooley provides positive examples of EDF's recent work involving toxic chemicals, fracking and Wal-Mart. Partnering with business has become a widely adopted tool and nearly ubiquitous amongst environmental nonprofits. Brand name organizations, such as World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (the former Pew Center on Global Climate Change), World Resources Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council, all have active partnerships or partnership networks. Businesses could and would partner, and environmental performance improved.

But let's face it: Despite a quarter-century of partnerships and improvement in some areas, many urgent environmental concerns have gotten even more dire. Despite our best efforts, environmental advocates don't have enough staff, money, access or ideas to manage enough partnerships and solve enough problems to address the threats we face. We may be losing more slowly, but we are still losing. We need a more ambitious approach.

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Krupp warned against "treating only symptoms; the problems will surface again and again." His advice was to "answer the underlying needs, and you have a lasting cure."  

Krupp was right again. After all, climate change, like many other environmental "problems," is also a symptom of an underlying issue: Business is able, even encouraged, to profit by causing environmental harm. The top 3,000 public companies caused more than $2.15 trillion or one-third of global environmental costs in 2010, UNEP & PRI reported [PDF].

The long-lasting cure is to expect and demand this behavior change. It is time for a fourth stage of environmentalism where it is not the responsibility of outside advocates to identify and address environmental threats, but where business itself internalizes and assumes responsibility. In this stage, business is expected to be sustainable as a social obligation and, failing to meet this obligation, risks loss of its license to operate. After all, why should society tolerate businesses that threaten its future?

This fourth stage builds on the progress of the past century. In particular, the past 25 years have shown that environmental improvement is not inconsistent with business practice. Moreover, we know it isn't "anti-business" to demand sustainable practices. Most environmental advocates realize business supplies our goods and services, creates many of our jobs and supports our investments and retirement funds. On the other hand, business realizes that these same environmentalists are also its employees, investors, customers, suppliers and neighbors.

Although it may be reinforced by law, the fourth stage is not law. It is a mindset, expectation and cultural norm. Its realization requires a social movement that reinforces "sustainable" as a baseline for business operations. Sustainability becomes pre-competitive, a level playing field, upon which businesses compete. The many well-intentioned businesses no longer will risk being undercut by the few irresponsible businesses willing to steal from society's cookie jar.

All businesses must be sustainable. For the future of society, that can't be a choice.

This is the first of three columns that will explore the fourth stage of environmentalism. The next two columns will describe fourth stage implications for business and environmental advocates.

Dandelion image by Brian A Jackson via Shutterstock.