Monday, May 26, 2008

From pointing fingers to shaking hands

Oftentimes when we think of nonprofits and advocacy organizations (such as the many groups that benefit from your purchases on Alonovo), what comes to mind are those typewritten pleas for assistance that fill our mailboxes at an alarming rate (do-gooder junk mail, as I call it), or those endless email petitions entreating us to help stop someone or something from taking a destructive action.

But there's another side to such groups. A number of them are forging alliances with companies they used to criticize in order to promote socially responsible initiatives and behaviors. A story in this week's Economist lists a bunch of such partnerships: Ikea and Kingfisher teaming up with the WWF and Rainforest Alliance, Marriott International with Conservation International, and General Motors and ConocoPhillips with Environmental Defense and the World Resources Institute.

Why the transformation from adversary to ally? As the internet and other tools of the digital age make it easier for advocacy groups to learn about and publicize news regarding companies' behavior, businesses are realizing that it's in their interest to do more than merely appear to have a good reputation. They're interested in doing good, and who better to show them how than the very organizations that have sometimes campaigned against them.

In one striking example of that phenomenon, Limited Brands is now getting help from ForestEthics, which once publicized the company's clear-cutting ways with provocative images like these, on sourcing paper for its catalogs. In another, the WWF last year announced a partnership with Coca-Cola focused on freshwater conservation.

Such alliances are not without controversy, of course. In some people's eyes, they represent a grim double-whammy: selling out on the part of the advocacy group and greenwashing on the part of the corporation.

Another point of view is presented in the Economist story, which argues (summarizing James Gustave Speth in his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World) that "environmental externalities are an unavoidable feature of capitalism" and that the only real solution to that sad reality is for regulations to be enacted requiring business to act more sustainably. Until such laws exist, partnerships between companies and nonprofits offer the next best thing: a way for firms to up their credibility quotient and hopefully also contribute to their bottom line by thinking and acting for the long term.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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