NGOs assail “greenwash” of corporate-led globalization

The decade since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro has been marked by increasing business influence over international environmental and social discourse. The upcoming Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg presents the opportunity to change course from the prevailing corporate-led globalization agenda, more than 30 NGOs have asserted in a declaration which calls for binding and enforceable regulation of companies and democratic control of the economy.

by Kanaga Raja

GENEVA: More than 30 civil society organizations have issued a declaration in the run-up to the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) that has come out against the “greenwashing” by corporations of the corporate-led globalization agenda and, among others, has called for civil society mobilization against the corporate capture of the WSSD.

The Girona Declaration is the result of a strategy session “Rio+10 and Beyond: Strategies Against the Greenwash of Corporate Globalization” held by 40 progressive activists in Girona on 18-20 March. The Declaration was issued on 24 May, on the eve of the fourth Preparatory Committee session for the WSSD in Bali on 27 May-7 June. This was the last preparatory conference before the WSSD in Johannesburg from 26 August to 4 September.

The declaration notes that the Rio+10 Summit provides an opportunity to assess and evaluate the last 10 years of corporate-led globalization, and to change course.

Corporate ascendancy

According to the civil society groups, the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was a significant victory for corporations. It was the first major international conference on environment and development where business successfully mobilized to engineer certain outcomes.

Although governments made some positive commitments, corporations and their lobby groups succeeded in countering many demands that conflicted with the interests of business, including dismissing any notion of binding regulation of transnational corporations and substituting their own “voluntary” agenda.

The decade since Rio has been marked by increasing corporate influence over the international social and environmental debate. Whereas previously corporations had mainly worked through national governments, at the Rio Earth Summit, lobby groups - notably the Business Council for Sustainable Development - emerged as an international force in their own right.

Since then, the declaration says, corporations have been legitimized as “stakeholders” whose inputs must be reflected in all major social and environmental treaties. As their sheer size and power grows, so too does their ability to engineer political outcomes to suit their interests.

Government complacency, along with the lack of effective, empowered and democratically accountable global institutions, has allowed corporations the political space to manoeuvre themselves into decision-making positions.

The last decade has also been a period of intense volatility and disruption as  the  corporate-led  globalization agenda has gained momentum, the groups note.

Corporations and lobby groups, aided by neoliberal governments, have pushed vigorously for increasing deregulation, marketization and privatization of all sectors of economic activity and livelihood. Through their dominance of global institutions and decision-making processes, they have made enormous gains for the corporate-led globalization agenda while simultaneously undermining the possibility of solving problems democratically.

As a result of public pressure, the declaration says, some corporations have made changes in the direction of social and environmental sustainability. They are now more likely to admit that they have an impact on communities and the environment and some positive steps have been taken to remedy this. There are, however, limits to such change.

Companies are eager to point to their “best practices” as examples of corporate environmentalism and social conscience. However, core business practices in major sectors continue to be wholly unsustainable, and the deeper changes are not being made.

Greenwash and bluewash

The declaration notes that as a result, much of what may be perceived as corporate environmentalism is merely greenwash - an attempt to achieve the appearance of social and environmental good without corresponding substance. Such greenwash is being used skilfully to manipulate public perceptions of corporations and diffuse public pressure to impose binding regulations. Through branding, corporate philanthropy, high-profile partnerships with NGOs and governments, and isolated but highly publicized “best practice” projects, corporations are making every effort to improve their image, the NGOs charge.

The groups say that all these are done by corporations in order to avoid making the necessary changes to their core business practices demanded of them by civil society. By creating a benign public image and dominating international fora, corporations have exercised a virtual veto power over many initiatives seeking to impose obligations on them or force them to comply with basic social and environmental standards. If change has to happen, they want it at their pace and in their chosen direction.

The declaration says that corporate engagement on environmental and social issues, particularly in the run-up to the WSSD, is much more than just an image exercise; it can be better characterized as “deep greenwash” or “engineering of consent”. Corporations are using more and more sophisticated strategies to influence political outcomes and debates. Aided and abetted by the public relations industry, they are moving from defending their own battered reputations to promoting corporate globalization itself against the pressure for systemic social change.

Recognizing their own legitimacy crisis as powerful profit-making entities, corporations are increasingly looking to the NGO sector for much-needed credibility. Using their vast financial power and charm offensives, many “partnerships” have emerged between high-profile NGOs and corporations. Elsewhere, corporations have sought to “dialogue” with NGOs in an attempt to be seen to be listening to critics - while benefiting from the resulting image boost.

These “dialogues” and “partnerships” can also be sophisticated tools for cooptation of NGO critics. For example, some of the political divisions between NGOs in the run-up to the WSSD can be directly attributed to deliberate divide-and-rule strategies employed by corporations, the groups say.

The civil society groups also take aim at the United Nations and its promotion of the Global Compact and how corporations are using it to “bluewash” themselves.

As the principal institution for global decision-making on environmental, social and human rights issues, the UN has been directly targeted by corporations and lobby groups seeking to gain more direct political influence and to improve their image. The UN leadership has unfortunately facilitated this trend through its uncritical embrace of corporations, as exemplified by the Global Compact, a voluntary agreement with corporations which can neither be monitored nor enforced. Despite a complete lack of independent verification of company claims, the Global Compact is being used by corporations to demonstrate that they are responsible and therefore do not need to be forced to comply with basic social and environmental standards. As a result of the Global Compact, other calls from within the UN system for legally binding regulation of transnational corporations are being suppressed. Endorsement of the Compact by some NGOs has legitimized it even further, while undermining the development of more effective initiatives.

The effects of corporate influence on the UN are clear in the preparatory process for the Johannesburg summit, which displays a deep neoliberal bias. For example, numerous references to the “Doha Development Agenda” in the Chairman’s papers disguise the fact that the WTO system explicitly subordinates people and the environment to trade considerations. The emphasis on so-called “Type-II” outcomes, such as partnerships between business and governments or NGOs, effectively privatizes the implementation of the Rio ‘commitments’ set out by governments 10 years ago, and gives an ultimate seal of approval to corporate lobby groups and their “best practice” projects. The bias towards Type-II commitments also reflects the lack of political will to negotiate effective and legally binding solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environment problems.

Engineering the debate

The groups point out that in an attempt to preempt moves towards binding regulations, corporations are skilfully engineering the debate on “corporate accountability” down to the narrowest of definitions. High-profile voluntary reporting standards such as the Global Reporting Initiative are being sold as the answer to civil society demands for corporate accountability. Corporate groups such as the Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD) are actively redefining the language of corporate regulation to mean corporate-friendly regulation, such as market-based “solutions” to problems and intellectual property rights for corporations.

Like other corporate lobby groups such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) initiative, BASD is working to focus the outcomes of the WSSD on technocratic and voluntary “solutions”. By engaging in “dialogues” with critics, incorporating the language of NGO criticisms into their rhetoric (such as “corporate accountability”), publishing glossy reports, and demonstrating isolated examples of good “corporate citizenship”, they are succeeding in blurring the lines between business and NGOs, and deflecting pressure for fundamental change. The disturbing acquiescence and opportunism of some NGOs in the preparatory process has only contributed to the problem, by closing off political space for more corporate-critical positions.

Specific agreements and initiatives on climate change, biosafety and water are being hailed as triumphant successes of the Rio process. The reality is that in almost every sector where a Rio agreement has been reached or is in negotiation, the civil society groups say, a deep neoliberal and corporate bias is apparent. Through the Rio process, corporations are working to open up nature itself to commodification and privatization - air, water and the genetic building blocks of life are being turned into tradeable goods.

In the case of the atmosphere, the Kyoto Protocol is littered with so-called “market-based solutions”, which will not only undermine the limited environmental integrity of the Protocol itself, but also reinforce corporate power through the creation of a new market in atmospheric credits. Biotechnology is being touted as the solution to the world’s food and health problems, and being actively promoted by UN agencies, despite growing public concern and an absence of stringent testing, labelling and liability requirements. The water sector is threatened by a sophisticated effort on the part of transnational corporations to reframe the debate around water provision from one of a fundamental human right to an economic good, paving the way for increasing privatization of the world’s water supply. Everywhere, corporate interests are being enshrined in law while considerations of social and environmental welfare are brushed aside with fine words.

The civil society groups say that the Rio+10 Summit offers an opportunity for all to assess and evaluate the last 10 years of corporate-led globalization, and to change course. The groups call for democratic control over the economy.

It is evident, the groups say, that in the increasingly deregulated environs of the global economy, internationally binding and legally enforceable regulation of corporations is imperative as a first step to asserting democratic control over the economy. The pace and direction of change should not be left to corporations to decide. The obstructive influence of corporations and their lobby groups must come to an end.

Basic concepts of participatory democracy and community empowerment should be at the heart of all international decision-making structures and processes. To  this  end, the  civil society groups  commit to  mobilizing against the corporate capture of the WSSD and towards increasing democratic control of global, national and local economies. (SUNS5126)                                          

From TWE No. 280 (1-15 May 2002)