GlobeScan Associate Director Abbie Curtis spoke with Robert about how NGOs can work together and collaborate with the business community.
Let’s start broadly – from your perspective, what are the most pressing challenges facing business today?
One of the biggest challenges for industry is the battle for relevance. How do we keep stakeholders interested in what we do? In the post-war decades, big business was generally assumed to be a good thing when business and government were seen to be moving in the same direction and they mutually supported each other. But in the last 10 to 20 years, business has lost that privileged position and hasn’t really found a new way of demonstrating it is relevant and useful to society in the broadest sense. Most people accept the need for business as wealth creators, but many don’t necessarily accept its value as a provider of “societal goods.” This skepticism and ambiguity in public attitudes is felt by leaders in industry – they are quite conscious of it.
How do you think NGOs can work together with businesses to address these challenges?
We are seeing more specialist NGOs emerging who are adopting more constructive approaches to managing their relationships with business. NGOs have realized that as long as big business has a large economic and environmental footprint, it can also help solve big problems associated with these impacts. Some NGOs are harnessing that power by using business’ market power to deliver the outcomes that they were trying to seek through policy changes. An example of this is McDonald’s – they buy so much beef that if they change their animal welfare standards for their suppliers, that change by default effectively changes the entire American livestock production sector. If the WWF wants to tackle the problem of cattle ranching in the Amazon, it does it through working with the big meat buyers and the big grain exporters. WWF doesn’t expect to change Brazilian government policy and certainly doesn’t expect to change the hearts of Brazilian farmers. Animal welfare groups likewise realize they can effect bigger changes faster by working with a major meat buyer than trying to reform animal welfare laws.
So you have seen a lot more collaboration between business and NGOs in the last 30 years?
Yes, much more collaboration, cooperation, mutual engagement, and shared understanding. Sometimes it is corporations and NGOs saying we are going to do this together. Or it is simply corporations seeing there is a problem with the way they source materials and changing the way they do it. NGOs will however publicly acknowledge that change and praise companies for doing it.
Would you say that NGOs have become more influential?
I believe we are in a peak NGO time in Western economies. Their influence on Western global companies is very strong because it is now commonplace for corporations to engage and work with NGOs. However, the big environmental and human rights NGOs are struggling for legitimacy in the new major economies like Russia, India, and China. As the new economies get bigger as a percentage of the world’s economy, and the Western economies take an ever-smaller share, inevitably NGOs’ global influence will decline so long as their real power is confined to those Western economies.
Where do you see the business-NGO relationship going in the next five years? What would your advice be to businesses in terms of working with NGOs?
Both business and NGOs are struggling for global relevance and influence. NGOs no longer constitute the sort of radical change that they once did – they’ve become institutionalized. This creates an opportunity for an evolution of the way NGOs deal with business.
Environmental activism is probably the largest single NGO sector – half of all the NGOs we track are environmental NGOs. All the other areas – human rights, animal rights, CSR, consumer rights – occupy the other half between them. So you’ve got this enormous environmental movement, but at the same time environmental issues are often actually not that pertinent to the public, to the voters – at least they are not top of mind. Relevance is something the environmental movement has struggled with for years. Where they have been very successful in their campaigns is when they’ve managed to produce a food safety or human rights issue around it – making it more relevant, getting the attention, and allowing them to put pressure on retailers.
The first thing for business to do is to listen to NGOs and then test what you’re hearing with your customers and your stakeholders. If a company needs to understand the consequences and implications of an issue, then talking with an NGO is a very good way of gathering that understanding. After that it’s about testing the policy implications with stakeholders and coming to policy formulations that take the organization and their stakeholders with them. At Unilever, Paul Polman is an ambassador for the sustainability programme with their stakeholders. He saw that as his major role, convincing stakeholders that what the company was doing was a good thing. Part of being relevant is the assumption that what you are doing is right. If you are not making yourself relevant, your motives and your actions will be questioned. So you have to earn that respect which means that you have got to be prepared to sell your policies. I would like to see companies become more assertive, not about their own interests, but about society’s interests. Advocacy backed up by practice.
An example of this is IKEA, who have achieved saint-like status with NGOs according to our latest NGO sentiment mapping. IKEA has made a point of showing leadership on important issues, particularly environmental sustainability issues. It did what Unilever did, but with much less fanfare. It just quietly got on with it. For example, rather than just saying we should all be using low-energy lightbulbs or reducing our electricity consumption, they stopped selling the inefficient bulbs. It used its market power to force positive change.
I think we’ve got to break away from this idea that sustainability and ethical consumption is something only for the well-off. If you do it on a mass scale then prices actually fall, and the supply chain follows. And it becomes relevant again. And this is something all right-minded NGOs should be able to embrace enthusiastically.