Confrontation to Cooperation

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Posted on May 24, 2011

While companies once cowered at the sight of an environmental group, increasingly the private sector is proactively reaching out to green non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help them mitigate environmental risks and/or identify market opportunities.  The resulting partnerships, often designed to decrease dependence on fossil fuels or conserve natural resources like water and land, have the ability to make a greater impact on society than most governments.

One environmental NGO that is attracting a diverse set of corporate interests is Ceres.  Ceres works with investors, environmental organizations, organized labor and other public interest groups to address sustainability challenges such as global climate change and water scarcity.  Started 21 years ago as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Ceres had one simple message to business: Ignore social and environmental issues at your own peril –that will ultimately cost  you money; acknowledge these issues, and you will be in a position to identify new business opportunities.

Since its creation, Ceres has become one of the preeminent non-governmental organizations in sustainability.  One of Ceres’ requirements of prospective members is that participating companies must create and maintain a dialogue with a diverse set of stakeholders that either share a similar mission or is impacted by their business operations. This is one way Ceres believes it helps a member company imbed social and environmental issues into its company DNA.

Last year, Ceres created the “Roadmap to Sustainability,” a blueprint to help create the 21st century corporation.  The roadmap outlines a series of principles for business leaders as they work toward comprehensive organizational sustainability.  These principles establish an operational framework and a set of expectations for member companies to achieve by 2020 under the broad categories of governance, stakeholder engagement, disclosure, and performance.

As a sign of their growing influence, it was recently announced that the AFL-CIO and a significant number of investors joined together to encourage the companies in the Russell 1000 to adopt the CERES roadmap to sustainability.  The Russell 1000 Index includes companies like AT&T, Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft and Apple.

Certainly, the type of engagement Ceres has with its member companies is a far cry from the confrontational days of the early environmental movement.  For the most part, both sides now see the advantages of working with each other.  While trust in each other’s motives is certainly a must, once that has been achieved and a corporate interest is aligned with an environmental interest—this type of partnership is far more successful than government in addressing key climate change mitigation and adaptation issues now confronting society.

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