Jake Gordon

"It is safe to say that without the environmental movements there would be little or no 'greening' of governments and corporations" (Doyle & McEachern 1998) Discuss

Environmental movements are a form of new social movements alongside the women's movement, contrasting with old social movements such as the labour movement. Environmentalists are concerned with the environment in its relation to human society and should not be confused with ecologists whose primary concern is the Earth itself. Doyle and McEachern argue that "environmentalism, in all its forms, was born in environmental movements... It is safe to say that without the environmental movements there would be little or no 'greening' of government and corporations" (1998: 55). This essay seeks to critically discuss this statement to understand why this may be the case, or if the statement itself is not a valid one.

This essay will explore issues regarding the electoral system and how it forms governments, highlighting areas which will not be greened by governments without intervention. The structure of businesses will also be examined, outlining the roles of various stakeholders within those businesses and how their goals and desires can conflict with green policies. The model for economic and industrial growth will be analysed in its scope for both developed and developing countries as well a the world as a whole, illustrating various strengths and weaknesses. Finally, the discussion will continue to the environmental movement as a whole, the place of non government organisations (NGOs) and informal grass-roots organisations within this, and a general increase in environmental consciousness within wider society.

Why governments don't 'green' themselves

In order to understand why "there would be little or no 'greening' of government" (Doyle & McEachern, 1998: 55) without the environmental movements, it is necessary to pose a simple question: 'why would they?'. What follows in this section is a discussion of this simple question, suggesting why the don't.

First, to highlight issues regarding the electoral system. In democracies, governments are elected by a democratic voting process. In Britain, this involves a first-past-the-post system which results in the distinctive two-party politics comprising the government and the opposition (currently Labour and Conservative). This enables a stable government to form in which little or no compromise has to be made with other parties on order to gain a parliamentary majority. However, whilst enabling stability, the voice of third and other parties are sacrificed. In each ward, whichever party receives the most votes will receive a seat in parliament - if a candidate comes second by only one vote this will count for nothing. So, whilst a party may receive a modest percentage of votes over the whole of Britain, they may not even gain one seat in parliament. This system helps ensure unsavoury minority parties such as the British National Party (BNP) do not gain representation in parliament, however it has the same effect on the Green Party. This is highlighted by the 1989 European elections where "the Green Party gained 14.9 percent of the vote, which was the highest achieved by any Green Party in the European Union... [yet] the Green Party won no seats" (Doyle & McEachern, 1998: 127).

An alternative to first-past-the-post is proportional representation. In the example above, this would have seen the Green Party gaining 14.9 percent of the seats in the election, considerably more than the zero percent which they gained. In such a case, the environmental policies on the Green Party's manifesto would have had more likelihood to 'green' the resulting parliament's policies. But without their representation, they can have no influence within parliamentary debate. It would be an epic struggle to attempt to adopt a system of proportional representation in Britain - not least because it is of obvious detriment to the party in power.

Further, any elected representative (whether of Green Party or not) will find it extremely difficult to 'green' themselves if they wanted to due to "intense pressure to adopt anti-environmental or 'compromise' policies" (Doyle & McEachern, 1998: 109, adapted from Martin, 1984: 111) coming from both business and the electorate. This pressure is not born in specific anti-environmentalist sentiment but in the inherent conflict between environmental policies and policies for job creation and general economic growth. A government will try its hardest to be re-elected, and in doing so tends to adopt middle-of-the-road policies intended to offend and upset as few people as possible. New Labour can be viewed as testimony to this fact, losing much of its left-wing policies of the past in favour of compromised conservatism. People currently like to have jobs, with economic stability and growth seen to be good because it provides them. However often the cost of creating these jobs is the environment. Businesses lobby governments to remove environmental restrictions imposed upon them, with the threat of taking business - and jobs - elsewhere. This is particularly prevailent in a global economy because of limited choice, described as 'Golden Straightjacket' (Friedman, 2000), restricting room for manoeuvre towards off-centre politics.

Rifkin (1995) suggests that we're entering a post-work era in which a significant percentage of the population will be without jobs, particularly full-time well-paid jobs. Where the economy is seen to be in such 'trouble' (because jobs are seen as being 'good') people will put their own economic security before concerns for the environment and other issues. That is to say, when the economy is doing badly, people spend less time and money worrying about problems such as the environment, poverty etc, and put their own immediate situation first. Hence, the current economic down-turn creates more pressure on the government to adopt pro-business policies, including removing environmental regulation and restrictions.

In sum, there is little incentive for governments to 'green' themselves, and this is heightened by the electoral system. Ultimately, a government will want to get re-elected, so will aim to please its electorate.Even if they may wish to 'green' themselves, pressure from business and citizens, particularly during periods of high unemployment, prevent them from doing so.

Why corporations don't 'green' themselves

As for government, it is important to understand aspects of power, control and decision within a corporation's operations. To do this, an understanding of the various players within a corporation, and the documents at its foundation is necessary.

The majority of corporations in Britain are limited companies, owned by shareholders, controlled by directors and operating according their memorandum and articles of association. In general, these articles will stipulate that the company is for commercial purposes, with the primary aim to increase shareholder value through the accumulation of profit. Of course, doing so must be done within the legal framework in which it operates. Should a company wish to improve the environment in ways not included in legislation, the directors would have to show to shareholders how this would increase the value of their shares.

This structure of companies (and also government) suggests a level of bureaucracy. The documents dictate how the company must work, directors are expected to work in the interest of shareholders, and shareholders are expected to demand a good return on their investments. Decisions are made as per the rules, without human emotion or social thought. Max Weber criticized the 'iron cage of bureaucracy' which he saw as de-humanising and alienating, forcing decisions and actions which conflict with social humanity. In this case, the bureaucracy creates selfish companies interested in profit over the environment or any other human concerns.

Elkington and Burke (1989) argue that, thanks to a group of 'green capitalists', all is not lost. "Perhaps what we are seeing is the emergence of a new age of capitalism, appropriate to a new millennium, in which the boundary between corporate and human values is beginning to dissolve." (1989: 252). Their basic premise is that capitalists are becoming more green aware and are bringing these thoughts into the boardroom, whilst sometimes pursuing these green issues is even becoming profitable. Doyle and McEachern explain that "if business can be persuaded of the need to factor environmental costs into its calculations, it can be a potent force for limiting or repairing ecological damage. Hence the pursuit of commercial advantage can sometimes drive business towards green options and outcomes." (1998: 146). As will be discussed later, perhaps the rationale behind this lies in the effects of the environmental movements themselves, and their influence upon shareholders, consumers and directors - that without the environmental movement, environmental practices would not be profitable.

In sum, corporations will generally seek profits and do so in a bureaucratic manner. If they are to 'green' themselves this is done in line with government legislation, or because doing so subsequently increases their profits. It is here that the environmental movement plays its crucial role.

The role of the environmental movement

As has been illustrated, there are various reasons for why governments and businesses are unlikely to wish to, or be able to, 'green' themselves. What follows is an explanation of how the environmental movements have the power to do the 'greening' for them.

Environmental movements are hard to define, but in general for the purpose of this essay they involve everything which isn't the government or business. This includes non-government organisations (NGOs) as well as informal organisations and grass-roots activism. There are two main theories to explain the driving forces behind the movements: the post-materialist perspective, that sees people becoming aware that material things are not so important any more, and that the environment matters too; and the post-industrialist perspective, where the very model of economic industrial growth is questioned. Carl Boggs writes from the post-industrialist view, that "the threat of nuclear catastrophe, bureaucratization, destruction of natural habitat, social anomie - cannot be expected to disappear simply through the good intentions of political leaders" (1986: 23, quoted in Doyle & McEachern, 1998: 60). A need is seen for non-government intervention as normal politics can not accommodate all that is necessary.

It is also important that the environmental movement does not become too attached to businesses and governments. In 1990 the United Nations (UN) accepted that development was unsustainable and that governments and businesses weren't doing enough, so called for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), coined the 'Earth Summit', which was held in Rio De Janeiro in 1992 - a similar summit followed ten years later in Johannesburg. A large number of environmental NGOs participated in the conferences, although the gains from this are questionable. Scott (1994) is cynical of the reasons for allowing NGOs into the conference, arguing that "UNCED has promoted business and industry, rehabilitated nation-states, and eroded the Green movement... UNCED has boosted precisely the type of industrial development that is destructive for the environment, the planet, and its inhabitants. We see how, as a result of UNCED, the rich will get richer, the poor poorer, while more and more of the planet is destroyed in the process." (1994: 3). He goes on to say that "the green movement... did not emerge from Rio stronger, but weaker" (1994: 65). This damning argument suggests a very pertinent need for NGOs and other areas of the environmental movements to distance themselves from governments and organisations, and not to co-opt with them.

It would appear as though the best way for the environmental movement to help 'green' governments and businesses is through environmental consciousness and awareness rising, making people realise the issues and suggesting they act as socially responsible humans, particularly in relation to their consumption habits.

Whilst the Green Party in Britain rarely receives any representation in parliament - as discussed earlier - what it does achieve is to raise environmental awareness. "The rise of Green parties in Europe has been variously attributed to the development of environmental consciousness" (Richardson & Rootes, 1995: 232). As a political party, they receive certain tax deductions which make them financially efficient and getting a green message across to the people. Reporting in the mass media enables a large number of people to understand the environmental issues which the party addresses. In a similar way, NGOs and other areas of the environmental movement help spread environmental concerns, raising awareness. Hence, whilst the majority of people may not be directly involved in environmental protests, activism, campaigns etc, they may still be affected by them. This concept of raising environmental consciousness is extremely similar to the consciousness raising associated with the women's movement. In order to be able to act upon an issue, people should first understand it.

Returning to Elkington and Burkes work on the 'The Green Capitalists', it can be seen how environmental consciousness comes into play. "The Green Capitalists show how environmentalists are moving from reaction to action, from analysis to response... They recognise that no government, or collection of governments, can cope with the environmental agenda in isolation." (1989: 23). The reason for their understanding of this, it could be argued, is because of the environmental movement having brought the issue of the environment to the fore in their thoughts. The 'Green Capitalists' are people who have grown up during the rise of the environmental movement and have no doubt been affected and influenced by it - they understand the inherent failings of the business model but attempt to change it, mould it into something better for society.

The environmental movement understands how government and business works, and mould themselves to gain the most power over them. The role of Green parties has already been discussed, as too the 'Green Capitalists' in their control of business. But large and public businesses in particular are controlled by the shareholders. In recent years, there has been an increasing trend for environmental NGOs and environmentally concerned individuals and groups to take a share of a company, so as to exercise their right to vote at annual general meetings (AGMs) and through other avenues. In this way, they can make their concerns heard by the directors and other shareholders, hoping that their participatory actions can levy some alternative to the simple pursuit of profits. They also suggest ways in which environmental policies can make good business sense too, particularly in light of recent consumer trends.

Campaigns such as 'Stop E$$o', 'McToxics' and general brand boycotting illustrate the importance of the consumer culture which engulfs Western culture. Such campaigns bring issues of social and environmental responsibility to the high streets and petrol station forecourts. In 1987 the McToxics campaign took on McDonalds for its use of polystyrene foam containers - and won. The victory did not result in legislation banning the use of such containers, but forced McDonald's to adopt paper containers instead, or else face a loss of profits as a result of consumer boycotting. Similarly, the Stop E$$o campaign of recent years encourages consumers to boycott Esso/ExxonMobil due to its funding of the Republican Party (pro-business) in the US and its poor policies towards the environment. Without such action, there would be little reason for Esso to change its ways.

It is for these reasons that businesses (and governments too, although to a lesser extent) are now so concerned with their public image on the environment, although often their concern is merely in the form of public relations (PR) stunts to make them appear better than they actually are. Klein (2001) writes about how brands in general are now touted as being environmentally and socially responsible, despite evidence to the contrary. Schlosser (2002) writes in a similar way on the environmental destruction caused by the fast food industry, despite PR material suggesting the contrary. This highlights the increased need for the environmental movement - to police the environmental offenders, and battle the government for appropriate legislation.

This essay has illustrated ways in which governments and corporations cannot, or will not 'green' themselves without some external influence. It has also explained how the environmental movement can remedy the situation, and how without it there would be little or no 'greening'. In conclusion, Doyle and McEachern's assertion is accepted - without the environmental movements, there truly would be little or no 'greening' of governments and corporations.

[2,673 words, written in 2003]


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by Jake Gordon, some rights reserved