This interview was originally published in the summer issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 04: Better, Connected.
Craig Bennett rejoined Friends of the Earth as Director of Policy and Campaigns in 2010 after spending nearly four years as Deputy Director of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (now CISL), where he headed up the Corporate Leaders Group, bringing together business leaders to tackle climate change.
He continues to have a foot in both business and NGO camps and lectures on several executive programmes at business schools. He is also on the Net Positive advisory panel for Kingfisher. SustainAbility Director Zoë Arden spoke with him about bees, business as campaigners and how companies should be more engaged in policy.
Zoe Arden: Stakeholder engagement has been mainly business-driven to date. How have engagements with business evolved from an NGO perspective? As we move into an era of greater partnership and collaboration, what are the emerging challenges for the NGO sector?
Craig Bennett: I think one of the first things to do is differentiate between the types of NGOs and understand the difference between those that campaign, or try and effect policy in one way or another, and those that are ‘service providers.’
It is important for the corporate world to understand these differences. Even if they can work well with an NGO ‘service provider,’ a similar partnership may not to be possible with a campaigning organisation or may need to take on a very different form.
There’s always been concern, rightly in my view, that if campaigning NGOs work too closely with business, it might compromise their independence. For the likes of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, nothing is more important than our independence and our members want to be confident that when we decide what we think about something in the world – that we haven’t come to that conclusion because we have been unduly influenced by companies. There’s got to be a real sensitivity to that.
And do many within business welcome the constructive challenge from NGOs?
As campaigners have gotten to know more people in the business world, they’ve come to see the different individuals working within it, and that there are some who quite like campaigning NGOs to have a go at the business to help move the agenda along.
Incidentally, the same is perfectly true for an NGO – you can’t treat one big NGO as an amorphous mass. You have different individuals within it. And what I find really interesting is how big business doesn’t understand that. For Friends of the Earth International, in particular, business needs to be aware that we’re all independent, autonomous organisations – we’re just coming together to share the name, ideals, sometimes the same logo, and sometimes not.
Business leaders are getting better at understanding how societal issues relate to business and NGOs are getting more business savvy. Do you see a need to build more of a common language to close the gap between these two very different sectors?
Well, the first thing is: do we need to close the gap?
One of the most important roles for NGOs is that we engage the mainstream public and shift the political zeitgeist on these issues in a way that companies are never really going to be able to do, at least not authentically.
So you don’t think a company or government could have created such a deep consumer understanding, for example, about bees or their value?
I will let you into a secret: Our starting point on the bees campaign was not bees. Our starting point was ‘How do we run a campaign that engages the public in nature again, after years of just hearing about climate change?’
It didn’t take us too long to work out that bees are the embodiment of ecosystems. Running a campaign about bees is fantastic for building public awareness without using words such as sustainability, climate change, ecosystem. If we are banging on about bees, do we therefore need to be using the same language as business? No.
The important point is that we can, and should, and do, take a different role to business in the sustainability debate. There might be a need for us to start having more of a common language and it’s great when NGOs and business can come together to send one clear message to government. But equally, sometimes the most powerful thing is when a group of companies get together on their own and send a very clear, progressive message where clearly no NGO has been involved.
My experience is that government is always really suspicious when they see an alliance of businesses and NGOs doing something together – they always assume that the NGOs are pushing it, and business has just signed on, even if that is not the case.
It feels like a lot of businesses have given up on government and are trying to move independently. What is your perspective on that?
I think NGOs are also very sceptical about government. We’ve seen a total failure by governments generally to do anything like what’s needed to deal with the scale of the planetary crisis. It’s the one thing anyone in progressive business and NGOs agree on.
But the other thing we need to understand is that, in all honesty, it is still a relatively small part of the business community that is engaged on this agenda. The vast majority of businesses are not engaged and some parts of the corporate world are directly opposing action on this agenda.
The thing that we need, more than anything, is for the sensible, far-thinking leaders to now get their heads around the fact that they need to start taking on the dinosaurs in the business community.
What government needs to see now is business criticising business, having a go at the big business lobby groups that hold us back.
The example I‘d give at the moment is The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) being worked on by the EU and US. After years of initiatives by the likes of Corporate Leaders Group and The Aldersgate Group, as well as companies such as Unilever, Kingfisher and Ikea arguing for regulatory frameworks to protect the environment, TTIP looks set to try and dismantle a lot of the environmental regulations because they have been held up as barriers to free trade.
Now, my challenge to the progressive companies is: after years of them rightly saying we need regulatory frameworks, what is their position on TTIP? Are those more progressive companies that understand the importance of rules and regulations (whether it’s preventing illegally sourced timber coming into the European market, health and safety, or palm oil, or climate targets) going to protect them, or accept that they could all go up in smoke because of TTIP? I don’t see anyone in the business community coming out at the minute and saying “What the hell is this thing? In whose name is this being negotiated?” Politicians are claiming that they’re doing it for the benefit of business, but business needs to refute this.
What about businesses who masquerade as progressive businesses and chuck a bit of sponsorship money here and there?
Before we do anything publicly with a company, we have to feel that they have a really solid track record and are trying to progress these issues. That doesn’t mean to say that we think they have to be squeaky clean, we just have to think that they’re trying.
We recently launched something a bit unprecedented for Friends of the Earth – our Great British Bee Count. We launched our app and it’s sponsored by B&Q. It’s an amazing citizen science project that is proving very popular.
We teamed up with B&Q to help us deliver the app. They’ve got the expertise to do that and they give us the reach to get out there to deliver to customers. But what we haven’t done is said, “We think B&Q’s brilliant, they’re perfect on everything” because we don’t. And we’re only happy doing that because B&Q have got a very long track record of taking these things seriously, and we’ve got a really good, solid thing we can do together which brings together our very different expertise, skills and capabilities.
Finally what do you think organisations like ours that work with business can do?
I think the much-neglected space in this whole area of business and sustainability is how business interacts with policy in a progressive way.
At the moment, it’s a dysfunctional arrangement, with the notable exception of some very rare initiatives like the Corporate Leaders Group. The vast majority of interactions by business on policy – even among the most progressive companies – is firstly, not around these issues, and secondly, is about pushing for their own very narrow interests. Actually, most of the time it is trying to stop things happening.
It’s the bit of the brain that sustainable business hasn’t engaged with yet – that is, what does this mean for our approach to public affairs and policy? Its amazing how companies will think deeply about what they’re going to do about the supply chain and then suddenly their CEO will go off and have a dinner with a minister, and lobby for a position which is directly contradicting the approach they are taking in their supply chain.