Sleep with the enemy

Stop fighting environmentalists and embrace them because it’s good for the planet and business. The challenge for the chemical industry is to win support in the court of public opinion before building or expansion plans run into trouble. And the key to that lies in a company’s willingness to understand the complex and sometimes conflicting motives of opposition groups and to communicate effectively to all constituencies.

By Alan Metrick, Alan Metrick Communications

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The chemical industry should stop fighting environmentalists and instead embrace them. Before you turn the page in disgust, let me explain why this is good for the planet and good for business.

The days when a responsibly run company could build or expand more or less where and when it wanted ended at least a decade ago. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s getting more difficult for the chemical industry to operate in the partial vacuum of the past. Now, every step of every project is getting tougher. Companies often face “oversight” by hostile self-appointed watchdogs. That, on top of government regulation, can make doing business more expensive than necessary.

I’m no foe of government oversight. And, if we’re to be honest, some in the industry need to do a better job of cleaning up their processes. Nevertheless, like you, I’ve seen well-meaning but ill-informed groups organize against good ideas from good companies. It’s these un-elected and reflexively hostile activist groups, not the government, that throw up the most roadblocks to production.

The range of objections is legion, e.g., potential water and air pollution, increased truck traffic, loss of open space, pressure on water supplies, and general “chemophobia.” Moreover, enemies of chemical plants — even plants run by companies sensitive to local worries — have become very good at running organized, sometimes well-funded campaigns.

Clearly, business moves faster and less expensively without conflict and opposition. And opposition, as we know, too often leads to court challenges, resulting in delays and ballooning project cost. The challenge for the industry, therefore, is to win support in the court of public opinion before building or expansion plans run into trouble. And the key to that lies in a company’s willingness to understand the complex and sometimes conflicting motives of opposition groups and to communicate effectively to all constituencies.

Forestalling fights

Disagreements need not escalate into protests or lawsuits. To borrow from cold war language, there’s a real need to start a permanent workable détente between the industry and its most vocal detractors.

Through my work for and with industry and environmentalists, I’ve seen greater cooperation between camps in the timber, construction and retail sectors. I’ve seen the relationship between companies and environmental groups change from outright hostility to something like grudging acceptance of each other’s positions. They might never get to the altar, but they’re starting to realize the need to work together.

Not so with the chemical industry, where both sides are so deeply entrenched in policy, practice and distrust there’s very little communication. Fortunately, it needn’t be this way. I see an opportunity to ease the tension and make it easier for chemical companies to maintain high standards and profitability while at the same time decreasing the likelihood that misunderstandings will lead to protests and the courts.

Here’s why. First, more people in their 40s and 50s are now leading the industry. They’re part of a generation that, regardless of political affiliation, is inclined to consider environmental concerns in business decisions — as long as they make economic sense. These executives have things in common with today’s environmental leaders and can speak — more or less — the same language. I’ll bet some of them even went to Woodstock.

Second, the environmental movement, or at least part of it, has grown up. I see that reflected in the leadership of large, responsible and rational groups. Some leaders of these groups believe, as I do, that their ideals are sound but some of their ideas don’t work in the real world. A new and less rigid generation of environmentalists understands the needs of business, believes in market-based solutions, and is willing to compromise to get results.

Third, chemical industry executives are learning that a growing number of Americans prefer dealing with companies having good environmental records.

Finally, the larger and more successful conservation groups are eager to praise businesses for good environmental practices. At least one of the largest groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), has spent its own money on advertising to help spread the word about responsive companies. When Home Depot, after some not-so-gentle pressure from environmentalists, decided to sell so-called “certified” lumber in its stores, NRDC paid for full-page ads in The New York Times applauding the move. Similarly, NRDC paid to advertise that a California-based timber company was moving to have its forests certified as sustainable by an independent outside authority.

Don’t forget, however, that local or national groups will still line up against a project they either don’t like or — very often — don’t understand. Remember, too, that some of these groups can bring unfavorable national attention to companies they perceive as being environmentally irresponsible. This kind of attention can hurt stock price, employee morale and local community relations.

Tips and traps

Someday I’ll get around to putting my experiences into a book about relations between the business community and environmental activists. Meanwhile, here are steps to take that will make working with environmentalists easier as well as some pitfalls to avoid.

Long-time activists know when they’re being snowed, and if they sense that your company isn’t serious then you’ve lost any chance for constructive engagement and all but invited an organized opposition campaign. So, be prepared to make operational changes. That doesn’t mean putting the corporation at a disadvantage in the market, but it does mean accepting some degree of rational change.

Some corporations have found that middle management personnel can be the biggest hurdle in accepting the need for environmental change and putting these changes into place — even in cases when the new processes save money. Again, this is where working with established forward-thinking groups pays off. Environmentalists accustomed to dealing with the private sector can help develop plans that make good financial sense.

For example, one of the country’s largest chemical companies was facing community opposition in Michigan over pollution caused by its particular processes. After being approached by NRDC, the company agreed to a pilot program to change how feedstock was handled and stored. The result was less air pollution, a happier community and lowered costs for the company.

Unfortunately, when it came time to expand the program, it seemed that old-school middle managers had no interest in continuing, even though the changes saved money. Old habits die hard.

If forced into a confrontation with a local or regional group, I generally advise taking the counter-intuitive step of getting a large national group involved — especially if the large group doesn’t like what your company is doing. It may sound screwy, but it’s the large group with which you’ll ultimately work things out to everyone’s general satisfaction.

When picking among myriad local and national environmental groups with which you might want to talk, look for groups with executives who have some experience in working out compromises.

Two years ago, a large timber operation in the southeast was embroiled in what seemed to be an endless battle with a small but influential conservation group. NRDC was called in to help broker a reasonable settlement. Because of its organizing muscle, the large group was able to get the company’s top leadership to a bargaining table where a sensible compromise was worked out. After this was done, however, the small local group nearly sabotaged the agreement because it didn’t get 100% of what it wanted.

Through my experience, I’ve come to believe that this local group, like others, wouldn’t have been satisfied even if the company completely capitulated. Small groups often aren’t in business to bring about change. They exist and live for the fight. Their funding depends on it. Winning, for some of these groups, is irrelevant.

In contrast, larger groups focus on real solutions. They’re willing to stop overloading a company’s e-mail and fax systems with thousands of angry letters, as long as everyone is making sincere efforts to reach a compromise. Finding these groups is one of many areas in which outside counsel with a broad perspective can be especially useful.

In addition to NRDC, Environmental Defense is another large national group seeking market-based solutions to ecological problems. Many on its staff have real-world (i.e., private sector) experience and know the difference between desirable and possible, and they’re very skilled at marrying the two ideas.

Build bridges beforehand

Take to heart the homespun wisdom of journalist Jimmy Breslin: “You can’t hate a guy after sitting down and having a beer with him.” To that end, establish good relations with responsible conservation groups before controversies arise. While that’s not always possible, it’s a small gesture that can eventually prove valuable. Also, prepare to listen to good ideas a group might have about your environmental practices. As I said, large groups are more understanding of business needs, including the need to make a profit.

All this boils down to one simple thought: Working with environmentalists isn’t “sleeping with the enemy,” as it’s sometimes thought. It’s far better to think of it as an integral part of doing business — one that can ultimately save time and money.


Alan Metrick is principal of Alan Metrick Communications, New York City. He served for several years as communications director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. E-mail him at alan@alanmetrick.com.

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