Even Greenpeace’s detractors have taken note of the organisation’s newfound potency. Fred Smith, former president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and founder of the group’s Center for Advancing Capitalism, calls Greenpeace “one of the most effective” groups out there at essentially guilt-tripping corporations into becoming more socially responsible, a trend he considers hopelessly misguided. “It’s bad for companies, bad for customers, bad for shareholders, bad for workers,” Smith says. “But boy, it can get CEOs really great publicity in newspapers. Their wife can come home from the garden club and say, ‘Dear, you’re so much better than the other corporate husbands I know!’ And their children can say, ‘Daddy, you’re not as evil as I thought you were all these years!’”
Smith maintains that the desire be perceived as benevolent has made corporations less competitive. “It’s going to put them out of business,” he says.
Aida Greenbury of APP disagrees. “We are doing this because consumers are calling for it as well,” she points out.
But Smith insists most of the research on consumer preferences is flawed. “Companies go out to people and say, ‘How do you feel about my brand now that I’m fuzzier and wuzzier and greener?’” he says. “But there’s very little data that that translates into sales.” That’s not to say CEOs shouldn’t be pay lip service to environmental concerns. “I mean, look, don’t go around saying, ‘We don’t care about these things,’” Smith says. “Use all the nice, soft rhetoric you want. But for god’s sake, don’t take it seriously!”
Smith attributes initiatives around corporate social responsibility, or CSR, to a crippling sense of shame that has taken hold in America’s C-suites. “The average approach of a businessman when attacked by an environmental group is to say, ‘We’re working on it. We’re not as bad as you think. We’ve spent a fortune on environmental cleanup. In another decade we’ll be down to zero,’” he says. “And then they step back and wait for applause and they never get it! Why? Because to most people, it’s like a guy who gets up and says, ‘All right, you’ve got me. I did beat my wife, but I have cut down dramatically on wife-beating in the past five years. I’ve gone from leather belts to cloth belts, and from every day to once a week.’
Use all the nice, soft rhetoric you want. But for god’s sake, don’t take it seriously!
“You can try to please your customers,” he adds, “but don’t try to please your critics. These people are utopians. You can never please them.”