MARCH 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 3
E N V I R O N M E N T A L B O A R D G A M E S
Environmental Board Games
By Jim Donahue
According to a recent survey by Multinational Monitor, an increasing number of environmental groups are working closely with the businesses and industries whose practices they are trying to reform. Environmental groups bristle at this charge but they may be compromising themselves institutionally and limiting their capacity to work for the fundamental changes needed to establish an environmentally sound society.
Many people think the nation's leading environmental groups are uncompromised in the fight to stop environmental degradation. The findings of the Monitor survey reveal, however, that executive officers of corporations that are major polluters serve on the boards of many environmental organizations.
The survey included Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Environmental Policy Institute, the Izaak Walton League of America, The National Audubon Society, the National Parks and Conservation Association, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRW, the Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, World Resources Institute (WRI) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Each group's most recent annual report was examined with an eye to the corporate affiliation of board members, trustees and advisors. In cases where the corporate affiliation was not provided in the group's annual report, the names of board members were compared to the names of individuals who preside over the top 1,000 over-the-counter corporations and the top 1,000 financial management corporations in the United States.
Of the surveyed groups, only the Izaak Walton League of America, the Sierra Club, the National Parks and Conservation Association and the Environmental Policy Institute had no board members, trustees or advisors associated with corporations.
Altogether, 67 individuals associated with seven of the surveyed environmental groups serve as chairpersons, CEOs, presidents, consultants or directors for 92 major corporations, 35 of which are included in the Fortune 500. Most of these individuals are involved primarily in manufacturing, though 16 work with banking, insurance, management consulting or private investment firms. Twenty-four individuals are associated with 22 corporations listed in the National Wildlife Federation's Toxic 500, a 1989 report of the nation's leading polluters as reported to the EPA in 1987.
The World Wildlife Fund has the largest number of individuals with corporate affiliations. Twenty-nine individuals on WWF's Board of Directors and its National Council are directors, CEOs or vice presidents for corporations including Union Carbide, Exxon Chemical Co. and Monsanto. Nearly one in three of WWF's Board of Directors and one in five members of its National Council are affiliated with corporations. Three WWF directors and seven members of its National Council are directors for corporations listed in the Toxic 500. WWF director Eugene McBrayer is president of Exxon Chemical Co., a subsidiary of Exxon USA, the corporation now best known for North America's worst oil spill. Exxon Chemical Co. is also cited in the Toxic 500 for dumping 2.9 million pounds of toxic material in 1987.
According to Gayle Bingham, vice president of WWF, corporate executives like Exxon's McBrayer are on the board because they "care about the environment, too." She says, "It's in our interest as an environmental organization to help corporations engage in their economic activities in a more sound environmental manner." Bingham claims that she has never seen a corporate board member influence the group's environmental policies in such a way that environmental quality becomes secondary to corporate interests. But consider how WWF has dealt with environmental issues of concern to Exxon. According to Jon Welner of WWF's Congressional Affairs office, the group is "pretty much staying out" of the debate over pending oil spill legislation, specifically the "Oil Pollution Liability and Compensation Act." Furthermore, Welner says that the organization has "not taken a position" on the Exxon boycott. When asked about McBrayer's possible interest in diminishing WWF's support for tough legislation, Bingham responded, "I think that kind of speculation is so negative that it's not helpful."
Twenty-three board and council members with World Resources Institute (WRI) serve as directors, CEOs or vice presidents for corporations including Union Carbide, Dupont, Monsanto, Hoechst- Celanese and Bristol Myers. One in three individuals on WRI's board of directors and nearly one in five on its Council are affiliated with corporations.
WRI's board includes a director from Weyerhaeuser, one from Corning Glass Works and one from Union Carbide and a vice president from Hoechst-Celanese. WRI's council includes directors from Hercules, Union Carbide and Bristol Myers, a senior vice president from Monsanto, a vice president from Dupont and a strategic planning coordinator from BP America (British Petroleum). Each of these corporations is included in the Toxic 500.
Researchers from General Motors and Weyerhaeuser serve as project advisors for WRI's Multiple Air Pollutants Project. Ironically, General Motors and its subsidiaries dumped over 63 million pounds of toxic material into the air, water and on land in 1987; Weyerhaeuser dumped 3.7 million pounds of toxic material. Researchers from Monsanto, Corning Glass Works and Garrett Processing Company, a division of Allied Signal, serve on WRI's "Panel on Responses to the Greenhouse Effect and Global Climate Change." Monsanto's Alvin, Texas facility is listed in the Toxic 500 as the seventh leading polluter, having dumped 176 million pounds of toxic material in 1987.
Donna Wise, Director of Policy Affairs for World Resources Institute, said that because WRI is primarily involved in environmental research, not advocacy, the affiliations do not compromise the group's position on environmental issues. She denied that WRI's corporate board members bias the group's research and suggested that a healthy environmental debate could not take place without the input of corporate people.
Union Carbide, Westvaco Corp., Grumman Corp. and Bowne & Co. are all represented on the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society. George Frampton, president of the organization, agreed that Westvaco and Union Carbide are major polluters. "We want to be very conscious of the conflict problem," he said, but "we specialize in public lands [issues]," not pollution. Because Union Carbide and Westvaco are involved only in polluting public lands, not buying them, Frampton said he does "not feel that we have any such real conflict on the board now." He adds, "I'm not sure we would have a board member who was also on the board of a company that used or exploited the public lands."
Merck & Co., Union Camp Corp., Ford Motor Co., Consolidated Edison of New York, the New York Times Co., Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Stroh Brewing Co . are represented on the Board of Directors of the National Audubon Society. Both Merck and Union Camp are infamous for dumping toxic pollutants in the air, water and on land.
Robert San George, vice president of Audubon, says that he is not concerned that the group may be unduly influenced by corporate interests. "If they [corporate board members] see themselves getting into some kind of situation where they think there is some kind of conflict of interest, they will say so," he said. In the late 1800s, Audubon was founded by 35 groups whose first action was a successful boycott of corporations that slaughtered birds. Yet, a century later, San George worries that without corporate people "we would clearly acquire a reputation as being either anti-corporate or just shunning the corporate world." The boycott "wasn't anti-corporate in any general sense," explains San George when confronted with this contrast. The modern, corporatized Audubon, however, does not support the specific boycott against Exxon in response to its 11 million gallon oil spill in Alaska that killed thousands of birds and other animals.
Dean Buntrock, chairman & CEO of Waste Management, a waste disposal corporation notorious for its environmentally destructive practices, serves on the board of directors of the National Wildlife Federation. In addition, Alexander Trowbridge, a member of the company's board of directors, serves on the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund. Last May, the EPA fined Waste Management's subsidiary, Chemical Waste Management, $4.5 million for improperly burning PCBs in Chicago.
Charlie Miller, director of media relations for the National Wildlife Federation, said the group has "found [Buntrock] ... to be a strong supporter of our environmental programs." Miller acknowledged that Waste Management has "been fined in a number of instances" but argues that, "It's not our business to track every infraction or alleged infraction of the law that [Waste Management] may be engaged with."
The boards of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have representatives from some smaller companies. Union Carbide, Southern California Edison and HCX, Inc. are represented on the Chairman's Council and the Board of Trustees of the NRDC; and Information Resources, Inc., Hambrecht & Quist and Ranieri Wilson & Co. are represented on the Board of Directors of the EDF. Of these, only Union Carbide is listed in the Fortune 500.
Corporate board members and executives can better the environmental image of a corporation by serving on the boards of environmental groups. In many cases, such participation implies that a company is environmentally conscious.
Such credibility by association works in the other direction also. The environmental movement is increasingly calling on corporations to elect environmentalists to their boards. But there is little evidence that this trend has had any deterrent effect on corporate polluters. Union Carbide, for example, has three environmentalists on its Board of Directors: Russell Train, a member of Union Carbide's Board of Directors since 1977, is chairman of the 500,000-member World Wildlife Fund and a board member of World Resources Institute; Alice Rivlin, Union Carbide board member since 1988, is chairperson of the Wilderness Society; and James Hester, Union Carbide board member since 1963, is a member of the Chairman's Council of the NRDC and former president of the New York Botanical Garden.
Environmentalists on the Union Carbide board have had no impact on the company's refusal to respond responsibly to the accident in Bhopal, India which provoked outrage in the environmental community. Nor has their presence improved the inadequate compensation Union Carbide paid to the victims who continue to suffer health-related effects from the 1984 toxic gas leak that killed thousands.
Corporations gain without sacrificing much from the addition of token environmentalists to their boards, but why do environmental groups seek participation from individuals who manage corporate polluters such as Monsanto, Waste Management and Union Carbide? Most of the surveyed groups say that corporate individuals improve their access to corporate funding. Others argue that, through corporate board members, environmental groups have a unique opportunity to influence corporate behavior towards the environment. WWF's Bingham said the group's affiliations with corporate people "show that we are sophisticated and knowledgeable about how government sectors land] economic sectors work and therefore we can be more effective at influencing corporate and government policies." Wilderness Society's Frampton and Audubon's San George argue that the management skills that individuals acquire in the corporate world benefit the overall operations of environmental groups.
The surveyed environmental groups, along with their corporate board members, will attempt to shape the environmental debate of the nineties. But their increasing corporatization, in the name of such questionable goals as "sophistication," "skill" and a desire not to appear "anticorporate," could prove damaging to the integrity of the environmental movement as well as to the more concrete goals of clean air, water and habitable lands.