Will corporations save the Earth?

Guilty as charged.  That would be my plea if I were accused of "distrusting big corporations".  But in a provocative new essay, writer Alice Korngold argues that mega-corporations are the only thing that can save us.

  Really, you can trust us...

Really, you can trust us...

It's a novel argument.  For as long as I can remember, the hand on the chainsaw and the driver of the roaring bulldozer has had a corporate face -- a face focused, above all, on maximizing profits.

Yet, Korngold asserts that multinational corporations have vast financial resources and a capacity to work internationally that governments just can't touch.  That's crucial, she argues, in an era in which many of our environmental and social crises are global in scope.

Clearly, a well-meaning corporation can have a big influence on its entire business sector.  For instance, we've seen a wave of forest-destroying firms declaring "no-deforestation" policies, following the pioneering declaration by the oil palm giant Golden Agri Resources. 

It's a herd-mentality thing, one surmises.  When everybody is suddenly turning green, who wants to be left behind?

Still, Korngold doesn't suggest all corporations are well-meaning or that they can save the planet on their own. 

The best outcomes arise, she argues, when mega-firms pair up with NGOs or nonprofits.  It's also important for corporations to embrace sustainability at the board level, engage with their stakeholders, and commit to accountability and transparency, she says.

I guess the take-home messages are two-fold.  First, we need to keep up the pressure on corporate bad guys -- so their reputations and market shares suffer, giving them a real incentive to improve their performance.

Second, we need to engage and work with enlightened firms, and those willing to turn over a new leaf.  Greenpeace's recent detente with Asia Pulp & Paper -- formerly the dark beast of the environment -- is one such example.

It's a brave new corporate world.  We hope. 

-Bill Laurance