The Unsuitablog

Exposing Ethical Hypocrites Everywhere!

WWF : Buy Yourself A New Corporate Image (Part 1)

Posted by keith on January 15th, 2008

WWF Corporate

Walking home from my local town centre the other day, I spotted a large advertisement by the global bank HSBC: they were proudly announcing that for every new account opened or mortgage taken out they will donate a magnificent £2 to the WWF’s rainforest protection project in Brazil. That’ll break the bank then (every pun intended)! I did a bit of hunting around and found that HSBC were committed to decent standards in their investments as regards forestry, but here’s the catch: when I wrote to WWF-UK it turned out they had absolutely no veto over HSBC’s activities.


Dear xxxx 

As discussed, and with regards to http://www.wwf.org.uk/business/whoweworkwith/c_0000000018.asp, please could you let me know whether WWF would be prepared to relinquish their partnership with HSBC (which I personally find extremely uncomfortable as it is) should it turn out that as a result of HSBC’s investment activities they were causing a net (direct or indirect) damage to rainforest ecosystems and/or the tribal peoples within.

Keith Farnish


In response I received a statement on their principles, which included “WWF  believes  that  the  most effective and long term environmental change comes  about  through  constructive and challenging dialogue and engagement with  business,  industry  and governments…” So, no answer there. I asked again.

Dear xxxx

I’m afraid this does not answer my question:

Am I correct to assume that WWF would continue to remain a partner regardless of HSBC’s activities?

Kind regards

Keith

– ——–

Hi Keith

xxxx has passed your email to me. You are asking a hypothetical question. If there was an issue we would obviously deal with it on a case by case basis. We cannot give you a blanket answer based on a hypothetical question.

I hope you can understand our position.

Best wishes

xxxx

———-

Dear xxxx

All questions regarding the future are hypothetical. WWF are combating rainforest destruction partly because you believe that it will cause a increase in atmospheric carbon levels – and quite right, too – but it is only as definite as the science says it is (around 90%). There is a strong chance, based on past behaviour that HSBC will invest in activities that cause a net loss in forest quality or area, so I am very surprised that you do not have this scenario covered. It would make the terms of your agreement far more solid, and also ensure that HSBC are far less likely to make damaging investments or loans.

Given your position I have no option but to assume that you are not protecting against this potential situation, and will have to report this as so.

Kind regards

Keith

———-

Dear Keith

You have asked us to comment on a vague hypothetical situation, which is very unusual. To make assumptions on the basis of our inability to comment on this is irresponsible journalism. As I have already said we would make decisions on a case by case basis, depending upon the scenario or issue. I also think that making assumptions on past behaviour is short sighted to say the least.

If you are making assumptions please make this clear rather than report this as fact.

Kind regards

xxxx


Very interesting. So, in short, WWF have made no agreement with HSBC that they would pull out of the partnership should HSBC behave irresponsibly. PLUS, they do not judge a company based on its past behaviour; any investments in destructive activities are swept under the carpet, provided you have the money to invest. For a stipend of around £100,000 and a little bit of box ticking, you can use the WWF logo on your headed notepaper. For an investment of around £1 million, you can plaster the WWF logo all over your adverts and look greener than green.

And if you think the UK is bad, tomorrow I will be going over to the USA…
 

2 Responses to “WWF : Buy Yourself A New Corporate Image (Part 1)”

  1. J Shand Says:

    Dear Keith,

    For my sins, I have had significant experience with the cash hungry Panda. It actually does do, perhaps despite itself, some amazing things to contribute to a sustainable future. However it also struggles hugely to avoid rich business people with cases full of money. WWF started as a fund, when it was established no one worried about where the money came from, just as long as it did so. Now, whilst WWF actually does have some fairly decent screening and engagement processes, these rarely count for enough when the chequebook comes out. You may not be surprised to learn that there is often huge discomfort within WWF at many of these deals, and also some grotesque compromises made in their pursuit.

    Another problem within such big NGOs is that the power lies with those whose job it is to fundraise and “communicate”. People that do such jobs tend to be marketeers (fundraising) and communications “professionals” whose idea of a job well done is to reduce any necessarily complex messages to lowest common denominator language. These voices frequently drown out those within the organisation whose lives are genuinely dedicated to achieving better environmental and social outcomes.

    The argument that WWF seeks to engage with those that are best in class would be theoretically OK if those companies were substantially, genuinely, different from their competitors. Yet the sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of companies, whilst showing some generally encouraging marginal acceptance of the issue of sustainability, are still wedded to systems and mindsets that are catastrophic in their impact upon people and the planet.

    The only solution for NGOs such as WWF is simply to not take money from companies, but work with them to effect change without money changing hands. I do believe that there is honour in working with companies to try to change how they work, for me it is simply not an option to shut myself off from the dominating social and economic mores of how the world works. There is hypocrisy in this position I know, but I feel that few of us are not hypocrites in some way.

    I would actually hazard a guess that WWF does have an agreement with HSBC that steps would be taken if HSBC behaves irresponsibly, they will also (funnily enough) have a whole raft of Q&As to cover any number of hypothetical situations. Indeed, the straying of your respondees down the cul-de-sac of hypotheticals is very odd given that they could actually have told you about some of the checks and balances they probably have in place, which would have done their integrity no harm at all. But when money is involved, straight answers and honesty often come second to defensiveness and a desire to pretend that black is white. I have often wondered what the problem would be in acknowledging publicly that sometimes life is complex.

    There is no way that issues in such a partnership would only be dealt with by WWF on a purely reactive, case-by-case basis, they will have done a huge amount of defensive communications work to decide what to say if things go wrong. Your last WWF respondent (possibly an idiot) is guilty of disingenuousness of the highest order. They are just trying to get you to go away – shameful behaviour from an environmental NGO, but understandable behaviour for a full-service green PR organisation – perhaps they should decide which they are.

    The real question with regard to these sorts of partnerships is; who decides what responsible behaviour is?
    The fact is that WWF has decided, with HSBC as with many of its other corporate partners, that the partner company in question is not as bad as some of the others in their industry sector. They champion the marginal changes that HSBC has made (as many other companies have) to clean up the edges of its practice. However the fact that HSBC, through its activities; owns, drives, stimulates and supports unsustainable activities (through funding international corporations and feeding international capitalism) is simply too big a realisation for WWF to get its head around. These sorts of partnerships celebrate those companies that are 80 to 90% evil, and make great play of avoiding those that are 100% evil. But to me 80% evil is just way too evil.

    Keep up the good work – and keep asking the questions, those answers are getting more entertaining every time!

    J Shand

  2. keith Says:

    A very thoughtful, detailed comment, J. I appreciate the effort you have put into this.

    Keith

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