Nowadays, only the dinosaurs in the industry fail to recognize that maintaining a working relationship with a range of environmental advocacy organizations, (also known as environmental nongovernmental organizations [ENGOs, or simply NGOs]) is an essential part of doing business. However not everyone dedicates sufficient resources to developing such relationships.
In my experience, relationships with ENGOs often are far more confrontational, and often much more expensive, than they could be with the optimal management approach.
In the major battles between ENGOs and the paper industry before about 1980, the industry was usually the true villain. As improved technology was installed, and mills were run better, pollution was dramatically reduced. Today, most mills in the developed world, and the modern mills in less developed countries, have reduced discharges to below the level of scientific significance.
Some mills still cause some damage or an unsightly mess that is the subject of disputes.
Unfortunately, instead of discussing the issue rationally, too many of these situations result in pitched battles with extreme allegations by both sides. One hears statements such as, “You are killing the river,” or “1200 jobs would be lost if we do what you want,” both of which are gross exaggerations.
Nobody wins from these battles, except the lawyers and their expert witnesses (I am one of the latter, and have been retained on both sides of the table, as well as in the middle arbitrating, so I feel qualified to make the statement).
The ultimate failure in the pulp industry to work successfully with the ENGOs must be the Botnia mill in Uruguay. The mill effluent is cleaner that 95% of North American mills. The ENGOs rousted up demonstrations of up to 40,000 people, and kept a mile-long international bridge closed to traffic for 3 years. The dispute was settled in the International Court of Justice with USD 33 million in published litigation costs ending in a finding that the mill was not polluting. Having read a vast amount of the literature on the dispute as part of representing the mill’s side in court, I am quite sure that mess would have been avoided by developing a working relationship with the public. The extreme activists were not approachable, but their public support would have been eliminated by better management of communications.
It is important to dedicate resources to developing relationships with ENGOs that have an interest in the mill or company. Corporate policy of complying with the law and environmental regulations is of course the first step, but staff responsible for the environmental compliance must take a different approach with the ENGOs. This is particularly so where the mill’s environmental staff take a “lawyer driven” approach, assuming that anything that is legal is also okay.
To develop a useful relationship it is essential to realize that virtually all of the people from ENGOs sincerely believe in what they are doing, and many have genuine worries about the impact of mill discharges. None are in it for the money. Some staff members are volunteers and those on salary are generally paid less that they would be if working for the industry or a government agency. The secretary of an Ontario ENGO that I met socially today mentioned that they often paid only 75% of salaries when donations were low. Not many mills could retain staff on such a basis when paper prices drop.
The next step is to learn as much as you can about all ENGOs that appear interested in your mill or company by checking their Web sites and the Internet and asking colleagues in the industry.
Then you are ready to meet with groups that express interest in the mill. If there is public criticism of the mill, then it is best to be proactive and meet the critics.
It is essential that the team meeting the ENGOs have strong technical knowledge of the mill’s environmental history and current status, as well as the impact of the mill on the local environment. It is also important that the individuals representing the company agree with my statement about the sincerity of the ENGOs. In any company, there are people with varying opinions on this issue. Those who are extremely skeptical of ENGOs are likely to aggravate the other side, even if they try to be polite. There is a good chance that one of the ENGO people will be aggressive, and we all know how fast two apparently civilized hockey players can get the gloves off.
Many members of the public view the credibility of the pulp and paper industry, and its regulators, as very poor. Unfortunately, there have been incidents in the (mostly distant) past where company actions were less than honest or ethical. People running the industry today have to live with the problems left by their predecessors. It is difficult for those of us who have witnessed the dramatic improvements in mills over the past 40 years to realize that the younger ENGOs have never seen a really polluted river. The younger ones also are more likely to be swimming or canoeing than most senior management staff.
In the meeting, first listen to the ENGO concerns, then address them, accepting those that are legitimate. Be prepared to spend money solving the real problems if at all possible. When the ENGOs are right, they can build huge costs for a mill by attacking via customers, litigation, etc.
In many cases, ENGOs are upset because they have read older literature on the characteristics of mill effluent and do not realize how dramatically the effluents have been improved over the past 20-40 years. Where they are concerned about discharges of specific substances, put them in context, perhaps by reference to reliable public data on toxicity, safe levels, etc.
Many issues originate in the advances in analytical chemistry that have uncovered small concentrations of nasty substances, in tiny quantities, below levels of scientific concern. Once the facts are properly checked out they can be discussed and hopefully resolved.
A wide variety of technical/scientific issues create disputes. Mill and/or company personnel usually have the know-how to deal with the facts, but problems arise due to the almost universally low credibility of the corporation or governments, as viewed by the ENGOs, so considerable patience is required.
Some ENGOs are doctrinaire and against all forms of industry, and see any change in the environment as bad. In response to that I discuss the realities of a world without paper, and the fact that they probably live in a wooden house or a building that is partially wooden construction.
In the case of the rabid activist who will not enter into intelligent discussion, break it off politely and issue statements that show the company’s strong points so that the public support for the radicals will be weakened. You cannot win an argument with rabid environmentalists who cannot or will not understand science, but you can pull the rug from under them by showing the broader public (which the extremists need for support) that the company is reasonable.