Capitalism with a Conscience


| May / June 2006

With its $3 million budget, 35 staff members, and larger-than-life reputation for savvy activist aikido, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), recently profiled in the Ecologist (Feb. 2006), is a leader in the fight to hold corporations accountable for their actions.

The magazine's Nicola Graydon writes that RAN's nonviolent antics are legendary: A life-sized papier-m?ch? cow that eats rainforest leaves and defecates styrofoam 'whopper' burgers called attention to rainforest damage caused by Burger King's imported beef. Clipboard-equipped activists warned Home Depot shoppers-via leaked store intercom codes-that the wood in aisle 2D was, reports Graydon, 'ripped from the heart of the Amazon.'

The tactics are effective, concludes the Ecologist. After a year of being targeted, Home Depot 'told its suppliers it wouldn't buy wood unless it was Forest Stewardship Council certified, slashed imports from Indonesia and Gabon-both notorious for illegal logging-and helped broker a deal between loggers and environmentalists in Chile to prevent the felling of native forests.' A number of big retailers followed suit, including Office Depot and Lowe's. As a measure of the sincerity of its conversion, Home Depot subsequently exerted leverage to protect part of an endangered rainforest in British Columbia.

RAN's ongoing focus on the institutions that finance rainforest destruction has also changed the practices of Citibank and Bank of America, among others. In late 2005, according to the Ecologist, RAN helped Goldman Sachs formulate a corporate environmental policy.



Now RAN is going to the source of our oil addiction, campaigning to 'Jumpstart Ford,' whose vehicles have had the worst average mileage among the big eight automakers for the past six years. RAN's campaign demands fuel efficiency of 50 miles a gallon fleet average by 2010 and zero greenhouse gas emissions across the board by 2020.

Groups like RAN are right to target corporate practices for reform. What's both encouraging and, to some, surprising is that a growing number of entrepreneurs and executives share these activists' agenda, at least to some degree. They are reshaping the trajectory of corporate velocity, inventing new business structures that embed mission into the bottom line, and demonstrating that the impetus for change and for meaningful response to global crisis is a lot more likely to come from businesses (and social entrepreneurs) than from our government. In our cover section, 'The New Capitalists' (page 38), we explore how businesses are leading the way.