Over the past quarter-century, Greenpeace has gone from one of the more radical environmental groups around to a gateway into the corporate world. More and more a stint at Greenpeace seems to be prerequisite on the resum? of top-flight public relations honchos. Greenpeace has already seen former executive Patrick Moore defect to the timber industry in Canada and Paul Gilding (former CEO of Greenpeace International) set up a consulting firm for such corporate villains as DuPont, Monsanto and Placer Dome Mining.
The latest to cash in is Lord Peter Melchett, former head of Greenpeace UK, who has taken a position with Burson-Marsteller, the notorious US pr firm. While at Greenpeace, Lord Melchett led the group’s high-profile campaign against genetically-engineered foods, targeting, in particular, the products of Monsanto, a Burson-Marsteller client.
According to a company press release, Lord Melchett will head a committee advising companies on how to deal with thorny issues such as GM food, toxic waste, oil drilling, nuclear power, child labor and sweatshops in the developing world. Burson-Marsteller executives told the Guardian newspaper of London that he may also dispense advice on how to B-M clients can counter environmental protests.
Lord Melchett knows the protest scene from the inside. He’s been called the Jos? Bove of Britain, after he was arrested last year for destroying a plot of genetically-engineered sugar beets in Norfolk. But the Eton-educacted Lord Melchett’s knows the corporate world even better. Melchett is a member of the House of Lords, his father headed British Steel and his great-grandfather founded the ICI chemical empire.
Greenpeace executives in Britain said they saw no conflict of interest in Lord Melchett’s defection to the dark side. “Anyone who knows him will know that he hasn’t changed his agenda at all,” said Stephen Tisdale, the director of Greenpeace UK. “He sees Burson-Marsteller as a conduit to some very influential companies who would not normally talk to environmentalists. In some ways, Greenpeace held him back, and he has become more radical after leaving last year.”
That last bit is a stark admission of how thoroughly impotent Greenpeace has become. For those who have forgotten, Burson-Marsteller is the pr firm of last resort. They rushed to defend Union Carbide after the company killed 2,000 people and injured thousands more in Bhopal, India. It also ran cover for Babcock and Wilcox after the company’s nuclear reactor suffered a near meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. They’ve represented Exxon and Monsanto, big tobacco, the Argentine junta, Indonesia’s Suharto, the Saudi royal family, and Nicolae Ceausescu, the late Romanian dictator.
Lord Melchett will join some old friends at Burson-Marsteller. Richard Aylard, the former head of Soil Association (which represents organic farmers) and Gavin Grant, a former environmental adviser to the Body Shop, both now work full-time the pr giant. While the others have severed their ties with environmental group, Lord Melchett remains on the board of Greenpeace International.
In an email to John Stauber, director of PR Watch, a former Greenpeace executive lamented that Lord Melchett’s defection was a sign of the moribund condition of the big time environmental movement. “The Lord Melchetts of the activist (and now corporate) world are only one symptom of a broader contagion. Is there even a real environmental movement anymore? How accountable are NGOs to their own base? … Look how little is being accomplished in addressing Global Warming in the U.S. at a time when it’s obviously a national security issue and a global security issue. I think this is in part because the environmental groups don’t believe in mass movement building like they used to. Most of us are treated like consumer and spectator activists — expected to pay our membership dues and trust that full-time salaried activists will solve the issue — without expecting to get involved ourselves. How easy it is to confuse salaried NGO actors with real movement leaders. And when they leave to work for corporations, if they haven’t built a base that can carry on the radical push for change, how weak the organizations become that they leave behind. But alas, Lord Melchett hasn’t even fully left Greenpeace: Should Greenpeace International allow an employee of Burson-Marsteller on their board?”
The question might well be reversed. Given Greenpeace’s utter corrosion does it really serve the interests of the corporate spin doctors to recruit from their ranks anymore? These days picking up a Greenpeace staffer is little different than hiring away a pr flack from any other corporation.