What If Environmental Activists And Big Businesses Decided To Get Along?

Future 500 is an experiment at overcoming politics and getting big brands to find common ground with leading nonprofits.

What If Environmental Activists And Big Businesses Decided To Get Along?
[Illustrations: Goettingen/iStock]

In the popular understanding of climate politics, the battle lines seem clear. Democrats favor direct policies like carbon taxes, and Republicans are against them. Fossil fuel companies deny climate science, fight new initiatives, and maintain the status quo. “Good” companies, like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s, do the opposite.


To Bill Shireman, who leads a group called Future 500, this understanding is simplistic and not helpful. He argues there’s plenty of support for climate action among mainstream business, including in the oil and gas industry, and that the bright divides on a range of environmental issues are more a function of political hackery, not actual thoughts and feelings.

“The industry most opposed to a carbon tax is the political industry–the strategists who made climate into a wedge issue,” he says. “The easy story is that big companies are blocking carbon taxes. I can tell you they’re not the most enthusiastic supporters. But we would have a carbon tax if it weren’t for the political industry,” he says. (By “political industry,” he includes the media, which he says itself thrives on conflict.)

Shireman hopes that cooperation between business and activists on environmental issues will lead to more meaningful outcomes than the normal mudslinging. In April, Future 500 convened 100 corporate, environmental, and philanthropic leaders in Texas to discuss policies on climate, oceans, and forests. There was “general consensus,” Shireman says, on an agenda that includes a revenue-neutral carbon tax, reducing ocean-bound plastic debris, ending the use of “bunker fuel” by cargo ships, and stopping farms from leaching runoff chemicals that cause ocean “dead zones.”

About 37 companies are “participants” to Future 500’s Earth Day 50 Challenge, which looks to get commitments from 50 major companies by April 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. These include 3M, IBM, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, and Visa, which have agreed to be involved in discussions, if not, as yet, to actually do anything. Future 500 wants to engender a spirit of cooperation with NGOs such as Greenpeace and WWF, which “agreed to put down their weapons” for three days while at the off-the-record event in Dallas.

“The only companies that are at risk with the Earth Day 50 Challenge are the companies that don’t sit at the table, that aren’t in the room engaging,” Shireman says. In particular, he would like to see P&G, General Mills, and Cargill engage more, as their supply chains have wide ramifications across global agriculture and forestry. In other cases, Future 500 wants companies to follow through on existing commitments like those on sourcing sustainable palm oil that doesn’t lead to deforestation.

Shireman believes that citizens, NGOs, and scientists who “capture the attention of leading brands, which then leverage their global supply chains and policy influence to drive change,” are more effective than government “command-and-control” regulations. Indeed, Future 500 can be seen as the Republican version of a environmental movement. Shireman is a registered Republican and committed free market thinker, and Future 500 is backed by Trammell Crow, a major GOP donor.


Some will say oil companies deserve no credit for late-in-the-game climate commitments and that NGOs should be in the business of activism not back-door glad–handing. But these criticisms sort of make Shireman’s point for him. He argues that business and NGOs have little to lose and more to gain, and can always go back to antagonistic positions if things don’t work out.

“We’re battling conceptions that want to put people in a box [who say] ‘this is not going to work because it’s too friendly,'” he says. “The reality is that companies know they’re at risk if they don’t engage in solutions. We need to give them the solutions and then reward them when they take them.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.