The observance of Earth Week this year coincided with the peak season of annual company meetings. Environmental activists used the occasion to step up their attack on corporate America, adding shareholder resolutions on environmental issues to hardy perennials such as those on South Africa. The intent of many of these new resolutions was to force commitment to a set of environmentalist-drafted standards called the "Valdez Principles."
There is growing awareness in many companies that industrial activity has been part of the environmental problem and that they must become part of the solution. Many have made or are considering environmental policy statements. But acceptance of the Valdez Principles, a code of conduct with a name intended to publicize corporate error, and with conformance to be judged by self-appointed private critics, asks management to abdicate its responsibilities to its many constituencies in favor of an outside group interested in only one aspect of corporate performance. Not surprisingly, few if any companies have signed.
Shortly before Earth Week, Washington was host to "Earthtech," an event co-chaired by Sens. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) and John Heinz (R-Pa.), which attracted 67 companies to display their environmentally improved products. Several of these firms met with disfavor in the eyes of the activist organization Greenpeace. Threatened with picketing and disruption, some companies withdrew. Du Pont, a leader in the movement away from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), with an environmentally conscious CEO, did not. Du Pont's reward for its environmental leadership was to find two Greenpeace activists handcuffing themselves to its booth, a photo opportunity for television and a public relations wound for the company.
Earth Week was intended to be a celebration of growing environmental awareness that we all depend on a common ecosystem, that the system is in danger and that we all have a responsibility for its protection.
Funding was ardently solicited by Earth Week's organizers, except from oil, paper and chemical companies. No matter how environmentally responsible they were, these companies were condemned by their products. These anticorporate actions have had an environmental cost, no matter how they may warm the cockles of some activist hearts.
Some companies will now see any set of environmental principles, let alone a code named "Valdez," as a cross to which environmentalists will nail them rather than as a better mode of corporate thinking. Some will wonder whether any environmental improvement they make will ever receive praise rather than stimulate criticism of problems yet unsolved. And some will decide to close their ears to critics, in the process missing ideas they could use to improve the world's environment and their own profitability.
Fortunately there is a better way.
No segment of our society has a corner on either virtue or self-interest. We all see problems through the narrow lens of our own experience and desires. We often act as if our particular view is the only defensible one.
The world's environmental problems can only be solved by cooperation. Each actor has a right to paint the picture as he or she sees it. But in the end, successful policies will be reached by compromise and consensus, not by insistence on absolutes.
Companies must not defer beginning to think environmentally or halt their search for more benign technologies because they are offended by environmentalist criticism. Environmental activists need not give up their right to criticize, but they can move the world faster to their goals by also giving public credit when it is deserved.
The rules under which corporations exist are designed to encourage efficient use of resources -- financially measured. When certain goods -- natural resources and the biosphere's restorative powers -- are underpriced or free, users have no incentive and often little ability to conserve them.
Here both environmentalists and corporations must join forces, insisting that governments set market-oriented environmental policies, including taxes and fees, to include the value of environmental resources in the cost calculations of industry and consumers. Otherwise, the environmentally conscious performers will forever be at an economic disadvantage compared with less conscientious counterparts.
This joint effort will require setting aside deep-rooted biases and overlooking past affronts. It will require a melding of very different views. It will entail paying a new high price for nature's services previously used as if free. But the cost of continued hostility and delay in reaching environmental solutions would be vastly greater.
In the long run, environmental stewardship and good business practice are synonymous, and consistent with the stated goals of environmental activists. It is time now to phase in a new approach -- cooperation, moderation, constructive dialogue, consensus building and hard work -- to set the tone for the world's post-Earth Week years of environmental effort.
The writer, who has served as undersecretary of commerce for international trade and was chief executive officer of Continental Can Co., is senior counselor for the World Resources Institute.