Corporations have used their financial resources and power to counter the gains made by environmentalists, to reshape public opinion and to persuade politicians against increased environmental regulation. Corporate activism, ignited in the 1970s and rejuventated in the 1990s, has enabled a corporate agenda to dominate most debates about the state of the environment and what should be done about it. This situation poses grave dangers to the ability of democratic societies to respond to environmental threats.
The impact of corporate propaganda on popular opinion is evident in a survey of 2500 Americans which found that the number who agreed that "To preserve people's jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future" increased from 17 percent in 1996 to 27 percent in 2004. Similarly the number who agreed that, "Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people," rose from 32 percent in 1996 to 43 percent in 2004.
As environmental concern grew, so did distrust of business institutions, which were seen to be the cause of environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Public respect for business fell to an all time low and “for the first time since the Great Depression, the legitimacy of big business was being called into question by large sectors of the public.”
Surveys showed increasing percentages of people nominated “factories and plants” as the major source of air pollution, for example. The distrust of business and support for environmentalism was highest amongst the young and the college or university educated.
Governments worldwide responded with new forms of comprehensive environmental legislation such as Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts and the establishment of environmental regulatory agencies. These new environmental laws were part of a general trend in legislation aimed at regulating corporate activities and constraining unwanted business activities.
Businesses found that their past ways of dealing with government no longer sufficed. The scope of political conflict widened.“For the first time since the 1930s, business found its political influence seriously challenged by a new set of interest groups.” Grefe and Linsky describe the traditional business approach in their book The New Corporate Activism:
Back then, it was standard for organizations to conduct their government relations in accordance with a “fix-it” mentality. They had a problem. They hired a lobbyist. They said, “Fix-it!” What they meant was “Kill it or make it go away.”... It was ‘influence peddling,’ quite simply—that is, finding the person who knew the legislator or regulator and getting him (it was always a ‘him’ in those days of the old-boy network) to bury the problem.
Once they realised how the political scene had changed corporations began to adopt the strategies that public-interest activists had used so effectively against them—grassroots organising and coalition building, telephone and letter-writing campaigns, using the media, research reports and testifying at hearings. To these strategies corporations added huge financial resources and professional advice. “A new breed of public affairs professionals began emerging” who could service corporations in their new activism.
They established ‘public affairs’ departments, increased the funding and staffing of those departments, and allocated responsibility for public affairs to a senior company executive, such as a Vice-President. The offices of these public affairs units were increasingly sited in Washington. Chief Executive Officers also devoted increasing amounts of their time to government relations. A survey of four hundred public affairs units in large and medium-sized firms in 1981 found that most received more than half a million dollars each year in funding and more than half were set up after 1970.
In response to government regulations, brought on by the activities of environmentalists and public interest groups, businesses began to cooperate in a way that was unprecedented, building coalitions and alliances and putting aside competitive rivalries. This was facilitated by the introduction of legislation such as Clean Air Acts that affected large numbers of industries rather than one industry at a time. “They learned to find people who were similarly situated and form ad hoc committees with these people and have a concerted, organized effort across the board of a number of industries who were similarly situated to fight the thing together.”
Far more important than the money invested in political campaigns, however, was the money invested in other forms of political influence, particularly into influencing the political agenda through the dissemination and selling of ideas. Corporations put large amounts of money into advertising and sponsorships aimed at improving the corporate image and putting forward corporate views. Much of this advertising was on environmental issues.
Corporations managed to achieve a virtual moratorium on new environmental legislation in many countries throughout the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. However, towards the end of the 1980s public concern about the environment rose again, reinforced by scientific discoveries regarding phenomena such as ozone depletion and weather patterns that seemed to indicate that global warming had already begun. Local pollution events, such as medical waste washing up on New York beaches and sewage pollution on Sydney beaches, also contributed to the public peception of an environment in decline.
This heightening of public anxiety in response to scientific confirmation of environmental deterioration induced a new wave of corporate political activity. This time the corporate backlash was able to utilise the techniques and organisations that had been established in the 1970s for the same purpose. With their activist machinery already in place corporations were able to take advantage of the new PR techniques and information technologies available for raising money, building coalitions, manipulating public opinion and lobbying politicians. And this time, rather than focusing on defending the free enterprise system and opposing labour unions, the attack was far more targeted at environmentalists.
It was during the 1990s that the application of public relations to environmental concerns really came into its own. Environmentalism was labelled “the life and death PR battle of the 1990s” and “the issue of the decade” by public relations personnel.
The coalition building which began in the 1970s continued to grow. A 1994 survey of 30 of the largest firms in the US found that each firm was involved in an average of 5.7 coalitions, such as The Business Roundtable; most of them “formed for legislative and regulatory purposes and focused primarily on national issues” such as the environment. More than a third of the corporations surveyed spend over a million dollars each year on “coalition activity”.