We Can Work It Out

Global Futures Mediates Environmental Disputes

It’s easy to imagine the scenario: Environmental group (A) is targeting a manufacturer (B) for its role in polluting a local lake. A takes its case to the media, compiles press kits full of B’s misdeeds, and talks about the company in apocalyptic terms. Publicly, A says the company should be closed down. B, concluding that A cannot be reasoned with, responds with a lawsuit against A and a terse “the matter is in litigation” when asked about the group’s charges. Meanwhile, not wanting to look as if it capitulated, B continues polluting the lake. A resolution of this dispute is, obviously, years away.

This pattern is all-too-familiar to both green advocacy groups and their corporate prey, and it rarely results in a settlement that either side is happy with. But now there’s another way: mediation of the type successfully and skillfully handled by Sacramento’s Global Futures. The group, which has both profit-making and nonprofit elements, was the power behind the scenes in resolving the Rainforest Action Network’s (RAN) boycott against Mitsubishi Electric and Mitsubishi Motors, and in ending the long-running feud between a coalition of environmentalists and the Canadian forest giant MacMillan Bloedel, which was harvesting old-growth timber in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound.

Photo: Rainforest Action Mitsubishi Protest

Rainforest Action Mitsubishi Protest

Rainforest Action Network called off its boycott of two Mitsubishi companies through an historic compromise engineered by Global Futures.

“The people at Global Futures were the worker bees building a bridge between our group and Mitsubishi,” RAN’s Heather Serantis says. “They were an integral part of our coming to an agreement.” To which Bill Savage, Mitsubishi Electric America’s executive vice president, adds, “We were in a completely adversarial situation, and Global Futures was able to find the middle ground.”

Bill Shireman, Global Futures’ CEO, is a long-term environmentalist who started out agitating, in all the usual ways, to pass a California bottle bill. “I was executive director of Californians Against Waste from 1983 to 1987,” he says, “and we spent our time butting heads against the evil industry giants. In pushing for a bottle bill, we became very good martyrs who were adept at explaining why we couldn’t accomplish anything. We were flying in the face of massive corporate resistance!”

Fortunately, Shireman is an accomplishment-oriented guy with personal experience as an entrepreneur. “I knew how business people thought, and I realized we might be operating on a myth in thinking our corporate enemies were universally evil and wrong,” he says. “There was probably a great deal of merit to their positions, otherwise they wouldn’t hold them.”

After the bottle bill was defeated in the legislature and on the ballot, Shireman’s waste group started a new dialogue with industry in 1985. “We started popping into a few offices, and got surprisingly positive responses,” says Shireman. “Some companies were truly anti-environmental, but others were pleased to have a door open to us.” Support came from surprising sources, including a supermarket executive whose other affiliations were with the religious right. Shireman also learned that Bill Coors, chairman of the well-known brewing family “was a closet recycling fanatic, who had put millions of company dollars into cleaning up company operations.” Coors and Shireman struck up a friendship, and the brewer is now on the Global Futures board. “Bill Shireman’s got an environmentalist’s dedication, but he’s also got a practical side,” Coors says.

With the help of corporate supporters like Coors, Californians Against Waste got the bottle bill through in 1987—the group even helped draft it. And Shireman had found himself a new career with Global Futures, which he founded the next year.

Global Futures, which now employs nine people in various locations around the country, is research-oriented. The group studies the history and value systems of the various players to learn how they conduct business, and how they might compromise. The work includes drawing up a possible working plan, though this is not actually presented to the protagonists, who have to work things out for themselves. “What we do has some parallels to labor mediation, though their tendency is to look for what each side will give up,” says Shireman. “Our goal is to give both sides something more than they would expect.”

In most corporate-environmentalist faceoffs, the two sides study each other’s positions as made public in news releases and press conferences. Very often, says Global Futures, that approach makes matters worse, because the two sides appear further apart than they actually are. “What they say in the media is not reflective of their true objectives, but of the need to raise attention and funds,” Shireman says. “We are fluent in corporate and activist dialects, and we can help translate language that is provocative to business, or to environmental groups.”

The stakes can be high, and the payoff large for both sides. In February of last year, Global Futures brought activists from several environmental groups together for a weekend with executives of MacMillan Bloedel, a forestry professor, a libertarian activist and other experts. The result, after many years of bickering and inconclusive direct action, was a business plan under which “MacBlo” could phase out all old-growth logging in five years. Two months after the plan was hammered out at the weekend, the company publicly adopted the old-growth phase-out.

The RAN/Mitsubishi agreement took longer—six years. RAN had imposed a blanket boycott on all Mitsubishi companies, to protest the Mitsubishi Corporation’s rainforest logging policies. In fact, Shireman points out, the companies are only loosely connected in the kind of large trading company favored by Japanese business. The boycott created strains at the Mitsubishi car and electrical appliance companies, because they felt they were being unfairly targeted for practices that had nothing to do with their own operations.

Early meetings between the warring parties had collapsed in recriminations, but Global Futures gradually brought them back together, after having put Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Electric through a steep learning curve about rainforests and sustainability. The result, in January of last year, was an historic agreement in which RAN would drop its civil disobedience and boycotts, and the two Mitsubishi companies agreed to use only sustainably harvested wood, set up an eco-accounting system, and, for the auto company, develop a “carbon offset” plan to counter tailpipe emissions from Mitsubishi cars. It was a far-reaching corporate commitment, sure to be a model for other companies to follow. Meanwhile, RAN’s boycott against the non-participating Mitsubishi Corporation continues.

Global Futures’ corporate clients have included Miller Brewing, Coors, Procter & Gamble, Clorox, Anheuser-Busch, Nabisco, The Can Manufacturers Institute and Mobil Recycling. The state of California and the Environmental Protection Agency have signed on, and the group also has many activist clients. “The biggest compromise an environmental group can make is to accomplish nothing,” says Shireman. “

If a group stands firm on a position that can never be realized, it sells out the movement.”