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HP and Greenpeace: When NGOs do stupid things

Greenpeace has been clambering all over a big company again.

A company that has stated and clear sustainability goals.

A company that has made a real effort to change, and drag a lagging sector along with it.

The company is Hewlett-Packard, or HP as some know it.

Greenpeace is upset that HP is not phasing out use of use of chemicals such as PVC plastic and flame retardants quickly enough.

This is despite the fact the company has said it will do so by 2011.

Greenpeace says this is because HP had said it will do this by 2007, but “backtracked”.

OK, so HP screwed up. It obviously over-reached in terms of targets. At least it has some decent aims, unlike many big companies.

Bashing the leaders in sectors such as electronics, where so many other firms are way behind HP, is just dumb.

Greenpeace should grow up, and stop providing fodder for the arguments of those who argue engaging campaign groups is pointless, since they will always want more.

By all means keep a close and critical eye on the leaders, but stunts like this should be played on the big electronics companies who do a lot less on sustainability than HP.

7 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Toby, It's great to see another perspective but I'm not sure I completely agree with you. It is precisely HP's willingness to engage, as well as the company's sustainability leadership, that makes it a perfect Greenpeace target. The same Greenpeace action at a less responsible/responsive company wouldn't be as effective. Greenpeace knows that HP cares about its environmental profile. What would be the value in "punking" a company that already thinks Greenpeace and similar groups are on the fringe? I think Greenpeace's move was immature and a waste of valuable resources that could probably have been spent achieving more than a just a lot of press coverage for a few hours on a slow news day…but if they were going to do it, HP seems as good a target as any.

  2. I absolutely disagree! It's companies like HP that give CSR and sustainability a bad name. To 'appear' environmentally-friendly, they will promise anything, and backtrack in the first instance. It's called greenwashing, and it's a threat to the NGOs that lease their credibility to these corporations, and risk a lot by such engagements. But of course, it is a decision for each person/group who to stand for, for what you believe is good for the environment or for the company. Tony, you seem to have a preference for companies who are at least pretending to do something. Greenpeace doesn't seem to have the same preference, but instead state a cause beyond the logics of business and corporate capitalism we have today. Hence, your disagreement with GP is a political one. To call their decision, 'dumb' therefore is to take the issue too lightly.

  3. Anonymous

    So when a company makes a pledge in response to a Greenpeace campaign, and then breaks that pledge, Greenpeace should let them off because – well, at least they made a pledge.

    You really haven't thought this through. Greenpeace are obliged to take action on companies which break pledges even if they're the best in the industry, as otherwise all of their campaigns will fail – companies will just pledge to do whatever Greenpeace ask for, safe in the knowledge that they can just renege when the spotlight has moved on. Greenpeace had no choice – they had to target HP to retain any credibility.

  4. Thanks for the comments all!

    In response I'd say wouldn't it be a better idea for campaigners to go after companies doing work on sustainability, but who are behind HP in terms of progress?

    Those brands are still vulnerable to Greenpeace campaigns, but need cajoling and sometimes kicking, to do more than they have.

    That way a real leadership group could be created. Leadership groups that show innovation and are praised for that, are the kind of groups companies always want to join.

    Toby

  5. As the Greenpeace International campaigner on site at HP's headquarters last week, I'd like to chime in here.

    Within the electronics sector, HP is unfortunately not the industry leader on sustainability that you claim they are Toby – they currently languish 14th out of 18 companies in our quarterly Guide to Greener Electronics a guide that has been praised for its thoroughness, clarity and well researched nature by your very magazine. This guide is only one of many in Greenpeace's campaign toolbox, and one of the only regularly updated, non-partisan assessments of environmental performance criteria within the electronics industry.

    Companies accrue points in Greenpeace's Guide both for current action (energy efficiency of their models, toxic chemical elimination) as well as commitments for future action. This competitive atmosphere is truly enabling a race to the top in terms of environmental performance. A dynamic leadership group of companies have emerged here, and HP is not currently in that mix.

    However, if companies commit to environmental action but do not live up to that commitment, it sends a signal throughout the industry (including the supply chain that makes these products for companies like HP), that it is acceptable to simply talk a good game, gain the commensurate glowing PR, while not implementing that commitment throughout the company. Without accountability and transparency, what makes it likely that HP will live up to it's 2011 phase out commitment when they've just backtracked on their previous one?

    It would be a different situation entirely if solutions did not exist for HP to meet their commitment. But look no further than Apple, a company that has moved from 'all talk and no walk' to being the first computer company to eliminate PVC and BFR from their entire supply chain, not just computers. Many, including Ethical Corporation, contribute this change in performance, in part, to Greenpeace's Green My Apple Campaign. Accountability works.

    You are correct to note that HP has made commitments to sustainability, and as the world's leader in PC sales, they clearly have the resources to implement their commitments. However, in terms of living up to their promise to eliminate PVC plastic and Brominated Flame Retardants from their computing line (HP has only pledged for their computing division unlike Dell), they fall behind competitors such as Dell and Acer, much less Apple.

    Greenpeace Electronics Campaign will continue to perform due diligence in our work – visiting with the various suppliers of electronic materials and components, meeting with senior management across the industry, including at HP, to craft solutions, and continuing to produce thorough research and laboratory assessments of environmental performance criteria.

    But we can not idly sit back and do nothing while companies that commit to environmentally responsible action backtrack on commitments. We must use all these tools in our campaign toolbox, including peaceful protest, to highlight this egregious behavior.

  6. Casey,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You make some good points.

    I must admit I did not read your latest guide before posting.

    However, I base my comments on HP's work, over many years, on wider areas than just chemicals.

    That's not to say of course, that your concerns are not valid, they are, or HP would not be seeking to act upon them, albeit late.

    I've known the company fairly well on many areas of corporate responsibility for many years now.

    So I based my comments on the company's early and long standing commitments on CSR and sustainability.

    For example, in the sector electronics working group in the area of labour standards, HP has tried in many ways to lead the way. Credit must go for this to Bonnie Nixon-Gardiner at HP in large part.

    And in the area of anti-corruption, HP's Jon Hoak has been one of the first executives to call for an ethics based approach to compliance, in a field where ethics and compliance rarely link up in training on values, as well as the law, for example.

    Overall, I would trust HP on most issues more than anyone else in their sector, even Dell or Apple.

    But I understand your concerns, and I think this raises an interesting point about the nature of corporate responsibility.

    A company can be excellent at many areas (people, governance, anti-corruption) and lagging in some (chemicals in components).

    So perhaps we are both right: HP is trying hard to be a responsible company, (with the odd slip up), but is behind the curve on a very specific issue.

    I would love to know more about what kind of dialogue you had with them before you jumped on their roof.

    I can definitely think, in a broader sense of responsibility, of other companies in their sector I would rather see you on the roof of!

    Toby

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