DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Greenpeace director Kumi Naidoo has a packed agenda at the World Economic Forum; the South African human rights activist, who a decade ago faced down riot police in Davos with thousands of other protesters, is being courted by big business.
“All my meetings with the CEOs are requested by them and not by me,” Naidoo told Reuters inside the WEF congress centre, between constant interruptions as delegates stopped to greet the head of the world’s biggest environmental group.
Naidoo said one CEO told him why he is in such demand: “He said ‘Some of my peers are desperate to get you at the table because they hope that they then might not be on your menu’.”
A survey by public relations company Edelman released this week shows non-governmental organisations (NGOs) remain the most publicly trusted of institutions, scoring 63 percent, beating business and government, which polled 58 percent and 48 percent.
“NGOs are now themselves superbrands. The global ones are now working not as a protest movement but as consultants with big companies,” said Richard Edelman, who heads the firm.
Even Greenpeace, which has built its reputation on daring stunts to publicise corporate misdeeds, has started working with big business in recent years, for example teaming up with Coca-Cola to develop more environmentally friendly refrigeration.
Naidoo, who posted a blog defending his attendance at Davos in response to incredulous messages he received ahead of the meeting, denies that this kind of collaboration is a sell-out.
“Ethically there is no contradiction in it. If a company does something positive, then we should push them, work with them, share expertise,” he said. “Greenpeace has a policy. No permanent friends. No permanent enemies.”
As Naidoo schmoozed with executives, Greenpeace activists shut down a Shell petrol station near Davos to protest against the oil firm’s drilling programme in the Arctic by chaining themselves to fuel pumps. Others dressed as polar bears prowled the streets and tried to get into the WEF conference centre.
“Frankly, I’d rather be risking arrest and taking part in an act of peaceful civil disobedience,” said Naidoo, who has participated in several risky protest occupations of oil rigs.
“But if we are going to make it through the unelected, unrepresentative, super-powerful people prowling the corridors of Davos, we will need to be inside,” he wrote in his blog.
Militants opposed to the WEF claimed responsibility for small explosions on Thursday that broke a window at a Zurich branch of Credit Suisse CSGN.VX and blew up the postbox of Glencore (GLEN.L) boss Ivan Glasenberg.
But protest has been less visible this year compared with the igloo camp set up by “Occupy” activists in 2012.
“Occupy Wall Street has diminished, but the frustration and uncertainty that motivated that is still there,” said Don Baer, head of public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, adding that Davos was a good platform to build trust between CEOs and NGOs.
“What’s most important is not what happens at Davos but what happens afterwards,” he said.
Greenpeace announced in Davos that an online public vote had chosen Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) as this year's Public Eye award for "worst company", while a jury award went to U.S. bank Goldman Sachs (GS.N). www.publiceye.ch/en/vote/
“It is wrong for environmentalists to assume villainy,” said Mark Tercek, a former Goldman Sachs banker who now runs The Nature Conservancy, a U.S. environmental non-profit organisation that works closely with companies from Dow Chemical to Rio Tinto.
“It makes good business sense to care about the environment,” Tercek said. “It doesn’t cost that much more to do it right. It might even speed you up.”
David Jones, chief executive of advertising firm Havas EURC.PA, said most companies had moved beyond the “green-washing” epitomised by oil giant BP’s (BP.N) attempt to rebrand itself Beyond Petroleum that ultimately crumbled after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“The more progressive CEOs get the fact that business needs to change,” he said. “In the new world, the price of doing well is doing good. My advice is move fast, be honest and don’t think for one second you can cover things up.”
Rhonda Zygocki, responsible for government and public affairs at oil major Chevron (CVX.N), agreed: “The social performance of our companies is becoming much more important than our operating performance.”
But Barbara Stocking, head of British-based anti-poverty group Oxfam, which has partnered with Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever (ULVR.L), says NGOs still have to be on their guard.
“You have to be very clear about your principles or there is a danger of being co-opted,” she said.
Tercek of The Nature Conservancy shares those fears: “The world needs sceptics, it needs watchdogs. We might be taken advantage of. I don’t think you can wear both hats.”
And Naidoo of Greenpeace still has his reservations about the merits of pacing the overheated corridors of the WEF.
“On the inside, we are challenging the narrative. How successfully? I would say marginally so,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Will Waterman