Former Greenpeace CEO throws out 'good' and 'evil' stereotypes

The former head of Greenpeace International Paul Gilding warned of the dangers of ideology and institutional stereotyping in his keynote speech at Emerge 2014, the UKs conference for young entrepreneurs seeking change held in Oxford this weekend. "Ideology is cancerous," he said, reflecting back on a time when he himself was vehemently anti-corporate.

Paul Gilding said that making simplified views of good and evil based on the type of institution and the way it is structured can be “extremely dangerous” and detrimental to the effort of making the world a fairer place that is united against climate change. 

There are tendencies, not inevitabilities for any institution.

Whether it is within the corporate sector, NGOs or government, “the key thing in all these examples is their people. 

“There are tendencies, not inevitabilities for any institution…Even though we are kind of fascinated by the economics of business, it is actually about people doing innovative things, living ‘on purpose’ and driving change. That’s what is important and the institution is really not very important and neither is the structure in which you operate,” Gilding said.

The comments were made at the Emerge Conference held at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University, which bought together hundreds of students, academics and leaders in both the corporate and third sector. 

Throughout numerous sessions and discussions the relationship between the corporate world and the third sector became a heated topic at the annual conference. 

While there was a considerable amount of agreement that the relationship had developed substantially, the question of how should social and environmental organisations decide whether to work with or receive investment from companies that share most of their values but still conduct some business practises – for example exploitative supply chains or non-environmentally friendly company policies – that go against their ethics.

The most important thing you need to get from investors is to ensure that there is mission alignment.

In a session discussing corporate venturing that looked at the practise of more advanced large businesses that have moved past the idea of CSR being a tool to do some good, but ultimately to also act as a positive PR move for them, fears that if smaller social and environmental organisations partner with corporates they then lose their anonymity and core values were raised.

Yiming Ma: “The most important thing you need to get from investors is to ensure that there is mission alignment. Even if a corporate venture fund has a huge amount of resources, if your mission is fundamentally different I would vote no.”

Coming to terms with corporate partnerships on a personal level as a social entrepreneur can also be extremely challenging. For Paul Gilding – whose career has involved leading one of the biggest international organisations pushing for businesses to behave more responsibly, promoting social innovation from within some of the world's largest corporations including Ford Motor Company and even working for the Australian military – this has been a constant personal dilemma. 

For him, the way in which to deal with this predicament is to ensure that throughout your career, no matter what organisation you are working for, you keep returning to the same questions: "Is what I am doing right?" and "Am I doing the right thing for me?"

The 2014 Emerge conference looked at a vast array of subject matters – from gender equality to becoming a successful social entrepreneur – and in doing so set out bold ambitions of fundamental systems changes, for example promoting the search for prosperity over the search for richness and reinventing the environment 'at the top' to make it more accessible for women. 

Julia Rebholz, sustainability director at Centrica Group and managing director at Ignite Social Enterprise LP, said: “A business is a collection of people who sign up for a common purpose. Helping customers and helping the future generations that those businesses are in is the difference between businesses that will continue to operate over the next 100 years versus businesses that will be brought down.

"Therefore, all businesses will need to focus on social and environmental outcomes.”


Photo credit: Graham Read