Eco campaigners go corporate as global firms set out to prove they really are green-aware

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Clad in woolly jumpers and boiler suits, there was a time when certain eco-generals could cause corporate Britain to have a cold sweat at the mere mention of clean air or GM crops.

Now, rather than blockading nuclear power plants or ripping up planted fields, they are more likely to be found in an air-conditioned office wearing a smart suit and wielding nothing more intimidating than a flip chart. They are the environmentalists who have decided to work for the blue chip giants they once sought to humble. Armed with large salaries and boardroom access, they want to seek change from within – and they are growing in number. In the past seven years, at least six directors of environmental groups have joined their one-time opponents in big business.

Corporate headhunters told The Independent yesterday that they were actively seeking prominent environmentalists to join global companies desperate to be seen to be "green aware".

Issues from global warming to low-sulphur petrol are now considered to be matters of mainstream policy. The companies that make up the FTSE350 were told last year by the Government to produce an annual environmental performance report. The result is an unprecedented demand among oil giants and energy companies for expertise in green issues, which they can find in the members of groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

This has led to bitterness and rancour within the green movement.

Lord Melchett, the former director of Greenpeace UK, found himself being vilified by former allies last week for joining Burson-Marsteller, the world's leading corporate public relations firefighter.

The former Labour minister insisted his green principles would not be compromised by his new advisory role for B-M's corporate social responsibility unit, saying he would work only with clients of his choice.

But the move was seen as a coup for B-M, the first port of call for many companies and governments accused of human rights abuses and environmental damage over the past 25 years.

Among its clients have been the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; Union Carbide, the US company involved in the Bhopal disaster in India in 1984 in which 2,600 people died when toxic gas escaped from its plant; Exxon Corporation, whose tanker was involved in a disastrous oil spill in Alaska; Babcock and Wilcox, whose reactor failed at Three Mile Island, creating the United States' worst nuclear accident; and Monsanto, the company at the heart of Lord Melchett's campaign against genetically modified crops.

His hardline critics saw little merit in the argument that co-operation could be as fruitful as confrontation, accusing Lord Melchett and other activist-turned-consultants of selling out. As Greenwatch, one international campaign group, put it: "Hiring activists is a crude but effective way to derail potentially meddlesome opponents. Melchett and others like him are being led up the genetically modified garden path."

Other campaigning bodies are not so sure. Before last week's protests, Greenpeace UK had agreed with the peer that there was no conflict of interest. An internal document from the charity said it was valid for him to take his "go organic, do the right thing" message direct to the boardroom.

Other environmentalists who have chosen to walk the corridors of power include Tom Burke, a former director of Friends of the Earth who was a special adviser to three Conservative environment ministers and now works for Rio Tinto, the global mining company excluded from the FTSE4Good index of ethical investments.

Another is Des Wilson, the former head of communications for the airports group BAA. He once headed the campaign to remove lead from petrol. Gavin Grant, who led a Bodyshop campaign against Shell and the Nigerian government to expose the abuse of the Ogoni people, also joined B-M, which has counted the Nigerian government among its customers.

The attractions of recruiting such luminaries are seemingly manifold – not only are they seasoned lobbyists and researchers with considerable marketing expertise but they also have "moral authority".

Recruitment consultants say it is a growth market as companies seek expertise not only on how to meet their ethical and environmental objectives but also on winning over consumers who increasingly demand green credentials before parting with their money.

One City headhunter, whose clients include several chemicals and oil conglomerates, said: "I have a dozen customers, mostly in heavy industry, who want people with a green background.

"There is an experience gap and the environment movement offers a ready pool of expertise, if you can persuade people of the merits of jumping ship to the private sector.

"It is a delicate balancing act – people have to maintain their integrity. But once you have a voice like that on board, they give an invaluable moral authority to what a company says."

Observers of the trend say that, from a corporate point of view, a clean bill of environmental health is a matter of economic necessity – forming the so-called triple bottom line of profit, environment and social responsibility.

Peter James, professor of environmental management at the University of Bradford, said: "The big companies simply can no longer afford to get it wrong on the environment.

"A big ecological disaster could now wipe a company out. There is an élite of companies who are making considerable efforts to change their stance and they are seeking the best advice."

Advocates of co-operation say the old dynamic of vociferous campaigners harassing intransigent corporate polluters is no longer valid.

Tom Burke said: "The notion of either working from inside a corporation or outside as a campaigner is a false one. The environmental issues we are dealing with are hugely complicated and require the participation of government, campaigners and companies. No single individual or group is going to solve them.

"The risk is that campaigning organisations adopt a ghetto mentality and fail to see the contributions to be made elsewhere."

On the campaigning side of the fence, however, there is unease that the reputations of people such as Lord Melchett may be hijacked. Ian Willmore, communications director of Friends of the Earth, said: "There is always the question of whether a company is serious about change or whether it is engaged in trying to disarm critics.

"Peter Melchett is a man of integrity but he will now have to prove that almost constantly. A company like B-M does not enjoy a good reputation in the environmental movement."

Many within the ecological sector admit that previous villains such as the oil giant Shell have made progress. So have companies such as BP and the DIY firm B&Q, which has pledged to stock timber only from sustainable sources.

With more and more companies looking to advertise their caring and sharing credentials by seeking the approval of avowed activists, some suggest that corporate Britain could be using the oldest trick in the book – divide and conquer.

But according to Jonathon Porritt, another former head of Friends of the Earth who now chairs the Government's Sustainable Development Commission, the trend presents an opportunity rather than a risk to the green movement.

He said: "We cannot say that we are not going to talk to these companies because we are environmental campaigners. But the world is not yet so advanced that we can rely entirely on working directly with business.

"If we did that, we'd be stuffed. There is still very much a place for confrontational campaigning but it is perfectly possible to keep one's radicality within industry. The two methods can co-exist without schism."

Green campaigners who have joined their former opponents

Lord Melchett: Formerly executive director of Greenpeace, now with Burson-Marsteller. The 53-year-old peer rose to prominence as executive director of Greenpeace UK and spearheaded the charity's campaign against genetically modified crops, during which he was among 30 campaigners arrested on suspicion of damaging experimental crops at Lyng, near Norwich. He was later acquitted. He announced last week that he was joining the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller to act as an adviser on corporate social responsibility. He vowed not to work with companies of which he disapproved, including British American Tobacco.

Tom Burke: Formerly led Friends of the Earth and worked as government adviser. Now works for Rio Tinto Plc and BP.

He is a former lecturer, 55, who was director of FoE and Green Alliance before becoming adviser to Tory environment secretaries including John Gummer and Michael Heseltine. He joined the mining firm Rio Tinto as environmental policy adviser in 1997 and has a similar contract role with BP.

Gavin Grant: Formerly head of communications at Body Shop. Now part of Burson-Marsteller's corporate social responsibility unit. Became known for role in Body Shop campaign to support the Ogoni people in Nigeria's oil-producing region. Visited area with Body Shop founder Anita Roddick to highlight exploitation by Nigerian government and failure of oil companies such as Shell.

Joined Burson-Marsteller three years ago. Nigeria has featured among B-M's clients, although employees have a right to refuse to work on any project they feel clashes with their beliefs.

Jonathon Porritt: Formerly director of Friends of the Earth. Later adviser to Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's. Now chairs government commission.

Made name as FoE director 1984­90 and as a member of Ecology Party. Stood for election seven times. Became chairman of Sustainable Development Commission two years ago. Set up Forum for the Future in 1996, promoting sustainability. Aged 51.

Des Wilson: After making his name at the homelessness charity Shelter, he was public affairs director for the Campaign for Lead Free Air in the mid-Eighties, then chairman of Friends of the Earth. In 1994, he became public affairs director at the airports company BAA while it was fighting environmental groups for permission to build Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The 60-year-old New Zealander retired last year but remains an adviser.