Leading Article: Shell's loss is democracy's gain

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Greenpeace has secured an historic victory in forcing Shell to abandon plans to dump the Brent Spar in the North Sea. The decision establishes that the purity of the seas must be safeguarded. Popular opinion has ruled that, whatever destruction may be wrought elsewhere, the oceans cannot simply be regarded as waste disposal sinks. On this issue, we have witnessed a rolling back of values that have until now underpinned the "throw-away" society. Even mighty Shell finally had to accept that it could not ignore opposition which threatened to ruin it around the world.

For those who are concerned about environmental degradation, the Shell case will provide a great fillip. It is now clear that neither governments nor big business are strong enough to withstand a new phenomenon: an alliance of direct action with public opinion. Greenpeace deserves the credit for mobilising a political force that we can now expect to grow in power and have an impact on a host of other environmental issues. Their volunteers informed the public and highlighted the problem. But the crucial element that changed Shell's mind was not the actions of those who landed on the Brent Spar platform and obstructed the dumping. The deciding factor was the ability and willingness of ordinary people to boycott Shell products.

What happened over Brent Spar is just the latest example of how companies are subject to a rigorous new ethical climate, enforced to some extent by governments, but most importantly by consumers. We demand that they act according to high moral standards. Integrity can no longer be sacrificed to expediency.

Anyone who feared that the globalisation of business would give international companies carte blanche to act as they please should be cheered by what has happened. If consumers judge that companies are behaving badly, they can and will bring them to their knees. Shareholders are also beginning to flex their muscles where they feel over-mighty executives ought to be taught a lesson. In similar fashion, ferry companies withdrew from live animal exports in the face of passenger opposition. But there has never been such a sudden turnaround in policy as Shell has undertaken these past few days. A social movement that dates back to the consumer boycotts of Nestle and Barclays is now coming of age.

Shell will protest that its plans for the Brent Spar in fact represented the most environmentally friendly option. The company is almost certainly right. Given the nature of the substances on the structure - asbestos and toxic heavy metals - it would probably be wiser to sink it 6,000ft below the surface than drag it on to land. But Shell failed to recognise that being technically in the right is not enough where a decision to pollute the environment is concerned. Even winning over elite officials in Whitehall, empowered to give permission, is not enough. The general public has to be won over to these policies if they are to be both acceptable and allowed to proceed. Democracy is being bolstered and expressed in the street and in the market place.