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Onetime foes, companies and activists find ways to cooperate

Companies and activists are partnering on environmental, health, and other issues. Labor initiatives are more problematic.

By Christianna McCauslandCorrespondent / December 28, 2009

In 2007, Ford reached out to activist groups for help on becoming more environmentally friendly. Since then, it has introduced cars like the hybrid Fusion and some groups have toned down their rhetoric.

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In 2007, Ford Motor Co. did something unexpected; it invited groups vehemently opposed to the automaker’s products to help Ford create a more environmentally friendly business model, particularly in the arena of fuel-efficient cars.

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"It was our decision to approach those organizations with an olive branch," says John Viera, director of sustainable business strategies in Dearborn, Mich. "Our dialogue has been around moving from them demonstrating against us and us not speaking favorably about them, to getting in the same room, talking about the areas we disagree on, those we agree on, and moving forward."

Rainforest Action Network is one group Ford approached. "Our protest signs started to be their press release words," says Nell Greenberg, a spokeswoman for RAN. Since then, Ford has introduced cars like the hybrid Fusion and RAN has toned down its rhetoric.

For many companies and activists, the old days of confrontation over picket lines and boycotts have given way to a new era of cooperation, particularly on environmental issues (labor initiatives remain less frequent). Some of these alliances are stronger than others. Still, activists and corporations are beginning to realize the benefits of turning foes into friends.

"These types of partnerships are increasingly common, and will likely remain so," writes Daniel Korschun, a fellow at the Drexel University’s Center for Corporate Reputation Management, in an e-mail. "Many companies initially approach nonprofits in order to reduce the risk that the nonprofit will create bad press or organize protests and boycotts. But these companies often end up discovering that fostering alliances with nonprofits is a terrific business opportunity."

Examples abound:

Clorox last year partnered with the Sierra Club to bring out its Green Works line of cleaning products.

•In 2007, PepsiCo hired a former executive director at the World Health Organization to direct its global health policy, including a program to put healthier drinks and snacks in schools.

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