In 1987, the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, which had convened to address the global ecological crisis, produced Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). This watershed event established the conceptual underpinnings for environmental politics and debate in the 1990s by reframing the problem of the natural environment as one of sustainable development. In the wake of this reframing, a new practice in environmental management emerged - that of green alliances or partnerships between business and ecology groups (Westley & Vredenburg, 1991, pp. 71-72). These alliances, considered one of the ten most significant trends in environmental management and the greening of industry (Gladwin, 1993, p. 46), appeared to signal a sea change in the way business, as well as environmentalists, could respond to the ecological impacts of firms' economic activities. Indeed, environmental partnerships offered both business and ecology groups the potential for a new rhetorical stance.
Business communication scholarship has identified a variety of rhetorical strategies adopted by corporations in the face of environmental controversy: defensiveness and apologia (e.g., Ice, 1991; Tyler, 1992), competing information campaigns (e.g., Lange, 1993; Moore, 1993), or retreat (e.g., Seiter, 1995). Green alliances provide business with an alternative to these strategies. Through eco-partnership, a firm can adopt, at both material and symbolic levels, a proactive approach toward the natural environment; its posture vis-a-vis environmentalists, or at least a wing of the environmental movement, can be collaborative rather than conflictual. On the other hand, green alliances offer environmentalists the possibility of direct influence over business practice and an alternative to - or as Fred Krupp, leader of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and an early proponent of eco-business collaboration, would have it, a tool in addition to - the jeremiad (Killingsworth & Palmer, 1996; Slovic, 1996). While eco-alliances have been discussed in the environmental management and green marketing literature, they have not been so far studied as business communication.
This paper presents a case study of the rhetorical aspects of an early green partnership, the 1990-1991 precedent-setting alliance between McDonald's Corporation, the leading quick-service restaurant chain, and EDF, a United States-based mainstream environmental organization. McDonald's and EDF formed a joint task force that publicly released a six-month study of McDonald's entire range of packaging and materials management practices. The partnership is most widely known, however, for the fact that three months into the study, at the last minute, and under pressure from EDF, McDonald's abandoned the polystyrene boxes (called clamshells) it had traditionally used to package Big Macs and other sandwiches. This dramatic event tended to overshadow other - arguably more important, and certainly less controversial - work, including a 42-step action plan to lessen the environmental impacts of McDonald's business. My study seeks to recontextualize the packaging decision, considering it within the broader dynamics of the partnership and within the context of McDonald's prior corporate environmental advocacy. Further, it locates the McDonald's-EDF partnership within the broader realm of environmental politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an arena where nonprofit environmental groups began to play a new and important role.
I focus on the symbolic and discursive aspects of the partnership. Relying on public relations material released by McDonald's and EDF before and during the partnership, as well as contemporaneous and subsequent news accounts, I show the variety - and the variability - of rhetorical strategies adopted by McDonald's in its attempt to construct itself as green in the eyes of its consumers and publics. I also explain the rhetorical approach used by EDF in its struggle to expand the scope of legitimate action by environmentalists to include collaboration with businesses.
As could be expected, the public face of the McDonald's-EDF partnership was marked both by moments of coherence, consensus, and evidence of indisputable "wins" at the material level for the natural environment and by moments of ambivalence, ambiguity, fragmentation, and conflict. However, much green business literature - the plethora of articles, books, journals, and instrumentalist "how to" manuals about environmental strategy and practice - considers primarily the positive face of this high-profile example of an eco-business alliance. The literature represents the McDonald's-EDF partnership (and green alliances generally) to be emblematic of a paradigm shift from command and control to market-based environmentalism (e.g., Hartman & Stafford, 1997; Long & Arnold, 1995; Lozada & Mintu-Wimsatt, 1995; Stafford & Hartman, 1996; Wasik, 1996), meaning a form of environmentalism driven by market incentives and voluntarism rather than regulatory control (see Dowie, 1995, pp. 106-109).(1) Further, it privileges the market approach, characterizing it as win-win environmentalism, a preferable alternative to the regulatory model and the adversarial debate and coercion usually associated with it (e.g., Long & Arnold, 1995, p. 30, cf. Dowie, 1995). My analysis of the public discourse attendant on the McDonald's-EDF partnership demonstrates not a paradigm shift but rhetorical ambivalence: The partners to this green alliance drew, and had to draw, not only from the new discourse of market environmentalism, but also from the older, purportedly displaced discourse of command and control.
To explain this more complex view of the partnership, I follow a growing trend in communication, organization, and business communication research which adopts a social constructionist perspective (e.g., Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Smircich, 1983; Suchan, 1998; Weick, 1979), as well as studies which adopt such an approach vis-a-vis the natural environment (e.g., Cantrill & Oravec, 1996; Herndl & Brown, 1996; Killingsworth & Palmer, 1992). I accept Hajer's (1995) view that in the mid 1980s the nature of the environmental conflict changed: There is no longer any argument over whether an ecological crisis exists; the conflict has become discursive - a matter of how that crisis is to be defined and responded to (pp. 13-14). At issue now are the underlying assumptions of sustainable development - how the conflicting needs of economic development (business) and ecological well being (the earth) can be balanced and, concomitantly, what institutional and policy practices are to be legitimated in the name of sustainable development (Hajer, 1995). Situating the McDonald's-EDF relationship within this larger rhetorical situation, I show that the discursive struggle around the problem of the environment plays out within the partnership itself.
In the first section below, I address green partnerships as a new phenomenon and consider their positioning within green business literature. I then turn to the case study and analysis, focusing on four distinct moments: McDonald's 1989 Annual Report; the announcement of the McDonald's-EDF partnership on August 1, 1990; McDonald's about.face on its packaging policy on November 1, 1990; and the release of the joint task force report in April 1991. Adapting Pettigrew (1979), I take these events as "a set of social dramas" (pp. 570-571), arguing that they represent highly publicized events that illuminate the discursive ambivalence and rhetorical struggle embedded within the story of McDonald's, EDF and the environment.
Green Partnerships: A New Kind of Alliance
Alliances that have arisen between environmentalist groups and businesses in the last decade represent a shift in the arm's-length, or adversarial, relationships among institutional stakeholders (business and environmentalists, environmentalists and government, government and business) traditionally concerned with problems of the natural environment (Long & Arnold, 1995; Milne, Iyer, & Gooding-Williams, 1996; Westley & Vredenburg, 1991). The new relationships have been described as path breaking and innovative (e.g., Coddington, 1993; Long & Arnold, 1995; Ottman, 1994; Wasik, 1996). Typically, they are distinguishable from the prior charitable (e.g., donations to or sponsorships of environmental causes) and commercial relationships (e.g., calendars, T-shirts produced for environmental groups) because they engage the expert knowledge of the environmental group and involve it, to varying degrees, in joint problem solving or strategic decision making with the corporate partner (Clair, Milliman, & Mitroff, 1995). In this category are green product endorsements, audits by environmental groups of business programs or practices, and joint projects of the type engaged in by McDonald's and EDF, where the corporate partner's business practices are evaluated and improved according to ecological criteria.
Compared to traditional relationships between environmentalists and businesses, these newer arrangements involve more complex interorganizational collaboration (Coddington, 1993; Westley & Vredenburg, 1991). They can be more risky insofar as they involve controversial problems without agreed upon, known, or predictable solutions (Long & Arnold, 1995, p. 29; Polonsky, 1995, pp. 210-211). They require new practices to deal with differences in organizational priorities and agendas that may put the parties at odds. For instance, because the corporate and environmental partners have different primary publics and stakeholders (e.g., shareholder, customer, and employee audiences versus foundation funding sources, members, and the environmental movement at large), they need to anticipate and resolve likely differences in emphasis and design of their communication strategies around the partnership.
Green alliances also function rhetorically in a more complex way than traditional business-environmentalist relationships. Here I follow Levy (1997), who has pointed out that environmental management - that is, corporate practices to reduce the ecological harm of economic processes - serves symbolic and political purposes by helping to construct business as green and thus to legitimate its role as manager of the natural environment. I argue that green alliances, a strategy within corporate environmental management, also have symbolic and political value - for both partners. The corporation borrows not only the environmental expertise, but also the credibility, of the ecology group, which by its allegiance implicitly or explicitly endorses company actions - e.g., producing earth-friendly products and services or operating in pollution-free ways (Ottman, 1994, p. 86). The partnership also brings corporate actors into the group of those to be entrusted with the work of saving the earth. Coddington (1993), a green marketing consultant, makes this point explicitly (if bluntly) when he says that the new partnership paradigm reflects environmentalists' recognition that "the ecological fate of the world is in the hands of industry" (p. 51). On the other hand, green alliances symbolically serve the environmental partner, constructing it as having influence over corporate environmental practice and thus immediate impact on the state of the environment (Ottman, 1994, p. 90). These partnerships bring ecologists into the circle of the industrial power elite.
Eco-partnerships also serve a rhetorical function in the larger discourse struggle around the natural environment. As mechanisms that enable market-driven reform, green alliances are not only constituted within the new discourse of market-based environmentalism, but are also constitutive of it insofar as they symbolically enact, in the Weickian (1979) sense, the collaborative, voluntarist (i.e., market-driven versus government mandated) model it offers. Not only does the concept of sustainable development enable the emergence of green alliances, but the practice of partnership legitimates the concept of sustainable development and wins space for it in the discursive field.
In part because of these rhetorical consequences, eco-business partnerships are also often more politically charged. They throw into relief tensions - even conflict - between the partners' organizational interests that can affect the dynamics of the partnership (Clair, Milliman, & Mitroff, 1995; Coddington, 1993). For instance, insofar as consumers are persuaded that buying green is environmental action enough, corporate public relations and green marketing may undermine other forms of popular engagement in environmental issues, including even support for ecology groups. Partnerships that bring valuable marketing and public relations benefits to the corporate partner therefore may put at risk the values and reputation of the ecology group, stirring internal dissension in the group or attack from other wings of the environmental movement (Clair, Milliman, & Mitroff, 1995; Westley & Vredenburg, 1991). Such tensions led to the collapse of the green product-endorsement partnership between Loblaws, Inc. and Pollution Probe described by Westley and Vredenburg (1991). There, because of internal conflict among Pollution Probe members and between Pollution Probe and Greenpeace, the endorsement was withdrawn and a rupture occurred within Pollution Probe. By contrast, in the McDonald's-EDF partnership, the company's ecological premises for the decision to drop the clamshells had to be traded off against corporate values of quality and supplier relationships. The decision was controversial within McDonald's and provoked a backlash against the company from those hurt by the company's action - the plastics industry, competitors, certain recyclers and some of McDonald's own suppliers. The partnership nevertheless survived the conflict.
Green Business Literature: From Command and Control to Market-based Environmentalism
Many practitioner-oriented writers and academics explicitly locate green alliances within a new paradigm of market-based environmentalism (e.g., Coddington, 1993; Hartman & Stafford, 1997; Long & Arnold, 1995; Wasik, 1996), an approach which, as suggested above, is closely tied to the concept of sustainable development. Hajer (1995) defines sustainable development as an emerging "storyline" (p. 14) or shared discourse that has been given credence and legitimacy by the Brundtland Report. Sustainable development reframes the environmental problem as one wherein economic and ecological goals are capable of being aligned (Hajer, 1995, pp. 12-14; Long & Arnold, 1995, pp. 27-28; Westley & Vredenburg, 1991, p. 72). This interpretation treats the environmental problem as essentially technical; it also relies on a conclusion that pollution prevention pays and assumes that concern for the environment can be internalized by existing economic, social, and political institutions (Hajer, 1995, p. 3). The new storyline thus deflected the fundamentally political critique of the radical environmentalism of the 1970s (Dowie, 1995; Hajer, 1995; see also Levy, 1997) and instead opened in the late 1980s and 1990s the prospect of institutional realignment, including green alliances (Westley & Vredenburg, 1991).
Narrowly construed, command and control refers to regulation that strictly prescribes specific means for achieving compliance with environmental mandates from …