The genius of capitalism is its ability to capture the genius of everything else. Labour's 100th conference has been franchised to McDonald's. The alternative energy systems developed by hippies and lonely professors are seized by oil companies as soon as they look profitable. Even the anti-capitalism movement has become big business.
But for many corporations, turning problems into opportunities doesn't require any genius at all. For some of their former opponents appear all too willing to be bought. This summer, the National Consumer Council began a new relationship with some of the companies it has confronted. By taking their money, its credibility has been fatally undermined.
The purpose of the NCC, which was established with government funds in 1975, is to safeguard the interests of consumers - particularly, according to its mission statement, "the inarticulate and disadvantaged". It has battled on their behalf against sharp practice, especially in the insurance, banking, supermarket and utilities sectors. Now, however, consumers could be forgiven for wondering whose side it is on.
At the end of June, the NCC launched what it called its "Friends" initiative. For £10,000 a year, according to the council's website, companies can now "inform our thinking on consumer policy". The council has promised its new donors that it "will recognize the legitimacy of your perspective when we select work", which seems to mean that corporate sponsorship of the NCC will influence the scope of its research.
BT, Prudential, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Scottish Power have already signed up. It's hard to think of British companies with a more controversial record of exploiting consumers.
BT is, for example, currently fighting its regulator over alleged failures to open its lines to rivals. Last week Oftel accused the company of restricting competition and delaying the availability of high-speed internet services. While directors' salaries have soared, staff complain that its network is crumbling, due to lack of investment.
Prudential was the company condemned by the Treasury for misselling more pensions than any other, after insurance salesmen faked customers' signatures and direct debit forms. Last year, Barclays started charging customers from other banks to use its cash machines. While it was closing 171 small branches, its chief executive was earning so much money that the company had to give him a special grant to hire accountants to manage it for him. Last week, the Royal Bank of Scotland was accused by consumer groups in the US of selectively withholding loans and mortgages to blacks and hispanics. Sainsbury's and Tesco have been fiercely criticized by the Citizen Organizing Foundation for charging higher prices in poor areas than in rich ones. Scottish Power has contested the price cuts demanded by its regulator. It has been lambasted for leaving consumers without electricity for up to a week after its lines were brought down by storms. If these are the NCC's Friends, who are its enemies?
Buying the council's friendship for £10,000 looks like a good investment. "Your involvement," the NCC suggests, "could enhance your reputation as a company that wants to work with consumer organization's." But it's not clear what, beyond giving the council money, these firms have done to deserve this new respect, or when the enhancement of corporate reputations became part of the National Consumer Council's mandate.
So how does the NCC reconcile this new policy with its mission statement? Partly by means of an ingenious redefinition of whom it represents. According to its sales pitch, "the National Consumer Council's role is to represent and promote the interests of consumers, and many consumers are business customers". Well, the council's new Friends are not exactly inarticulate and disadvantaged, but they are certainly consumers. Perhaps in future we can expect the NCC to defend Tesco and Sainsbury's against the greedy farmers they buy from, or to help Barclays and the Royal Bank of Scotland protect themselves against the unreliable people who lend them money by opening bank accounts.
The NCC argues that the more money it makes, the more effective it can become. It's an excuse I've heard many times before from organization's. which have lost their principles.
Forum for the Future, the environment group set up by Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, takes money from BP, ICI, Tesco and Blue Circle. All these companies, according to the forum's magazine, "have a demonstrable commitment to the pursuit of sustainable development". BP is the company building the first offshore oil rigs in the Arctic. ICI features prominently in the Environment Agency's "hall of shame" for Britain's most polluting companies. Blue Circle has been seeking permission to use tyres, chlorinated solvents and heavy metals as fuel in its cement plants. Tesco's lobbying crushed the government's planned out-of-town parking tax. These firms seem to me to have a demonstrable commitment to undermining the pursuit of sustainable development. The World Wide Fund for Nature has moved even closer to its new friends, by appointing as its boss the former chief executive of one of Britain's most controversial quarrying companies. In Papua New Guinea, it struck a deal with the oil firms Chevron and BP. The oilmen gave a WWF conservation project $1m. In return, leaked documents from Chevron revealed: "WWF will act as a buffer for the joint venture against... international environmental criticism". Last year the NGO held back publication of a damning report on tropical forest destruction, for fear of upsetting the companies it named.
The NCC, like Forum for the Future and WWF, insists that taking money from business doesn't change the way it works. We are asked to believe that its staff can simultaneously view corporations as both the enemies and the Friends of the people they are supposed to represent.
But even if we were to take these claims at face value, there's no question that the companies involved see their new relationships as a golden opportunity. As the NCC says, by making Friends, companies can enhance their reputations. Far from encouraging them to abandon corrupt or destructive practices, acquiring the NCC stamp of approval helps firms to fend off those critics who have not sold out. By accepting some of Britain's most predatory corporations as its friends, the National Consumer Council becomes our enemy. Next time we want to protest against Barclays or Tesco, we should take our grievances not to their own headquarters but to their sub-contracted public relations agency, formerly known as the NCC.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001