Sworn enemies BP and Greenpeace have done the unimaginable - they've joined forces to develop solar power as a clean energy source. Is this a short-term marriage of convenience or a sign that old enmities between pressure groups and multinationals can be broken down?
A view shared by many leading non-governmental organisations is that their adversorial 'name and shame' tactics of the past are giving way to a new spirit of co-operation. 'If you just attack business from the outside, you might succeed in changing a company's official policy, but little else,' says Ian Chalder, campaign manager at Oxfam. The upshot is a burgeoning number of traditional foes walking up the aisle to collaborate on solution-based projects. Witness Shell and Amnesty International, B&Q and Worldwide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth and Eastern Electricity.
An era of cosy co-habitation is still a long way off, however. According to a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers, most of the world's activist groups feel they have an antagonistic or a non-existent relationship with the world's global companies. 'There are still a lot of die-hard company chiefs who believe that only the bottom line matters,' says Barry Coates, chairman of World Development Movement (WDM), campaigners for Third World poverty issues.
Take Rio Tinto (or RTZ), for example. Coates cites how in a recent environmental seminar, the world's largest mining company refused to invite its staunch enemy, the UK-based activist group Partizans (People Against RTZ and its Subsidiaries). 'To achieve a real engagement with pressure groups, a transnational must speak to all of its critics,' says Tony Juniper, head of policy at Friends of the Earth (FOE), which boycotted the seminar in protest. Tom Burke, environmental adviser to BP Oil and Rio Tinto, and a former head of FOE in the '70s, believes the boycott was an empty gesture.
'If FOE had a point to make, they should have turned up. They could have played a leading role in changing perceptions,' he says.
How can organisations move forward from this familiar stalemate scenario?
'You have to develop trust,' says Burke. 'You are not going to do this by trying to resolve all the historical difficulties at once, but by finding points of convergence and moving on from there.'
It is not only companies that are going to have shake off entrenched maxims. 'Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) must shed the old notion that business is inherently wicked,' says Dr Alan Knight, director of environment at DIY retailer B&Q. 'That idea is naive and makes them lose credibility.'
'We need to have a better understanding of how business actually operates,' admits Peter Frankental, head of the business unit at Amnesty International.
That is why NGOs have begun to recruit members from the private sector, while promoting business and management schemes to staff. If they fail to adapt to the 'capitalist world', they will disappear, adds John Elkington, chairman of environmental consultancy SustainAbility - in the same way that companies that ignore ethical issues will lose market share against more progressive competitors.
The likeliest future scenario is that an activist group such as Greenpeace will happily collaborate with a multinational such as BP on energy conservation, while simultaneously waging a high-profile campaign against the oil giant for its off-shore operations.
'You need the combination of public naming and shaming and a more constructive dialogue,' says Coates. 'One without the other is not particularly effective.'.