The Inside Story Of How Greenpeace Built A Corporate Spanking Machine To Turn The Fortune 500 Into Climate Heroes
“In June 2003 Gretchen Crosby Sims completed a vitally important Ph.D. at Stanford University titled Rethinking the Political Power of American Business: The Role of Corporate Social Responsibility. Hardly counting herself as a political radical — Sims’s doctorate thesis was supervised by Morris Fiorina, who is presently a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution — the findings of her unpublicized study provide a critical resource for progressive activists seeking to challenge the mythology of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). As the British non-profit organization Corporate Watch states, CSR “is not a step towards a more fundamental reform of the corporate structure but a distraction from it.” Indeed, Corporate Watch advise that: “Exposing and rejecting CSR is a step towards addressing corporate power….
As [Weinstein] demonstrated long ago, corporate elites adopted the principles of “cooperation and social responsibility” to sustain capitalism’s inequalities, not to remedy them. To campaign for Corporate Social Responsibility in this present day is akin to demanding the institutionalization of elite social engineering. Capitalist corporations will never be socially responsible, this fact is plain to see; thus the sooner progressive activists identify their enemy as capitalism, not corporate greed or a lack of good-will, then the sooner they will be able to create an equitable world whose political and economic system is premised on social responsibility, not to corporate elites, but instead to all people.” [Emphasis added]
July 4, 2014
by Mike Nudelman
“NGOs have become very businesslike,” says a sustainability officer for a major media company, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re thinking through the strategy and creating an integrated campaign just like a company would when marketing a product, going through the R&D phase, the development phase, production, and then the retail channels. It’s a corporate approach.”
“Indeed, the unlikely romance between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace seems to have deepened with time. “The relationship blossomed to the point where we began sharing our five-year plans with them,” Apte says. “We want to know in advance if there are any showstoppers in there from their perspective.”
One day in early March at about 1:00 p.m., a woman wearing conservative business attire and toting a wheeled bag strolled through the front entrance of Procter & Gamble’s 17-story headquarters in downtown Cincinnati. She told security she had an appointment, possibly with one of the businesses that rent space in the building, and was waved inside.
But she never arrived at the office. There was no appointment.
Instead, the woman made her way to an emergency exit door and pushed it open. Eight associates, all pulling bags of their own, swept in and disappeared into a crowd of arriving employees.
Though they too wore business suits and what looked like P&G employee badges, they didn’t work for the consumer-goods giant. They were from Greenpeace, and they’d come to save tigers.
Wordlessly, the nine activists made their way past the security desk and headed for two rendezvous points — one, in a 12th-floor office suite in the iconic building’s north tower, the second, in an office just opposite, in the east tower. There, the two groups jimmied open several windows, attached rappelling gear to the window-washing stanchions, and climbed out into the chilly air.
After a zip line was strung between the two towers and secured, the smallest member of the team, 20-year-old Denise Rodriguez, of Queens, New York, edged out onto the wire, shimmied to center point, then dangled there in the gentle breeze, 70 feet in the air. She was wearing a tiger costume.
Her colleagues unfurled a pair of 60-foot-tall banners on the front of each tower. The banners denounced Head & Shoulders, the antidandruff shampoo, for “putting tiger survival on the line” and “wip[ing] out dandruff & rainforests.”
A rented helicopter hovered overhead as a videographer and photographer captured the unfolding drama.
Arriving on the scene, Capt. Paul Broxterman of the Cincinnati police found the windows had been braced shut from the outside. He knocked on the glass and got one of the activists to call him on his cellphone.
“How long are you guys going to be out there?” he asked.
“We’ll be wrapping up shortly,” came the reply.
Greenpeace’s action at P&G’s Cincinnati headquarters in April.
The incursion, which left P&G’s vaunted corporate security force looking uncharacteristically flat-footed, was the latest foray in Greenpeace’s seven-year campaign against the use of improperly sourced palm oil. A highly saturated vegetable fat derived from the fruit, or sometimes the kernel, of the oil palm, it is, in and of itself, a relatively innocuous substance, a common ingredient in everything from laundry detergent and cosmetics to candy bars and ice cream. In recent years, demand has spiked because of its popularity as a replacement for hydrogenated oils and as a source of biodiesel fuel, which, paradoxically, is often promoted as an environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuels.
The problem — what elevated this viscous wonder elixir to the top of Greenpeace’s global agenda — is the aggressive manner in which the world’s biggest palm-oil producers, based in Indonesia, have gone about meeting demand: burning and clear-cutting the nation’s priceless tropical peat forests to the ground, then draining the underlying wetlands to make way for massive oil-palm plantations.
As Greenpeace’s banners made clear, that deforestation is destroying the habitat of the Sumatran tiger, of which there are said to be fewer than 400 left. Also threatened are orangutans, rhinos, elephants, and about 114 bird species.
But truth be told, the animals are really beside the point.
Greenpeace’s tigers are a kind of decoy, a sleek feline metaphor pressed into service on behalf of the broader existential threat that we all face because of the warming of the atmosphere.
It turns out that the results of Indonesian deforestation go far beyond decimating tiger habitats. The critical issue is not even the jungle itself exactly, but the swampy peatlands from which it rises — massive watery bogs up to 50 feet deep containing layer upon layer of fallen vegetal debris.
This peat acts as an immense living storage locker for carbon dioxide, and as the peatlands are drained, the plant matter decomposes, releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere at a truly frightening rate. By one estimate, the amount of carbon given off because of deforestation in Indonesia accounts for a whopping 4% of global carbon emissions — from just .1% of the earth’s land surface.
Of course that’s a lot of information to fit on one banner. The tiger is convenient shorthand.
“It’s easy to say, ‘If you’re destroying forests, you’re destroying tiger habitats,’” says Phil Radford, the outgoing executive director of Greenpeace USA (his replacement, Annie Leonard, was announced in April). “It’s harder to say, ‘Do you know that forests store carbon and if we save the peat bogs we will trap all this carbon and methane in the soil?’ We say both, but we start with the place that people are, the thing they care about the most first.”
Says his colleague Nicky Davies, the organization’s campaigns director: “We’re not going to win by telling people what they should care about. And winning is the objective.”
Greenpeace’s strategy, which it calls “market-based campaigning,” has proved devastatingly effective. It goes like this: Pick an area of concern. Identify on-the-ground producers whose actions are contributing to the problem. Follow the supply chain to a multinational corporation that peddles a widely known consumer product. Send an email or two, kindly pointing out the company’s “exposure” and suggesting an alternative. Ask again, firmly but pleasantly. Issue a sober, meticulously researched public report. If the desired response is not forthcoming. roll out a clear, multipronged media campaign, ideally starring a beloved animal species and featuring a hashtag. Climb a building or two.
What seems to happen, inevitably, is the multinational company, eager to remove the stigma from its signature brand, promises to ensure that its products are sustainable and begins cancelling contracts with any third-party suppliers who fail to guarantee compliance. In order to retain the multinational’s lucrative business, the largest suppliers fall into line. Before long, as the cascade effect grows, they begin eyeing their wayward rivals, companies that are still operating in flagrant violation of the new rules and undercutting them with other customers. Eventually, broad new industry protocols are adopted to level the playing field.
Sailing to Amchitka
They thought of themselves as Hobbits, embarking on a journey to Mordor. Or some did, anyway. The founders of Greenpeace didn’t agree on much. As cofounder Bob Hunter wrote, “We spent most of our time at each other’s throats, egos clashing.”
Bob Hunter on the original Greenpeace voyage in 1971.
Emerging from the acid-laced Vancouver hippie scene, the cadre of activists who gave birth to the group were a loose confederacy of draft-dodgers, radicals, mind-expansion mystics, tree-huggers, former beatniks, and Quakers, in addition to a few Hobbit heads like Hunter.
In 1971, after reports surfaced of a planned underground nuclear test on the island of Amchitka, on the far western point of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a dozen of them chartered a fishing boat, a halibut trawler called the Phyllis Cormack, temporarily rechristened it the Greenpeace, and set sail from Vancouver hell-bent on thwarting the U.S. military.
A few days after they left Victoria Harbor, cowboy icon John Wayne arrived in Vancouver on his private yacht, a retrofitted World War II minesweeper. The star was asked what he thought of the protesters.
“They’re a bunch of commies,” he said. “Canadians should mind their own business.”
A few days later, the group was turned back by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the nuclear test was carried out as planned. But the audacious voyage received worldwide media attention and ignited a firestorm of opposition, leading the U.S. government to abandon its plans for future tests on the island, which eventually became a bird sanctuary.
If the incident proved anything, it was the power of mythmaking and what we now call optics. (It’s worth noting that several Greenpeace founders were fans of media-theory rock star Marshall McLuhan.) The framing of the story — scruffy, daredevil ecowarriors risk their lives in a brave if hopeless stand against the most powerful military in the world — resonated deeply, and the David and Goliath dynamic became the cornerstone of Greenpeace’s identity. Nearly 45 years on, it still works.
In the years that followed, the group expanded its goals, taking on commercial whaling, the dumping of toxic and nuclear waste, seal hunting, arctic drilling, drift-net fishing, PVCs, GMOs, HFCs, and a number of other afflictions, all reasonable objectives, which in retrospect look like dress rehearsals for the big show: the increasingly urgent effort to slow the effects of climate change, a threat that was scarcely understood when the group first set off for western Alaska.
Greenpeace’s confrontational and swashbuckling approach has helped make it one the world’s most powerful environmental NGOs, with branches in 41 countries, 2.9 million donors and more than $350 million in annual contributions.
But increasingly, the organization has begun to temper its intensity with a cool-eyed and disciplined pragmatism, resulting in a string of extraordinary victories. On deforestation, a variety of companies, including big suppliers such as Asia Pulp & Paper and manufacturers like Kimberly-Clark, have been joined by Mattel, Nike, McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Unilever, Ferraro, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, and Nestlé in pledging to end the clear-cutting of precious rain forests. Tech giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Salesforce have promised to power their data centers with renewable energy, a pledge that led Duke Energy, the nation’s largest power utility and one of the most flagrant emitters of CO2, to begin providing clean energy to win their business. And grocers like Wal-Mart, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s have begun selling sustainable seafood.
Footage of beloved animals provokes a response in a way that an abstraction like global warming rarely does.
Greenpeace’s achievements have not been accomplished without help. Many have been undertaken in partnership with other environmental NGOs, from the World Wildlife Fund to the Rainforest Alliance, which are also doing important work. And organizations like the Sierra Club and NRDC are doubling down on political activism on the global-warming front. →