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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.
But when it comes to catalyzing change in the corporate arena, Greenpeace seems to have cracked the code in a way that offers some important lessons for other advocacy groups.
Corporate representatives who have sat across the table from Greenpeace give the group’s negotiators high marks for professionalism. “They’ve been very trustworthy,” says Bill Weihl, manager of energy efficiency and sustainability at Facebook. “Certainly, when they first started, it was adversarial, but fairly quickly it turned into a productive conversation.”
Aida Greenbury, managing director for sustainability at Asia Pulp & Paper, calls Greenpeace “one of the very, very few NGOs I fully respect, because the people behind it really believe in what they are fighting for. We trust they are helping us achieve what we both want to achieve.”
“They are real subject-matter experts,” says Suhas Apte, former vice president of sustainability for Kimberly-Clark, the paper-goods giant. The company, which produces Kleenex, has made an astonishing turnaround — from clear-cutting ne’er-do-well to sustainability poster child — since being targeted by Greenpeace beginning a decade ago. “They obviously have a vested interest,” Apte adds, “but at the same time, they are very pragmatic and practical people, and as long as you are willing to listen, their whole intention is to see a change happen.”
“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.”
Meanwhile, unlike several other environmental groups, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Audubon Society, Conservation International, and the Nature Conservancy, Greenpeace does not accept corporate or government funds. “We don’t have anything for sale,” Rolf Skar, Greenpeace’s forests campaign director, points out. “There’s no green stamp of approval you can pay for. You can’t pay us to set up a park. We’re not going to act as paid consultants to help you clean up your supply chain.”
“It’s what I like most about them, to be honest,” Apte says. “Most other environmental NGOs are looking for some sort of partnership where you put some money in. Greenpeace doesn’t do that. In that sense they are unbiased and open-minded.”
Lessons From The Great Bear
During the summer of 1993, the usually tranquil Clayoquot Sound along the western coast of Vancouver Island became the site of a mass protest by indigenous First Nations communities and their supporters. Timber companies were aggressively clear-cutting the area’s temperate rain forest, with the eager support of the provincial government. As supporters began trekking to the site from Vancouver to participate in daily blockades of a remote logging road, the protest grew into the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. The battle, which lasted throughout the summer, led to more than 900 arrests and no shortage of media coverage.
And then, effectively, nothing.
It wasn’t until a coalition of environmental groups began applying pressure to the loggers’ customers — who themselves sold retail goods to consumers — that the situation began to turn around.
Greenpeace targeted Home Depot, labeling the company the “world’s largest retailer of wood products from ancient forests.” Home Depot quickly began leaning on its suppliers. As pressure grew, the British Columbian government began to shift its stance as well, resulting in historic agreements to preserve more than 50% of the surrounding central and north coastal regions — which the environmental groups had cannily renamed the Great Bear Rainforest. It was one of the group’s biggest wins, and it became a template for future campaigns.
The Great Bear Rainforest battle became the template for future campaigns.
“What we learned from that is it was unrealistic to expect government to take the lead,” Skar says. “In order for government to reform land use, generally they need some sort of consensus. And we couldn’t go straight to the large logging companies and tell them to do something different. We had no leverage. But we could tell the Home Depots of the world that their most important assets, their brands, could be affected easily by our campaigns as long as we had our facts right.”
Tracing the various components of a given product through a complex supply chain can be a complex task, even for the offending companies themselves.
To ensure its reports are accurate, Greenpeace employs 100 full-time staffers around the world in its research and intelligence units, including satellite imagery and mapping experts, as well as reconnaissance teams who can track a shipment of goods to its source. Often, damning evidence can be uncovered through a careful analysis of the public record. In other cases, corporate whistleblowers tip off the organization to violations.
When Greenpeace went after Kimberly-Clark for using virgin forests to manufacture its paper products, the company reacted defensively, convinced its practices were environmentally sound. “We thought we were very progressive,” Apte recalls. “But the magic is in the details, and Greenpeace found out that one of the third parties we were relying on was not getting wood from the right source.”
Whatever a company’s market capitalization or lobbying mojo, its consumer-facing brands represent a soft, sensitive underbelly. Kimberly-Clark, an enormous player in the paper-goods industry, produces Cottonelle, Scott Tissues, and Huggies, among other brands. But Kleenex is its largest brand by far, marketed in more than 20 countries. After outlining its concerns, to little effect, Greenpeace launched the “Kleercut” campaign, tweaking the tissue’s familiar cursive logo, in 2004. The publicity effort went on for years. Activists decorated trucks as tissue boxes and parked them outside corporate headquarters. They printed a doctored version of USA Today and distributed it at the World Tissue Convention. They infiltrated shareholders’ meetings. They launched a group called the Forest Friendly 500, urging universities, companies, and other major purchasers to boycott Kimberly-Clark’s products. They blockaded mills and chained themselves to train tracks. They pranked a man-on-the-street shoot for a Kleenex spot, sending activists one by one to pose as passersby and denounce the tissue as cameras rolled, then they released their own video of what happened. At one point, as Kimberly-Clark CEO Thomas Falk prepared to deliver a speech at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, activists managed to access the audiovisual equipment, swapping out his PowerPoint deck for slides focused on the Kleercut campaign.
It gets to the point where the CEO says, I’d like this to go away.
A flustered Falk cut the talk short, and guests were ushered into a luncheon, where they were greeted at their table settings with satirical menus further hammering home Greenpeace’s message.
Economically, the effect of all this was negligible, but that wasn’t the point. “The nuisance impact was much larger,” Apte says. In 2009, when he came in as vice president of global sustainability, ready to engage with Greenpeace, some colleagues were dubious. “There were a lot of skeptics and nonbelievers who had been dealing with it since 2004,” he recalls. “But it gets to the point where the CEO says, ‘I understand that we have a very progressive policy, but I’d like this to go away.’”
Before long, Kimberly-Clark toughened its procurement guidelines based on Greenpeace’s recommendations, a shift the two sides announced at a joint news conference in August 2009.
Of course, the success of this technique depends on a company’s susceptibility to public pressure. When it came to Asia Pulp & Paper, a large multinational unknown to most consumers, Greenpeace simply looked downstream to find a purchaser of the company’s paper that might be more concerned about its brand image. It chose Mattel — specifically, one of the company’s most iconic toys, Barbie — which was being packaged with cardboard traced to virgin forests. (The campaign, called “Barbie, It’s Over,” portrayed Ken, Barbie’s longtime beau, kicking her to the curb because, as he put it, “I don’t date girls who are into deforestation.”)
Ken learns that Barbie is wrapped in packaging linked to deforestation in a Greenpeace ad parody that helped turn APP green.
Mattel soon reached out to APP, and while it was a relatively small customer, the paper company got the message. “It was not about tonnage for us,” Aida Greenbury says. “But it really affected peoples’ perception of APP. That campaign was very effective.”
APP soon opened negotiations with Greenpeace, though not without some hesitation. “It wasn’t love at first sight, that’s for sure,” Greenbury says. “It was very tough, especially for an Asian company, to receive such blunt and harsh criticism. When we first met them, the trust level was not even zero — it was probably minus 50. It was hard to give internal information to a radical NGO. ‘Are they going to use it against us?’ But they didn’t. They used it to help us, and we built up trust. It was an interesting journey.”
Last year, APP launched an impressive zero-deforestation plan, which has had profound ripple effects. “The impact of our conservation policy is not only on our concessions,” Greenbury points out. “It’s on all suppliers entering our supply chain. We think it’s our obligation to help our suppliers be able to comply with our policy. So it’s quite huge.”
Recently, APP took the issue a step further, announcing a plan not merely to end clear-cutting but to restore 1 million hectares of rain forest.
Greenpeace’s Civil War
Greenpeace’s transformation into a high-performance industrial spanking machine was only accomplished after a bloody executive putsch — the sort of boardroom intrigue more commonly encountered among pinstriped Masters of the Universe than Birkenstock-wearing idealists.
The Rainbow Warrior II under assault.
Fundamental issues involving the group’s identity and tactics came to a head in the late-’90s, as two opposing factions of Greenpeace ecowarriors began skirmishing with one another. The conflict, which pitted the central office in Amsterdam, backed by the European national groups, against the American affiliate, Greenpeace USA, boiled down to this: Encouraged by the ascendancy of Green parties in Germany and elsewhere, the European contingent was ready to grow up, join the establishment and work for change from the inside. Past efforts along these lines had already shown promise. A few years before, a staffer in Germany had worked with a scientist to pioneer a clean new refrigeration technology, dubbed Greenfreeze, which had since been widely adopted throughout Europe and Asia, resulting in a massive decline in the release of hydrofluorocarbons.
The Europeans remained proponents of direct action, but only as part of a multipronged effort that also included “solutions work,” such as developing feasible alternatives to unsustainable practices, and opening negotiations with corporate adversaries. They were also eager for the NGO’s many semiautonomous satellite offices to coordinate their efforts around large-scale, global issues such as climate change and GMOs.
The Americans were still in protest mode, putting their efforts into local battles and community building in a bid to jump-start a broad social movement.
They were dedicated activists on both sides, all zealous do-gooders. But the philosophical gap soon became unbridgeable. And there was another problem. The sprawling network was governed by a longstanding arrangement by which the national groups based in rich countries paid annual dues to the home office in Amsterdam, which used the funds to support less wealthy satellites in the developing world.
The setup worked well, but a wrinkle had emerged: Greenpeace USA was going broke.
The effort to build a grassroots movement based on retail canvassing and coalition building had taken a toll on the American group’s public profile. As a result, its fundraising tanked.
Although the localized approach led to some important wins — for instance, curtailing the dumping of toxins in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” — they came at the expense of the global organization’s key priorities. For instance, Greenpeace USA was missing in action during the negotiations over the Kyoto Protocols, essentially declining to participate. And it opted out of the GMO campaign, which was gathering steam around the world. Membership and donations plummeted by more than 60%. As a result, levies paid to the central office slowed to a trickle.
Eventually, acting on a clause in the bylaws, international body took aggressive action, dismissing Greenpeace USA’s executive director and parachuting in a replacement in from Amsterdam with a mandate to clean house.
The acting director laid off 335 staff members out of a total of 400 (mostly door-to-door canvassers) and slashed the annual budget by more than 25%. The board of directors was sent packing.
After a period of soul-searching, the U.S. group signed on the global agenda, retooled its operations and replaced the expensive canvassing efforts with an expanded online presence. Eventually, the organization began to notch some wins — on GMOs, for instance, and the use of toxic chemicals in children’s toys — which began to reduce internal tensions. Membership rolls bounced back and the money started flowing again.
Giving Up On Government
Greenpeace’s energetic crusade to turn corporate transgressors into eco-champions came about in response to a sudden realization that the traditional approach, pushing for government regulation, had become a spectacular failure.
“A lot of NGOs working on deforestation had a bit of a pipe dream that some sort of U.N. climate treaty or U.S. law, cap and trade or something, would save the day,” says Rolf Skar. “The disappointment that was Copenhagen” — the 2009 U.N. climate summit widely regarded as a bust — “left a lot of us scratching our heads about what to we could go next.”
An ad parody dinging Apple for using coal power. The company is now committed to clean energy.
In the U.S., the inertia around environmental issues can be attributed to the paralysis of a divided and acrimonious legislative branch. As Radford points out, “There hasn’t been real national environmental legislation passed since Superfund in the 1980s.” The Clean Air Act, he notes, was technically an extension, and recent moves on green issues — like the tough new fuel standards — have come from the executive branch without congressional action.
“The old equation for environmental groups was help write a bill and get Congress to pass it, or pass state laws and then press for consistency,” Radford says. But now, the outsize influence of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which aggressively promotes conservative policies in statehouses and municipalities, has come to dominate local politics. “And gerrymandering and voter suppression have made it hard to do much in Congress,” he says.
That’s to say nothing of the estimated $1 billion that conservative groups spend annually to fund climate-change skeptics, think tanks, and advocacy organizations.
Apte puts it more bluntly. “I don’t believe our legislators will adopt any action on climate change,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are some politicians who are naive about the whole issue, and so much money is put behind those candidates that I doubt Congress will ever act.”
In many of the key countries where Greenpeace operates, authoritarian regimes and rampant corruption can create further difficulties.
“What we’ve come to learn from Indonesia and other countries that are incredibly corrupt, is if you can flip enough companies, then civil societies and the companies together can get laws passed,” Radford says.
He points to the example of ranchers in Brazil who were aggressively clearing forests to create more grazing lands. Some 75% of the beef was consumed locally, and the national government had a financial stake in the large beef processors, so Greenpeace’s leverage seemed minimal. But it turned out the leather was going to Nike, Timberland, and BMW. The group initiated campaigns against those brands instead. “It was real easy to get the attention of the cattle industry when those companies got on the horn and said, ‘We’ve got a problem here,’” Skar recalls. Before long, the beef producers came around, working with Greenpeace to adopt strict new policies against deforestation, without the Brazilian government’s input.
There are other reasons for this indirect approach. Greenpeace’s scuffles with governments have proved dangerous. In 1973, Dave McTaggart, who would become the group’s chairman, lost sight in one eye during a scuffle with French commandos after he tried to prevent a nuclear test in the South Pacific. More than a decade later, French intelligence agents bombed the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, which was attempting to prevent similar tests. A photographer was killed in the explosion, and the vessel was sunk. French officials initially denied involvement in the bombing, but the plot was uncovered by New Zealand police.
In the Amazon, death threats are so routine that activists wear Kevlar vests and travel in armored trucks. Greenpeace Brazil campaigner Paolo Adario, who often uses a small plane to identify clear-cutting in remote regions, has found himself unable to land at certain airstrips because of angry mobs waiting for him. Campaigners have been hung in effigy in Indonesia, and the Rainbow Warrior II was chased through international waters not long ago by an Indonesian destroyer and warplanes. Just last year, a Greenpeace ship protesting drilling in the Arctic was attacked by armed Russian commandos, who arrested the crew. The activists, called the Arctic 30, were charged with piracy, a crime carrying a 15-year sentence, before being released as part Vladimir Putin’s pre-Olympics amnesty.
By contrast, dealing with multinational corporations is a walk in the park. “Companies tend not to show up with automatic rifles and start shooting inches above your head,” Skar observers, referring to the aggressive tactics employed by the Russian military in the arctic standoff. “We’re nonviolent,” he says. “We’re not going to fight back.”
Moreover, corporations tend to be motivated not by ideology but by revenue, and are therefore less likely to question the hard science behind global warming. Notable exceptions include industry titans like Charles and David Koch, who profit directly from fossil fuels.
Tech companies especially have shown an awareness of the dangers posed by carbon emissions, perhaps because they are staffed and often run by young engineers and scientists. “One thing about working with the IT sector,” says Gary Cook, Greenpeace’s senior IT analyst, “is we have never had a debate about climate change. They all think it’s real.”
That helps explain why Greenpeace’s campaign to persuade major tech companies — most notably Google, Facebook, and Apple — to power their data centers with renewable energy has been so successful. After being slammed in Greenpeace’s 2012 report “How Clean Is Your Cloud?” Apple has since earned praise for committing to using 100% renewable energy to power its iCloud server farms. It even installed solar arrays at its facility in Maiden, North Carolina, rather than tap into the coal-generated power provided by the local utility, Duke Energy.
“The fact that Apple went and did that told Duke that if it sits on its hands, motivated companies can go around them,” Cook says. “Other commercial customers started to say, ‘Hmm, maybe we should look at this, too.’ Duke doesn’t make any money if companies generate their own power.” Before long, pressure from Apple, as well as Google and Facebook, persuaded Duke to create a program offering green power to major corporate customers rather than lose their business altogether. “Duke never would have done that on its own,” Phil Radford says.
One tech company that has steadfastly resisted Greenpeace’s entreaties is Amazon Web Services, the world’s leading hosting company and one of the sector’s largest users of fossil fuels, according to Greenpeace. “I’m an optimist about them,” Cook says. “If motivated, I feel confident Amazon will find a way to move at significant scale. But at this point, there’s no indication that they’re going to do that.” Seeking a more vulnerable pressure point, the group recently launched a campaign against Pinterest, a major AWS client, demanding the company “Make Our Pins Green” and enlisting some of Pinterest’s most widely followed users in the effort. (Disclosure: Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider.)
A clip from Greenpeace’s “Unfriend Coal” campaign against Facebook. The company is now committed to clean energy.
One key reason for the shift in thinking in corporate boardrooms is globalization. Most large companies now operate across borders — often with offices, factories, licensees, and suppliers in some of the areas most directly affected by climate change — and are therefore more likely to experience the effects directly.
Apte points to the massive floods that swept Thailand in 2011. Because major automakers depended on parts manufactured in Thailand, assembly lines went idle around the world.
“If you were to ask some guy in the auto industry five years ago, ‘Do you believe in global warming?’ he would have said no,” Apte says, “but more and more, people are coming to the realization that climate change is having a big impact on supply chains. Business leaders are smart enough to see what is happening. Ask them about economic impacts, and the amount of money each company is losing has gone up tenfold.”
The other key factor for businesses is a heightened sensitivity to the value of their signature brands, often built over many years at considerable cost. The decades-old practice of “culture jamming” — what the French Situationists who pioneered the technique called “détournement” — has been weaponized by social media, enabling organizations to use a company’s own elaborately planned marketing campaigns against it, often to devastating effect.
“Companies invest a lot in advertising and building relationships with consumers, and it’s really easy for us to mess that up,” Skar says. “We can outperform many companies online with the right issues —more hits, more likes, more views. That’s really increased our power.”
‘Fuzzier, Wuzzier, Greener’
Even Greenpeace’s detractors have taken note of the organization’s newfound potency. Fred Smith, former president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and founder of the group’s Center for Advancing Capitalism, calls Greenpeace “one of the most effective” groups out there at essentially guilt-tripping corporations into becoming more socially responsible, a trend he considers hopelessly misguided. “It’s bad for companies, bad for customers, bad for shareholders, bad for workers,” Smith says. “But boy, it can get CEOs really great publicity in newspapers. Their wife can come home from the garden club and say, ‘Dear, you’re so much better than the other corporate husbands I know!’ And their children can say, ‘Daddy, you’re not as evil as I thought you were all these years!’”
Fred Smith, founder of the Center for Advancing Capitalism.
Smith maintains that the desire be perceived as benevolent has made corporations less competitive. “It’s going to put them out of business,” he says.
Aida Greenbury of APP disagrees. “We are doing this because consumers are calling for it as well,” she points out.
But Smith insists most of the research on consumer preferences is flawed. “Companies go out to people and say, ‘How do you feel about my brand now that I’m fuzzier and wuzzier and greener?’” he says. “But there’s very little data that that translates into sales.” That’s not to say CEOs shouldn’t be pay lip service to environmental concerns. “I mean, look, don’t go around saying, ‘We don’t care about these things,’” Smith says. “Use all the nice, soft rhetoric you want. But for god’s sake, don’t take it seriously!”
Smith attributes initiatives around corporate social responsibility, or CSR, to a crippling sense of shame that has taken hold in America’s C-suites. “The average approach of a businessman when attacked by an environmental group is to say, ‘We’re working on it. We’re not as bad as you think. We’ve spent a fortune on environmental cleanup. In another decade we’ll be down to zero,’” he says. “And then they step back and wait for applause and they never get it! Why? Because to most people, it’s like a guy who gets up and says, ‘All right, you’ve got me. I did beat my wife, but I have cut down dramatically on wife-beating in the past five years. I’ve gone from leather belts to cloth belts, and from every day to once a week.’
Use all the nice, soft rhetoric you want. But for god’s sake, don’t take it seriously!
“You can try to please your customers,” he adds, “but don’t try to please your critics. These people are utopians. You can never please them.”
That may have been true in the past, but Greenpeace has gradually adopted a new policy that aims to give corporate leaders enough praise — and glowing brand publicity — to persuade others like them to hop on the bandwagon. Internally, this tactic has become known as “spank and thank.” When Kimberly-Clark adopted a new sustainable policy after a five-year battle, Greenpeace followed up with a thank-you campaign urging supporters to email Falk directly to express their gratitude (more than 15,000 emails were sent) and produced a humorous YouTube video in which a scruffy 20-something gazes into a mirror and practices making up with a former flame, Kimberly, after a rough patch.
“It was a beautifully done parody,” Apte says. “Hats off to them on creativity. With a small budget, they produce more effective media than some of our brand guys did.”
Recently, they did the same thing after several top tech companies made commitments to using renewable energy, flying the Greenpeace airship over the Bay Area praising Apple, Google, and Facebook for going green while slamming Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, and Pinterest for failing to do so.
“We have a motto internally, which goes, ‘We have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,’” Rolf Skar points out. “The minute you want to change, great. We don’t hold any hard feelings. We’re focused on a cause, not a company.” In other words, love the sinner, hate the sin. Fundamentally, Greenpeace remains an organization made up of dedicated, fiercely ideological true believers, but it has become disciplined enough to steer clear of distracting culture wars. Instead, like any good evangelist, the group stands ready to embrace any corporation that sees the light, welcoming them warmly into the fold.
“As long a they see companies making a genuine effort, these guys will bend over backward to help you,” Apte says. “They want to use you as a role model to change others in the industry.”
From Greenpeece’s video “Making Up Is Hard to Do” praising Kimberly-Clark.
On both an interpersonal level and a strategic one, this approach has been vital. In previous eras, when activists of various stripes waged scorched-earth campaigns of demonization against corporate villains — think Nestlé, Nike, California grapes — and at times seemed to decry capitalism altogether, companies rarely saw an upside to playing ball. Now, they’re guaranteed that a genuine turnaround will be greeted by a chorus of approval. As consumers increasingly seek out greener products, the halo effect provided by a Greenpeace thumbs-up can become a significant part of a brand’s identity and ultimately drive revenue and build staff morale.
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.”
The Palm-Oil Crusade
The palm-oil crusade made its public debut in 2007 with a report called “Cooking the Climate,” which compared the peat forests to “ticking time bombs” and labeled Indonesia the world’s largest producer of greenhouse-gas emissions linked to deforestation.
Unilever committed to using sustainable palm oil after this parody ad targeting Dove soap.
The report also noted pointedly that while many leading palm-oil users, including Unilever, ADM and Nestlé, were already members of an organization called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which was designed to clean up the industry, the results were underwhelming. As the report put it, “Many in the industry are using the RSPO to cover their backs, putting off urgent action while the destruction continues.”
The problem was that suppliers blended oil from numerous plantations, effectively laundering the bad oil with the good.
While Greenpeace’s report openly acknowledged that “consumer companies … have virtually no way of knowing whether or not the palm oil they are using is from rain forest destruction and conversion of peatlands,” it nonetheless began to campaign against such multinationals.
First, it took aim at Unilever, chair of the RSPO. Following a script that had been perfected with the Kleercut campaign, it chose a beloved brand, Dove. The soap had recently rolled out a marketing campaign dedicated to questioning society’s distorted ideas of female beauty. The promotion was wildly successful, turning Dove into a champion of female empowerment and a social-media darling. It also made the soap exceptionally vulnerable to criticism. Greenpeace simply made its own dead-on parody of one of Dove’s web spots featuring a young Indonesian girl, and sat back as it became the organization’s biggest viral hit. Unilever responded a few months later, declaring a total moratorium on palm oil linked to deforestation.
With Unilever on the path to reform, Greenpeace targeted Nestlé with a viral spot linking Kit Kat bars with the destruction of orangutan habitats. In it, an office worker bites into a chocolate bar only to find a bloody primate finger.
“Frankly I didn’t like it,” Skar says about the video. “It was too crude.” It did the trick, though, and Nestlé’s botched response offered a cautionary tale for other companies who might find themselves facing a similar controversy in the social-media era.
From the KitKat ad parody targeting Nestle, which has since gone green.
As the video, a parody of widely broadcast Kit Kat spot, began to rack up views, Nestlé pressured YouTube to remove it on copyright grounds. YouTube complied, prompting a flurry of angry posts on the candy bar’s Facebook page, which were promptly deleted, leading to still more cries of censorship.
Reposted on Vimeo as “the video Nestlé doesn’t want you to see,” the spot blew up. Given the lengthy campaign against Nestlé for its marketing of infant formula in the developing world — the boycott began in 1977 and is still underway — Greenpeace was “ready for a long slog,” Skar says. But two months later, following a dramatic shareholders’ meeting that was interrupted by Greenpeace operatives who rappelled from the ceiling with a banner, the company announced a zero-deforestation policy not only for palm oil but also pulp and paper. “They wound up overperforming,” Skar says. “Not that their supply chain is perfect, but it takes time to turn around a ship like this.”
Having flipped Nestlé, Greenpeace promptly moved down the list to the next big offender, Procter & Gamble. Len Sauers, P&G’s sustainability officer, says the company was already developing a sustainable palm-oil procurement policy when Greenpeace’s activists turned up in Cincinnati with their climbing gear. “We did not ignore those actions you reference,” he writes in an email. “But the fact is we were already addressing the issue.”
In any case, the timing was auspicious, and the reaction was swift.
On April 9, Rolf Skar was with his girlfriend and some friends in a small rented bungalow in the beach town of Ceulita, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, when his phone began buzzing with news.
It had been just over a month since Greenpeace had initiated its campaign against Head & Shoulders. The group had followed up the operation in Cincinnati with a coordinated action on March 26 that hit P&G offices around the world. A banner was deployed on the company’s corporate headquarters in Jakarta. Activists in tiger suits turned up at a facility in Manila. A red carpet walk of shame was unfurled in Delhi. And at a cleaning-products conference in Manchester, activists presented a Golden Axe Award to the company’s head of sustainability.
Now, P&G appeared to be making a change. The company had issued a press release touting a new sustainability goal, and Skar’s colleagues had scheduled a conference call to plan their response. Skar hopped on the call. There were six people on the phone — high-level staffers from around the world. They all digested the announcement, looking for loopholes.
The language was impressive. “P&G’s commitment to no deforestation in its palm supply chain is unequivocal,” Len Sauers wrote in a press release. “Our aim is to develop effective long-term solutions to the complicated issue of palm-oil sustainability. We are committed to driving positive change throughout the entire supply chain, not just for us, but for the industry and for the small farmers who depend on this crop.”
That sounded pretty definitive, but the fine print wasn’t perfect. The 2020 timeline for total compliance seemed distant, and the definition of high-carbon forests was somewhat vague. But Skar, among others, was convinced the company meant business.
The one with the final say was Bustar Maitar, the head of the Indonesian forest campaign. “If he’s not happy, none of us can be,” Skar says.
Ultimately, Maitar gave his assent and Greenpeace drafted a statement. P&G, it said, “finally took the plunge and decided to clean up its act and wash its supply chain clean of bad palm oil.”
Shortly after the announcement, I asked Skar what company he thought would stumble into Greenpeace’s crosshairs next. “Johnson & Johnson has a lot of great brands,” he said.
But just a week later, J&J, too, pledged to stop using palm oil linked to deforestation, leaving just PepsiCo among the U.S.-based companies Greenpeace originally pressed for action.
Skar declines to discuss Greenpeace’s plans, but it’s not hard to picture a full-on media blitz touting “Uncool Ranch Doritos” or “Mountain Don’t” coming soon to a YouTube channel near you.
After the March operation in Cincinnati, the nine Greenpeace activists were arrested and spent the night in jail. They were charged with burglary, vandalism, trespassing, and inducing panic. If convicted, the felony charges could bring maximum sentences 9 1/2 years and $20,000 in fines, a notably harsh punishment for a kid in a tiger costume.
“While some people may be sympathetic to their message, this is definitely a crime,” Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters wrote in a press release. “This was a very sophisticated plan that put P & G, fire, and police personnel at risk while causing damage to a major corporation. They had numerous other ways to get their message across without committing a crime. They should be prepared to face the consequences.”
Greenpeace might well reply that climate change carries some significant consequences as well. The good news is that the business world appears increasingly to understand this reality. Asked what advice she’d give to a CEO who finds his or her company in Greenpeace’s crosshairs, APP’s Aida Greenbury is categorical. “Embrace your harshest critics,” she says. “Tackle your most difficult problems head-on. It’s 2014. It’s not the time when companies can play greenwashing and hope that the issues will be buried. We have the internet now — full transparency. So stop dancing around with the elephant in the room. Try to find solutions and implement them.”