John Sauven: The understated face of Greenpeace

The Greenpeace UK executive director is not the type to rage at the world but he is determined to change behaviour through the power of argument, finds Ruth Wyatt.

Not many people could reflect on the machinations of the EU – much less the prospect of lobbying it for the good of the planet – and feel optimistic.

It's certainly not what you'd expect from a hardened campaigner and environmental stalwart such as the executive director of Greenpeace UK.

But then John Sauven isn't your stereotypical do-gooder.

Sauven is indeed determined to help save the planet, but he readily accepts the need to engage with multinational corporations, to promote breakthrough technologies and to keep chipping away at governments. Here is a man at peace with the dualities involved in influencing modern society.

On one side is simultaneously taking to the street to preach to the Russian populace and getting creative with digital media to avoid being censored by state-owned media.

On the other is the combined approach of working with politicians and corporations behind the scenes at the same time as being willing to expose their perceived wrongdoings oh so very publicly.

There are times when the rangy, avuncular 59-year-old comes across like the kindly professor you wished for when Shakespeare refused to reveal his gilded truths and your exams were round the corner.

At other times he sounds like, well, Neil from the Young Ones, like, you know?

If his speech were reported entirely unedited he would very much sound like the archetypal hippie, but his many qualifiers in speech, his plethora of quites, you knows, likes and actuallys are not the ramblings of an unfocused mind. Quite the opposite.

One gets the decided impression that here sits a man at pains to be reasonable in spite of – or perhaps because of – his passion and determination to make a difference to the long-term health of planet Earth.

That said, questioning Sauven can feel like herding kittens.

Such is his knowledge of both the greater context and fine detail of the challenges faced by mankind that even when asked a relatively straightforward question about the Arctic 30, Sauven hares off on a lengthy narrative taking into account geopolitical manoeuvrings, hydrocarbon-based economies, sovereignty, polar ice cap depletion, the history of environmentalism, state-owned industries, media censorship and The Beatles. Yes, The Beatles.

The Arctic 30 is a group of Greenpeace campaigners arrested by Russian authorities for piracy, as just about everyone knows because Greenpeace has done a brilliant job of keeping the story in the headlines. "What we were doing with the Arctic campaign was to make people see what is happening. You can't deny any longer the physical evidence that this change is happening and the fact that there will be serious consequences. We're not going to get away with it. If you're a criminal you rob a bank because you think you might get away with it. When it comes to climate change we're not going to get away with it. You can't just screw up your home and move - this is the only planet we've got. We didn't set out to get people arrested," he says.

"I suppose these are quite big issues for man to deal with," he understatedly observes. "We're not ideally programmed to deal with these things but we have to. With the Arctic because of the geopolitics and the scramble for resources, you get mixed up with politics and then you get into national sovereignty and territorial claims and you also then run up against very big state-owned interests.

"Russia is a hydrocarbon economy and very dependent on the income from oil and gas. It is going to fight like hell to defend its interests; it's making vast sums of money. It's made more complicated by the fact that a lot of the media are state owned and these are state-owned industries, but companies like Gazprom itself has big media interests. It would be a bit like, here, Shell owning News International so if you were trying to get your message across about climate change, fossil fuels and pollution, you might not get a very fair hearing if all the newspapers, TV and radio stations were owned by the fossil fuel companies. You've got a lot of interlocking interests here between the state, the state-owned companies and their media interests. The independent media face some considerable difficulties."

Sauven barely breathes for the hour or so we meet. Above is a truncated report of the first part of his answer. Mid-explanation he fends off a call from someone he must answer, gets rid of her and continues without skipping a beat.

How do you then connect to Russian people if the usual channels are barred? "That's kind of quite interesting, here are extremes you're left with and one is the digital route because there are more possibilities to connect with people through digital communications and social media. Then the other way is going back to, I suppose, where we all started off with the pamphlet and the street corner and actually being able to talk to people in a more direct way using cinemas and the public hall meeting, going out into communities to explain your work in a face-to-face way.

"That's sometimes forgotten," he continues. "But sometimes the most powerful way and a very good way of being able to connect to people when you are demonised in the media is actually being there, with people able to see you in the flesh and talk to you and ask questions - that is a much better way to make that connection. Then you have to find people who will stand up and speak on your behalf, people who can carry and convey a message that people trust - it helps you enormously, you overcome a lot of hurdles straight away - because people think 'it's important to them and we know them and trust them and this is who they associate with', then you have some of that stardust in terms of trust.

"There are other things like cultural influences as well and we've been quite successful in using musicians and people like that. If you look at Russia, some powerful people claim that The Beatles brought down the Soviet Union. If you look at the current leadership of Russia they were all Beatles fans as they grew up and a lot of them learnt English through The Beatles' lyrics. Although the old Soviet authorities tried to crush support for The Beatles they caught on like wildfire and played a very significant role in bringing down the very old conservative out-of-touch regime through the influence of pop music. It's kind of fascinating when you look at the history of The Beatles, their rise in popularity and the influence they had. When Paul McCartney played Red Square in 2003 the entire Russian leadership was there - quite extraordinary. Look at the influence of music and popular culture and the ability to bring about change.

"Everyone looks at (issues) in terms of war and peace and struggles between superpowers and the big geopolitics of it and sometimes people forget the other influencers like culture: what is happening on the street? What are young people doing? How are they connecting, rebelling and eating away at the structures from below? You see that happening a lot on the sphere of digital media. Regimes are trying to suppress people. What's largely invisible and amazing is how people are connecting and getting round censorship, how they've nailed down the technology to break down the control the regimes are trying to put in place," he enthuses.

Sauven wears the lean and hungry look of someone who works all hours.

And it is not surprising. "Sometimes you're described as environmentalists and people think, well, the environment is a bit of a luxury or a middle-class issue or it's only if you can afford it that you do it. But the idea that man can separate itself from the environment is stupid, so when people say the environment has dropped down the agenda it's a bit like saying breathing has dropped down the agenda. You cannot exist without a healthy environment. This is a concern for all of us, all the time. This is the new norm. This is not a luxury, breathing is not a luxury. Having clean air or clean water is not a luxury. These are issues that involve everybody," he asserts. He doesn't thump the table with his hand - that's not his style.

Understated

Only someone with Sauven's campaigning credentials and intellectual might could get away with referring to the polar ice cap as an important signifier and "quite iconic". We've finally managed to switch the conversation back to communications issues and he's talking about the film Trevor Beattie created to demonstrate the massive damage already inflicted on the polar ice cap. In typically understated style he says: "The Arctic is quite an important signifier and quite iconic in terms of holding something quite big up to the world and saying, look, this is what you're doing to the planet.

"We've got to be very good at creative content; it's got to be something people want to watch, want to share, want to connect their friends to. We've been very lucky to have very creative people who have helped us with that." He name checks Ogilvy & Mather on the ad front and recently engaged Borkowski.do on the PR side.

Greenpeace is rightly famous for pulling off high risk, high profile stunts that capture interest from media around the world and propel supporters into action and waverers into becoming supporters.

This year's ascent of the Shard by six women who unfurled a banner targeting Shell's Arctic activities generated phenomenal coverage. Similarly its aerial banner at the Coppa Italia final and at Bayern's match with Basel were extremely successful, not least because at the Italian match the authorities could not remove the banner until the game was over, thus giving Greenpeace an audience running to millions for the duration of the match.

However, Sauven almost bridles at the use of the word stunt. "I don't like the word stunt although I accept it's hard to change people's use or meaning of words. I like to see them as offline forms of communication that are sometimes participatory and sometimes done by small groups of people. The Shard climb we thought about doing for nearly two years. Originally French climber 'Spiderman' was going to do it for us but the building owners got an injunction to stop him. Then one of our activists thought about an all-women climb team."

They trained together for several weekends and visited the Shard viewing gallery before doing the actual climb.

"It was much harder on the day than they thought it would be. Starting at 4am they didn't get to the top until early evening. And we never completed the whole plan. But the film of the action was amazing. It showed the real courage and determination of the six women and certainly raised awareness in the UK but also globally about our campaign to save the Arctic," he remarks.

I'm uncomfortable describing this high profile work as the tip of the iceberg given present company, but Sauven himself volunteers it. "It's a cliche, but to a certain extent you can describe these things as an iceberg. You do things that are quite high profile like the Shard or the Arctic 30. Those things are very visible, but a lot of the work goes on beneath the surface in terms of all the research and negotiations. In themselves they are not news and they don't to get reported. Very often what you see in the headline is just the tip."

The massive berg below the surface engages with governments, businesses and powerful families to determine our long-term planetary health. "Ultimately if we are going to protect the environment we have to change governments and businesses. How governments individually and collectively agree to regulations is going to be the deciding factor, because how corporations do business will ultimately determine whether you are going to save or destroy the environment," he attests.

And not that many corporations at that.

Household names

Sauven walks me through deforestation. In a nutshell, agricultural commodities and paper and packaging are driving the destruction of those rainforests. "There might be thousands of cattle ranchers or soya farmers but the actual traders of these commodities are maybe three or four companies. There are a few big global traders that these commodities go through. Then you step out and look at who is buying these commodities? They are the household name multinationals of this world.

"When you look at it, you think this world will be saved or destroyed by a few hundred corporations and a couple of very powerful families. In a way that makes our job a lot easier. People say: change consumer behaviour or consumer attitudes and I think 'that's seven billion people'. How about changing the corporations? Well that's a couple of hundred. Which is the easiest? Which is impossible?

"I would love it if corporations who say 'we have a deforestation policy and will not buy from companies that engage in it' lived up to their policies. It would make our job a lot easier. They have these policies and they employ expensive ad and PR companies to portray them as great green icons, but when you investigate what they are actually up to and who they buy from you realise they are knee deep in all the things they say they don't do. That's why we have to put pressure on them as well as work with them and with regulators."

And herein lies his challenge to you.

Sauven believes people in the advertising and PR industries should refuse to work with corporations that harm our environment. Support those that support the long-term welfare of our planet. Tear up your contracts with those that harm; refuse to polish, spin, obfuscate and proselytise on their behalf.

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