Greenpeace has made a lot of headlines pushing brands, often global companies, to change their practices, sometimes through high profile – and high altitude – actions such as a recent demonstration where we hung a banner on Procter & Gamble’s corporate headquarters in Cincinnati.
As director of communications, I am constantly thinking about what this work means for us – why it connects with supporters and helps make change in the world, how we can most effectively work with companies, and the risks we face.
This strategy has, in some ways, evolved out of necessity. On issues that threaten our health and that of our planet, governments have failed to act in a meaningful way. For global issues, global brands are having a huge impact and their influence cuts across country lines.
You might not feel connected to deforestation in Indonesia, but the palm oil in your shampoo is something you can touch. Likewise, maybe you have never been to the Arctic, but you buy your gas at a Shell station. People can exercise their activism muscles through consumer choice – they can tell Shell they don’t want them to drill in the Arctic or demand that products they use are free of palm oil.
This approach is effective because people feel a tangible connection to the brands they choose – a recent viral video we launched showed oil spilling over a Lego landscape to a slowed-down version of the song, "Everything is Awesome." The video garnered 5.5 million views and helped raise awareness about a partnership between Shell and Lego, in part because people know the song and love the brand.
While Lego has not made a change yet, we are still confident this campaign will tip the scales. We find that people want to know if their favorite brands have a positive or negative impact on the world.
While it might seem like we target individual companies, what we are actually doing is transforming entire sectors. As a result of our campaign against P&G, we were able to get a commitment from the company to change its deforestation policy. That same week we were also contacted by Colgate, General Mills, and Johnson & Johnson, who all wanted to make improvements to their policies before they, too, became targets of our campaign.
While we have the reputation for launching high-profile brand attacks, every campaign starts out with a conversation. If that does not work, yes, sometimes we escalate, which can mean a parody video or a banner on the side of corporate headquarters.
When we get to that place with a company where we see they’re making a sincere commitment to change, we praise the changes they are making to our supporters and the media.
There are some risks with this way of working. Our accuracy and the quality of our research has to be impeccable – if we’re going to call out a brand for irresponsible behavior, we need to have hard scientific proof and rigorous research that can stand up to media scrutiny.
We also need to consider the big picture: Our increased focus on changing corporations reflects the increased power they have globally. There’s a concern that this style of campaigning can actually reinforce the amount of power corporations hold, so we also work in other ways to try to keep corporate money out of politics, which is an important counterpoint to this work.
Finally, we must consider how intrinsic the change is to the business model of the corporation, and what we’re trying to achieve. For brands such as P&G, the purpose of its business is not deeply tied to deforestation, so the company can make a policy change and still have a successful business model.
But for companies such as Shell, the relationship has to remain adversarial because we are challenging its entire worldview.
We are imagining a future where oil companies only have a fraction of the power and money they now hold or cease to exist at all, which requires a totally different approach.
Corporations have the power to make big changes that can positively impact our future. We’re working to help them make these changes more quickly. Ultimately, our work aims to put more power and information into the hands of people, so that we can work together to create a sustainable, just future and lessen our impact on the earth.
David Barre is director of communications at Greenpeace USA.