mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Beyond Boycotts

Absent George W. Bush’s undergoing a conversion like St. Paul’s on
the road to Damascus, there probably won’t be much good environmental
news out of Washington in Bush’s second term. Environmentalists will
fight to limit further mischief, but these will be holding actions.
Actual progress against climate change, deforestation and other
unfolding disasters will not come from inside-the-Beltway policy
battles.

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Victories have been scored on another front, however: by campaigns
that target specific corporations for environmentally destructive
behavior. Since Bush’s victory in November, two of America’s
best-known brands—Ford and Victoria’s Secret—have been badly stung
by such campaigns, and more are planned. Such campaigns are not silver
bullets, activists concede, but they offer more hope than banging on
the locked doors of Washington, especially under the current
right-wing reign.

Anticorporate activism is, of course, hardly new in the United States:
Farm workers urged consumers to boycott nonunion grapes in the 1970s,
antisweatshop activists blackened Nike’s name in the 1990s. And it’s
worth noting that most big Washington-based environmental groups
continue to shun the strategy, perhaps in deference to their corporate
funding and board members. The Ford and Victoria’s Secret campaigns
were instead organized by coalitions of national grassroots groups
based in the more radical San Francisco Bay Area. The campaigns
confront corporate polluters rather than just their political
overseers and hit them where it hurts most: in their revenues and
reputations, which in today’s brand-conscious world are increasingly
linked.

We view corporate campaigns as an end run around political systems,
where government action hasn’t kept pace with the destructive effects
of corporate behavior, says Jennifer Krill, a campaigner at the
Rainforest Action Network, a leading group in the Ford campaign.
Noting that federal policy battles over auto fuel efficiency have
dragged on for twenty years with no real progress, Krill adds that RAN
decided to target Ford because rainforests are threatened both by the
global warming Ford’s vehicles cause and by the oil drilling needed to
fill gas tanks. Niel Golightly, the director of sustainable business
strategies at Ford, respects the activists’ pressure tactics. We deal
with them not only because they have a stick to whack us with but
because they represent a large and legitimate part of public opinion
that expects better environmental performance from Ford and other
automakers, he says.

Unlike some past anticorporate campaigns, today’s use both the carrot
and the stick. The activists’ goal is not simply to get a corporation
to clean up its own act but to use that corporation to push an entire
market sector in a green direction. I call our strategy ‘beyond
boycotts,’ says Lafcadio Cortesi, a campaigner with Forest Ethics,
which spearheaded the Victoria’s Secret campaign. Instead of just
saying ‘Don’t clearcut,’ we’re trying to harness market forces to get
corporations to do the right thing.

Activists have been particularly successful regarding the wood and
paper industry; the campaign against Home Depot, the world’s largest
lumber retailer, is the model. Beginning in 1997, activists mounted a
public shaming campaign against Home Depot—picketing stores, hanging
banners on the company’s headquarters, protesting at shareholder
meetings. Home Depot executives eventually decided that going green
was preferable to losing environmentally minded customers. In 1999,
Home Depot pledged to phase out the sale of old-growth wood, and its
market power led other retailers, including Kinko’s, to do the same.
Activists then worked with Home Depot to deploy its market power
upstream, against the logging companies that supply wood. The
results so far include agreements that protect 3.5 million acres of
Canada’s Great Bear Forest and a million acres of Chile’s native
forests.

A separate campaign has led Staples and Office Depot to compete to be
the greenest company in the office supply industry. Both retailers now
aggressively market recycled paper and sell much more of it. Tyler
Elm, the director of environmental affairs at Office Depot, insists
these changes are permanent. Given their business model, he says of
the activist groups, I can’t say they won’t be back. So we have
adopted an environmental brand that is responsible, transparent and
accountable.

The campaigns against Victoria’s Secret and Ford follow the same
script. First, public shaming via full-page ads in the New York Times.
The Victoria’s Secret ad, which featured a lingerie-clad model
hoisting a chain saw, accused the company of using endangered Canadian
forests for the catalogues it mails to US households (at the
astounding rate of more than 1 million a day). The ad sparked news
stories by USA Today, the Today show and others. Ford was hit by a
series of ads that mocked CEO William Ford Jr.’s claim to be a
lifelong environmentalist. The ads reminded Ford that his company
has lobbied against stronger fuel-efficiency laws and ranked dead
last among all major automakers in overall fuel efficiency every year
since you became CEO. The ads coincided with nationwide
demonstrations at Victoria’s Secret shops and Ford dealerships. The
demonstrations not only showed there was real grassroots muscle behind
the ads; they attracted still more news coverage that further spread
the protesters’ message.

To what end? Ford executives met with activists in San Francisco in
January, but neither side reported much progress. We know
comprehensive change doesn’t come overnight, says Krill of RAN. Home
Depot is still implementing commitments it made to us in 1999.
Anthony Hebron, a spokesman for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company,
Limited Brands, says the campaigners have no effect on his company.
We were going to increase our recycled content anyway…and we’re
committed to doing more.

Cortesi of Forest Ethics promises that activists will keep the heat on
Victoria’s Secret. But a broader question remains: Can corporate
campaigns deliver more than incremental change? Given a global
economic system that demands ever more production and consumption, can
reforming a few companies make a difference? No one can change the
whole system, says Paul Hawken, an author and business theorist who
set up the meeting between activists and Ford after a conversation
with Bill Ford Jr. The most effective thing anyone can do is to
affect the part of the system they can and have faith they’re not
acting alone. One by one, issues are being addressed and something
cumulative is happening, even if it doesn’t show yet.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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