John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, says that even in a connected world, campaigning is still all about putting the hours in

In more than 20 years at Greenpeace, John Sauven has chalked up more successes than most campaigners of his generation. Disarmingly approachable for the leader of such a feared and respected campaign group, he is the right person to ask how campaigning has evolved over the past two decades.

“Everything has changed, but also nothing has changed,” Sauven says. “It’s much more advanced than it was 15 years ago – we have the technology and ability to investigate, monitor and identify sources of raw materials – but it’s still a lot of hard graft. What hasn’t changed is the hard work you’ve got to do to run a successful campaign.”

That hard work isn’t just the long hours spent in the field, monitoring activities on the ground, research, investigations and exposés. It means weaving those inputs into global campaigns that mobilise individuals and local communities in multiple countries. These campaigns are often sustained over many years (10 years in the case of the Great Bear Rainforest in northern Canada).


If Sauven is reluctant to glamorise global environmental campaigning, it is not necessarily through any romantic attachment to traditional grassroots activism. Rather it is the experience of two decades of high-level campaigning; understanding what works and what doesn’t.

He harbours a healthy scepticism towards what he refers to as “clicktivism”’ – the modern  technique of channelling petitions and popular protest through online voting platforms. Also known as campaign aggregators, these platforms can drum up (the word “mobilise” should be used carefully) hundreds of thousands – even millions – of supporters in a matter of days or weeks.

These campaign aggregators include the likes of and Avaaz. Greenpeace partnered with Avaaz in 2012 ahead of the Rio Earth Summit (in partnership with WWF and local Brazilian groups) to mobilise grassroots support against proposed governmental changes to Brazil’s Forest Law. Despite the millions of votes garnered, it appears to have had little meaningful impact on the resulting new Forest Code.

“Avaaz adds a lot of value to the work we do. But you cannot change corporate behaviour or the economic model by clicking a button, and you certainly cannot replace the hard graft of campaigning with clicktivism,” says Sauven. 

If the hard graft of campaigning hasn’t changed, the world in which campaigners graft has, inexorably and fundamentally. Power is shifting – west to east and north to south. This is not only having a big impact on the organisational structure of global NGOs, but it is also shaping their global priorities.

“Greenpeace is global. We reflect the changes that are happening in the world. We’ve made a conscious decision to prioritise certain parts of the world – India, south-east Asia, China, Brazil, parts of Africa. Europe and North America are no longer the beginning or the end of the world in the same sense that they were 20 years ago,” Sauven says.

Global priorities

Greenpeace has been shifting its internal resources to align with these new global priorities. Within this new power balance, Greenpeace UK is just as likely to take its direction and cue from Greenpeace Indonesia or Brazil as it is Greenpeace International.

These changes also affect the dynamics of engagement between Greenpeace and the multinational companies that find themselves on the end of a Greenpeace campaigns. Those companies increasingly have to navigate the complex power and influence webs that link Greenpeace’s developing country offices with those in Europe and North America.

Has this steady redistribution of power across the Greenpeace network changed the nature of its campaigns? “The basis of success in our campaigns has been that we’ve been able to mobilise people globally, not just at the local level. You can’t just be in the rainforests with the communities fighting the deforestation, you’ve also got to be in the communities in the consumer markets, mobilising people globally and in the heartlands of where these companies operate,” Sauven says.

Tried and tested methods

Here Sauven is referring to a proven model for the way Greenpeace has shaped many of its campaigns in the past few years, particularly those related to commodity-driven deforestation and those that Sauven has led or been deeply involved in. That model combines grassroots activism with high-profile market-based campaigns targeting largely western consumers.

The approach evolved during the Great Bear Rainforest campaign of 1997; was further refined on soy and leather in the Amazon in 2006; and was later applied against Indonesia’s Asia Pulp and Paper in 2010. There were others in between, of course.

“Our work on the Great Bear Rainforest involved pitched battles on the ground, but what brought the logging companies to the table was the fact that the big companies that were buying the pulp said they would no longer buy products that were involved in rainforest destruction,” Sauven says.

The same technique applied to soy-led deforestation in the Amazon. Sauven adds: “We got companies like McDonald’s to join us in a campaign to put pressure on the traders – the Cargills, Bunges, ADMs – to no longer buy soy from farms involved in deforestation. This dramatically changed the situation on the ground.”

The campaign resulted in what was initially a two-year soy moratorium. Now in its sixth year, the moratorium is still holding and deforestation statistics indicate it has had a dramatic impact in reducing soy-led tropical deforestation in the Amazon.

Most recently, the model was applied against APP, one of the world’s largest (and most vilified) pulp and paper producers. Greenpeace’s three-year campaign combined extensive on-the-ground information gathering in Indonesia with a highly effective international campaign targeting APP’s branded customers in Europe and Northern America.

On February 5 2013, APP announced the implementation of a new forest conservation policy along with an immediate and permanent halt to all natural forest clearance in its supply chain. The company is now undertaking some of the largest and most extensive “high conservation value” and “high carbon stock” assessments ever undertaken by a multinational company across its plantations and forestry concessions. 

Grounds for optimism

During his time at Greenpeace, Sauven has seen it all, from the frontlines of campaigning to his current position as executive director. It raises an important question: is he optimistic that things are changing?

“We are drawing the dots better than we did five to 10 years ago. We’re getting to a point where a lot of these big companies understand the need for change and are beginning to put in place the practices and procedures needed to make that change happen. That’s a good thing but it has taken a long time to get there.”

So what’s next? “Our Save the Arctic campaign. We have drawn the line in the ice and we’re absolutely determined we’re going to win that battle.”

You wouldn’t bet against him.

John Sauven

2008 – executive director, Greenpeace UK. Previously director of communications, Greenpeace UK.

1991 – Joined Greenpeace UK as a temporary researcher.

Great Bear Rainforest campaign

1997 – Greenpeace and other groups officially launch Great Bear Rainforest campaign.

1999 – Home Depot announces policy to end sales of forest products from endangered areas.

2001 – Rainforest logging moratorium announced. A multi-stakeholder land-use planning process begins.

2006 and 2009 – Landmark agreements provide for a newly created network of protected areas.

Amazonian soy moratorium

April 2006 – Greenpeace launches campaign against McDonald’s.

2006 – McDonald’s agrees to stop selling chicken fed on soy grown in newly deforested areas. 

2006 – British food companies and supermarkets sign up to a zero deforestation policy.

2006 – Soy traders and suppliers agree two-year moratorium on buying soy from newly deforested areas.

2012 – Moratorium maintains effectiveness for sixth straight year.

Asia Pulp and Paper

2010 – Greenpeace launches “Pulping the Planet” campaign against APP and key APP customers.

2012 – By end-2012, 100 branded customers have reportedly dropped APP as a supplier.

February 5 2013 – APP announces new forest conservation policy and permanent cessation of all natural forest clearance. Greenpeace suspends APP campaignand cautiously welcomes APP’s commitments.

February 2013 to present – APP continues implementation of high conservation value and high carbon stock assessments across entire Indonesian supply chain


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