Whether through confrontation or collaboration, there are some activist and NGO successes to acknowledge and build on

What was once a rarity – corporations working hand-in-hand with environmental and social NGOs and non-profit groups – is now fairly commonplace. 

Critics Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron, authors of the just-released book Protest Inc, argue that this partnering has led to a “corporatisation of activism” and a loss of some of the independence and grass-roots passion that once characterised NGOs.

For their part, corporations in North America, through lobbying, have as a whole been  successful at keeping most business-dampening legislation at bay, from squashing genetically modified foods labelling to killing any attempts at a carbon tax.

This effectiveness at beating back restricting laws and foiling “progressive” causes – the Wall Street reform bill Dodd-Frank is an exception – might make it seem as though non-profits and NGOs in North America lack effectiveness.

Take 350.org, for example. It has worked tirelessly on climate and to block the Canada-US Keystone XL pipeline, and while generating plenty of publicity it has thus far only achieved some well-attended protests and a slight reprieve in Keystone decision-making.

In the US, federal gridlock and the inability of the Obama administration to effect much change on issues of climate and sustainability are widely accepted as fact.

“Federally, we’re broken,” says Andrew Winston, author of the forthcoming book The Big Pivot. “I just can’t put a lot of faith in something like carbon pricing or a tax coming from the US.”

Heavy-handed lobbying and gridlock have their price. Edelman recently released its 2014 Trust Barometer study. Fewer than one in five of those surveyed believe business or government leaders will tell the truth when confronted with difficult problems.

So, that leaves NGOs and non-profits (along with the media and benefit corporations) with an ongoing role and responsibility in agitating for change.

Stick to the stick

The non-profit sustainability sector, though, has some hurdles in its way. As branding expert Tony Pigott of Brandaid Project put it recently: “The sector continues to be highly fragmented, confusing, and generally fighting for oxygen. Most have yet to figure out how to collaborate with others in the sector to present a more cohesive and credible force.”

Greenpeace is still one of the most effective environmental activist organisations, mostly because it remains fearless and unrelenting. Greenpeace is the classic example of “stick” activism – most companies prefer to avoid having much to do with Greenpeace unless necessity dictates it.

For example, Campbell Soup public affairs and corporate sustainability vice-president Dave Stangis says the company has been tentatively studying sustainable palm oil for Campbell products. With a tone of surprise, he adds: “We’re even working with Greenpeace!”

Of course, for every Greenpeace there are scores of other smaller NGOs that strive for collaboration rather than confrontation. The Ceres coalition, based in Boston, is one that continues to earn high praise as an organisation steeped in experience with collaboration, pulling together investors, and a range of environmental and social groups to continually pressure for business accountability and change.

Millennial moment

The splintered nature of sustainability non-profits may seem to work in favour of corporations uninterested in big change. But perhaps there’s a secret force at work that can foment that societal change anyway.

Enter the millennials. The generation born between 1980 and 2000 is starting to play a bigger part in the workforce. And millennials, according to studies, in very general terms combine two progressive qualities: they want to save the world, and they believe organisations and corporations can be saving forces.

They are also looking for brands and for employers that reflect their values. Steve Cohen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute calls millennials the “sustainability generation”. And companies such as ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s can use their B corp status as a hiring incentive for millennials.

To appeal to millennials’ aspirations and be more effective in provoking positive sustainable change, non-profits need not only to keep their social media skills at their sharpest. They also need to be better at collaboration, perhaps not as much with corporations as with each other.

Danna Pfahl of the non-profit Future500 organisation cites the WWF, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network action against Asia Pulp & Paper – as featured in Ethical Corporation – around deforestation in Indonesia as a positive example of non-profits working together. This coalition of groups recognised back in 2011 that not many North American consumers could summon deep concern about Jakarta-based APP. So they went to the brands – such as Disney, Mattel and Safeway – that used APP’s products, and attacked the company via clever campaign videos, one of which went viral on the internet.

The reach of the campaign, Pfahl says, was magnified by the non-profits’ partnership. The next step, she adds, is for those collaborative partnerships to go beyond “demonisation”, to follow through with companies, offer praise when it is due, and move past more sensational campaign objectives to longer-term engagement and goal-setting.

Future500 has been placing itself in between corporations and activist NGOs for almost 20 years, with the goal of market-based solutions to sustainability problems.

While that mission sometimes rubs the activism world the wrong way and can be seen as part of that corporatisation of activism, Future500 looks for the spaces between adversaries so that action instead of gridlock is the result.

“The role of Greenpeace is critical – we need that kind of savvy activism that uses leverage points effectively,” Pfahl says. “Beyond that, though, it’s really taking the systemic approach that can accelerate changes. Instead of just stopping the pipeline, for example, working towards a price on carbon.”

GMO labelling

While the overall message is that non-profits and NGOs need to get savvy in order to press sustainable change, there may be surprises. In 2014, labelling of genetically modified foods in North America might be one of them.

Hundreds of non-profits have worked, though not too collaboratively, to raise awareness of the issues surrounding genetically modified (GM) foods in North America. It’s definitely been a slow, uphill battle. Unlike in Europe, North American consumers for a long time accepted GM foods from major corporations without question.

Years of grass roots campaigning for labelling of GM foods has been consistently defeated, in part by the vast amounts of money spent by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Monsanto and others. On the ground, the fight is down at a county level – six counties in the US have banned GMO crops along with a handful of towns and cities in Maine, Colorado and California. Canada has no such bans.

Where the surprise might come in this ongoing battle is neither from non-profits, which don’t have a united front or consistent ongoing financing, nor from the companies that have resisted labelling with such fervour. Instead it might be a slow change in the opinion of US consumers.

Hartman Group Sustainability has documented the rise of Americans who say they avoid or try to reduce GMOs in their daily diet: in 2007 just 17% did so; in 2010 it was 25% and in the latest survey in 2013, 39% of those polled said they were deliberately avoiding or reducing GMOs.

Those poll numbers are affecting companies. Chipotle last year disclosed that many of its ingredients still contained GMOs, though it also says it is working to remove them from its supply chain. Ben & Jerry’s got GMOs out of its supply chain at the end of 2013. Superstore Target has launched a brand called Simply Balanced that won’t contain GMOs by the end of 2014. And General Mills surprised many by announcing that Cheerios (albeit made mostly from oats, which don’t yet exist in genetically modified form) were GMO-free.

Non-profits can take credit for changing consumers’ and even companies’ minds on this issue. And Chipotle may definitely get some “first move” credit as well. Chipotle has developed a four episode television series – Farmed & Dangerous. The show is a black comedy, satirising industrial farming and also specifically, genetically modified foods.

Chipotle’s Chris Arnold says he will deem the show a success if it is as popular as the company’s two viral videos – The Scarecrow from 2013 and Back to the Start from 2010 – both about industrial farming and with digs at GMOs.

“We’d like to see a lot of things change,” Arnold says. “Crops not so heavily dominated by GMOs and more small to mid-sized farms, for example. Ultimately, in making Farmed & Dangerous, we just want to make more people curious about where food comes from.”

If that’s the goal, Future500’s Danna Pfahl says she’s also interested in seeing the show.

“The GMO issue is an important way to drive grassroots support to the food movement,” she says. “I feel that they are symbolic for the larger issue of the industrialisation of our food. Of course the ultimate goal would be a market-based approach to that issue. If GMOs help drive people to the cause, that’s all to the good, but getting to the bigger issues like water consumption, factory farming – those are where we need to be engaging ‘Big Ag’.”

April Streeter is an associate with One Stone

Greenpeace  Keystone XL  NGO campaigning  North America briefing  WWF 

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