Greenpeace ambushes logging boats off the coast of California. Greenpeace chains itself to environmentally unfriendly cargo. Greenpeace hoists contraband banners onto oil tankers. Greenpeace infiltrates toxic waters with warnings to nearby citizens. Greenpeace spars with Norweigan whaling ships in the North Sea.
Greenpeace does not compromise or surrender. Yet, somehow, this militant 27-year-old environmental organization manages to bring Goliaths like Nike, the International Whaling Commission, and Lego to their knees.
Legislative director Rick Hind says the premise and process are simple: Remain reasonable, open-minded, and helpful, but never, ever sacrifice your principles. Read on to find out how one of the world’s most impassioned organizations finesses its adversaries, yet never grants a concession that will undermine its message, mentality, or mission.
How do you define conflict and conflict resolution at Greenpeace?
Greenpeace doesn’t have classic conflict resolutions. It’s more like a political resolution, where Congress agrees on compromises every day after negotiating severe differences. And usually the most successful point is after the first negotiation, when people realize, “Hey, they weren’t so bad after all.” The trick is not to get greedy.
In some ways, it’s more difficult to negotiate about environmental issues, because we are talking about principles as well as timing and costs. If someone says, “Okay, it’s going to take me five years to change because I can’t recover my capital investment in less than five years.” We can understand that, but some companies make up those numbers, so we have to check out everything. As Ronald Reagan used to say in regard to the Russians, “Trust but verify.”
Where do you encounter the most conflict in your work?
We are in a lot of conflict situations with the PVC manufacturers, like Dow Chemical, who make the building blocks or basic chemical ingredients for this kind of plastic. The big users of plastics, such as toy companies, sportswear companies, or manufacturers of building products, don’t need to use PVC — they just don’t know that yet.
So we’re making strides with these people. For example, Nike was looking at a whole array of more sustainable environmental materials for all of their products and discovered that they should phase out PVC use not just for shoes, but for their buildings as well. They announced last year that they will phase out the use of PVC in their sportswear materials, like shoes, and then they will open a new headquarters in Europe that will be PVC free. Most PVCs are used in building materials like siding, window frames, plumbing, vinyl flooring, vinyl wallpaper. And all of those have safer substitutes. So a company like Nike was very motivated by those life cycle issues.
A company like Lego, probably the second largest toy maker in the world, was motivated by safety — what children put in their mouths. PVC contains a lot of toxic additives that other plastics don’t have in the same large quantities. So we are moving from conflict with the manufacturer to cooperation or negotiation with plastic users who want to keep using plastic. And Greenpeace isn’t necessarily against that. We’re trying to guide them to look at the alternatives.
Greenpeace’s own credit card is made of a wheat-based polymer. And we think that the future of plastic is to use sustainable natural materials. In fact, that’s the origin of plastic, some of the earliest flooring was linoleum, made from linseed oil. Cellophane is made from cellulose, wood fiber. So there’s alternatives out there that are not petroleum, or chlorine-based that new technology is pursuing. Even big companies like Dow are seriously pursuing vegetable-based plastic.
We’ve learned, and this is true in many areas within the environmental movement, that change occurs more rapidly through marketplace movement than through regulation. We are also recognizing that not only do companies want to be green, they also want to save money.
What tactics do you use to introduce companies to these new ideas so they are not put on the defensive, so they will take a look at their procedures and possibly change them?
The first thing we try to do is start out reasonable. In the case of the toy industry, for example, we first met with the whole toy industry before we made a public campaign out of vinyl toys. The toy industry trade association was the only place we were given an opportunity to meet with them, so we were talking with the toy manufacturers association instead of individual companies.
And two meetings — one in New York, one in London — resulted in foot dragging and stone walling. So that’s when we began our own testing of toys and publicizing of toy additives, like lead. At that point, after that publicity began to occur two years in a row, we began to see companies, individually, who were interested in talking with us privately. So we pursued that.
We’ve also put out progress reports on how toy companies are shifting their practices in using vinyl. So a company last year that got an F on our vinyl report card could improve to a B by mid-year of ’99. We don’t endorse any companies, but they understand that we can reward their behavior in this particular area. We’re not giving them blanket praise for all activities, because there may be something else they’re doing besides vinyl that’s not acceptable. Like Nike has this child labor issue and we don’t get into that, and they know that we’re not giving them a clean bill of health on that nor are we expert in that area.
We know some of the change can not happen over night. A pledge backed up by specific measurable progress over time, is as good as somebody who says, “In two years we will have no PVC.” You may not know that, but if you’re willing to pledge that that’s your goal, then that’s still a big step. For that purpose, we’ve also done some research and put out reports on alternatives to PVC because a lot of companies weren’t aware of the alternatives. To our surprise, many companies don’t care only about price. PVC is very cheap, but when you start using alternatives in your product, the price comes down.
The other advantage we have is that Greenpeace is known for being fairly uncompromising. It’s often a surprise to the companies to find out that we can be reasonable in our discussions. When you don’t know somebody and you only hear about them through the news media, you believe the propaganda instead of the real thing. Sometimes the media isn’t entirely accurate about Greenpeace, and we are able to show them a side of Greenpeace that they’re surprised by. Then we just honor our word.
Has Greenpeace made any efforts to change its reputation for militancy and inflexibility?
We’re not terribly worried about that. I think it initially creates a bit of a hurdle in terms of partners’ trust, but once they understand they can trust us, then that prior reputation or external reputation only works to everybody’s advantage. They know there will be no misunderstanding about what we want, because we have such high standards. Our rationale, however, surprises some companies who thought maybe we’d want them to go back to living in caves.
How do you and Greenpeace, in general, keep from getting emotionally involved and harboring a grudge against a company for previous behavior?
We do analysis of companies, how big they are and what sectors they succeed in. And that really determines for us who we want to focus on, so really it doesn’t pay to become personally obsessed with any one company because that’s not necessarily going to be successful. More importantly, we want to succeed. I think Joe Kennedy said it best a long time ago, “Don’t get mad, get even.” In our case, we don’t want to get mad, we want to solve the problem. And the problem is solved by conducting a dispassionate analysis of market trends and performance of big name companies. Because like it or not, it’s the big name companies that are going to be most sensitive.
So, when dealing with someone like Nike, who does have problems in other aspects of their business, you just don’t let those issues cloud the goal at hand?
We don’t ignore that. We talk with the human rights people who work on that and make sure that what we do with Nike won’t undermine their work. We also have to measure how much can we affect change with limited resources and limited time. And so we have to choose carefully what that is.
Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised when a company says, “Let’s talk. We’re interested in doing the right thing.” Then you just have to make sure everybody understands what the right thing is, which means everybody has to be very candid and honest about what they want and expect.
How to you keep companies motivated over time to work toward a positive resolution?
You just have to keep reminding everyone that throughout history people have been saying that things couldn’t be done — We couldn’t survive economically in the South without slavery. We couldn’t survive if we abolished child labor. We couldn’t survive if we gave women the vote. We couldn’t afford social security. We couldn’t afford unemployment insurance. All progress that has been made in the last 150 years has not only been affordable, but it’s made the world a better place for everybody.
So, you just remind people of that when they say, “Oh, it’s not possible. We can’t do that.” Necessity is the mother of invention. Once the demand is there and once a big company says, “I need to know how to make tubing for medical materials without PVC. How can I do that?” Then, ten companies will start producing it because the big companies are asking for it.