The Risk-Monger

Greenpeace has always felt that it didn’t have to play by the same rules as everyone else; after all, tasked with saving the planet cannot be compared to such niceties like following laws, social norms and basic codes of human decency. But their recent campaign on palm oil and the rainforest has pushed the limits of their own bad taste to new lows and I feel it should be asked: Does such offensive behaviour damage the good will, credibility and trust that the environmentalist movement has built up in recent years?

I presented the Greenpeace ‘Give rainforests a break’ commercial to my Social Media Communications course (second year university students – 20-21 years of age) and it was met with howls of disgust and repulsion. These should be the main constituency for Greenpeace (sophisticated, environmentally concerned youth) and yet I have noticed in recent years how Greenpeace support on campus has diminished. Their recent campaign seems to be targeted at Greenpeace’s growing demographic: disenfranchised, long-term unemployed and disaffected youths (more anti-globalisation and anti-business than pro-environment).

It is all about winning

I must confess that I admire Greenpeace’s communications skills and strategies and benchmark them when advising others. They have perfected Joseph Goebbels techniques on how to win campaigns (the bigger the lie, eliminate rational discourse and control the debate through any means). Greenpeace keep pounding away, relentlessly, until they win and would never admit defeat or making a mistake. It took five years for Steve Jobs to give in and accept the Greenpeace electronics sentence; three decades to make inroads against chlorine/PVC/phthalates; four decades of holding firm against DDT despite the millions of malaria deaths. As Greenpeace pounds on against GMOs (Greenpeace Membership Opportunity), we must conclude that it is not about saving the environment at all – it is about winning and showing who has the biggest cajones on the block.

But winning is not everything. My mother taught me that there are basic codes of respect and decency that must be adhered to (no matter whom you are dealing with). Most of us agree to these principles and agree to try to live our lives in a civil manner. Should we assume that the Greenpeace activists live by other standards or are they so frustrated as to give up on mankind (love nature, hate humans)?

Cannibalising other issues

Greenpeace has inadvertently pushed the issue to question whether any palm oil can be sustainable (reading the Facebook contributions of the Greenpeace minions, one can suppose that they have lost control of the main issue). This calls into question whether the so-called eco-detergents (based on oleochemical surfactants coming mainly from palm oil) are at all ecological. Much more palm oil production goes into eco-detergents than to chocolate. I suspect that other NGOs campaigning for sustainable cleaning products would like Greenpeace to shut up.

Eject Greenpeace from the Green-10

The Green-10 is an umbrella group of the ten main environmental NGOs active in Brussels lobbying. They present a common position on the issues and unite behind each other during regulatory campaigns. Should we assume that the other nine members would support Greenpeace’s actions here? As members of the Green-10, they have to.

I would like to see a public statement from WWF’s EU office head, Tony Long, supporting Greenpeace’s tactics of half-truths in the name of brand destruction. Would HEAL’s Genon Jensen stand behind the bad taste exhibited in the rainforest campaign? Members of these organisations should ask their bosses and then ask themselves how long they can continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Greenpeace if they continue to drag the environmental movement into the mud.

If they do not support such campaign tactics, how can Greenpeace stay part of the Green-10? As the NGO movement matures from a band of activist rebels to a significant representative of civil society, they have to deal with the threats that such bully-tactics can pose to their credibility. Otherwise, policy and societal actors will not continue to take them as reliable organisations. So either Greenpeace will have to fall in line with basic codes of civil behaviour and apologise for these recent practices or be expelled from the Green-10. Otherwise the Green-10 will have no value.

Frankly, Greenpeace has never been much of a team player so ejecting them from the organisation would likely improve the Green-9’s standing without affecting its voice.

Can other NGOs control the pit-bull in the room? Highly unlikely.

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  1. Hi David, thank you for your clear viewpoint on Greepeace eloquently displayed in your article.
    Indeed, Greenpeace has been following a strategy of provoking public outrage – instead of engaging in science based discourse – since their outstanding PR-success in the Brent Spar campaign against Shell back in the mid-90ies. Rather than presenting well-balanced arguments to the informed public, they tend to paint black-and-white pictures pointing at the evil ones, usually international corporations.
    One may well critizise Greenpeace for often neglecting science (e.g. they had to admit having made serious mistakes on the environmental impact assessment of the Brent Spar). However, they regularly succeed in bringing environmental issues on the public agenda. They may not adequately communicate to those already reasonably well informed, but they manage to reach out to parts of society that may be scientifically illiterate and need simple good vs. evil scetches for being called to attention.
    Academics and students alone may not bring the impetus needed to get things moving. Arguably, it takes all of the Green-10 to reach out to as large an audience as possible. What would you say to this?

    1. I completely agree. The Green 10 needs to do some quality control at the same time. If one of their organisations continally lies and exaggerates to further their aims, it is hurting the entire image and reputation of the environmental movement. If they can’t stand up to Greenpeace, what do we then make of their organisation?

  2. Hello David, not having seen that Greenpeace advert you refer to, I am probably not capable of making a fully informed judgment here. But even if this campaigning element is as offensive as you say it is, does this really make Greenpeace an organization that should be excluded by the NGO community? After all, there is a high degree of allignment of goals even if the Green-10 cannot fully agree in the means allowed to pusue them.
    Please don’t get me wrong here. I certainly am no supporter if the Greenpeace way. However, I strongly believe that the environmental movement can benefit from any support it gets. Can we allow us the luxury to chuck Greenpeace out, when there is still far to little concern about the state of the environment in the general public? I believe not.
    Also, I wonder whether there really is a threat of Greenpeace contaminating the environmental movement as such. Most people are well aware that there are different tendencies in between the various environmental NGOs. The moderate environmentalist is unlikely to subscribe to the Greenpeace newsletter, but will choose NGOs like WWF instead.

    1. The one I used last year in class was the Kitkat palm campaign. They are presently attacking Mattel by mocking Barbie on the Mattel sites, with vulgar statements and stitch-ups of Ken and Barbie. Most girls who love Barbie are under ten and those who go on the official Barbie Facebook page don’t need to see such offensive language from hateful people. The response I got from Greenpeace when I complained to them about their irresponsible behaviour was that children under ten should not be on Facebook … disgraceful.
      The environmental movement has matured and in most cases is setting the agenda – it no longer needs all the help it can get – it needs the right help. It needs to be more concerned about the pedigree of its activities (especially as groups are taking on more responsibility in the decision-making process). To say that “Greenpeace does what it does and we all know that” is not an acceptable excuse – a rottweiler does what it does, but we keep it on a chain – we don’t let it loose in a playground.

    1. Interesting project Eridon. I have sent you some ideas off-line in an email.

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