Editor’s Note: This post references the work of The Nature Conservancy, where I work. However, it is in no way intended to represent the organization in any way. These are my own thoughts and opinions.
The next time someone tells you that social media is a waste of time and can’t change anything, point them in the direction of Greenpeace’s campaign against Mattel. Launched last Tuesday, the environmental activist group’s “Barbie, It’s Over” campaign targeted Mattel for using paper products that, according to Greenpeace tests, contained pulp from Indonesian rainforests. The public pressure from Greenpeace already prompted Mattel to cut off sub-supplier Sinar Mas/APP (Asia Pulp and Paper), which is seen as the primary culprit in the rainforest pulp sourcing problem:
“We have directed our packaging suppliers to stop sourcing pulp from Sinar Mas/APP as we investigate the deforestation allegations,” Mattel said. “Additionally, we have asked our packaging suppliers to clarify how they are addressing the broader issue in their own supply chains.”
For its part, Greenpeace rejected the statement calling on Mattel to adopt “a comprehensive policy to deal with the issue.”
What happened last week is good news for Indonesian forests and for the environment, but it is far from the end of the story. In fact, the real work of cleaning up Mattel’s act is just beginning and most likely Greenpeace won’t be involved at all.
The key issue here is “supply chain.” Greenpeace doesn’t want Mattel to just stop using rainforest pulp in their Barbie boxes, they want the company to clean up and monitor its entire supply chain. In some cases, this might mean Mattel has to drop suppliers all together, but more often it means getting suppliers to clean up their act.
In the end, it’s not really Mattel and Barbie Greenpeace is after, it’s Asia Pulp and Paper.
So hopefully what happens next is that Mattel responds to the pressure by bringing in a big non-governmental organization (NGO) like The Nature Conservancy, WWF, or TFT to help the company green its supply chain. These NGOs have scientists, economists and other resources that Greenpeace doesn’t have to help companies clean up their supply chains and ensure they’re sourcing materials from sustainable companies.
This is how the environmental community works: Greenpeace and other activist organizations put pressure on big companies to change their ways, which then turn to larger “business friendly” organizations to help them implement change. This works because Greenpeace can bring the heat and the large NGOs can bring the expertise to make change actually happen. In most cases, you need both sides of the coin to make meaningful change happen.
For the most part, this works quite well. For example, when Greenpeace pressured Nestle over its use of unsustainable palm oil, Nestle made a commitment to work with TFT to “help Nestlé to build responsible supply chains by identifying and addressing embedded social and environmental issues.” Similarly, when Greenpeace and others pressured McDonald’s and Cargill over Amazon deforestation for soy production, Cargill turned to The Nature Conservancy to implement the Responsible Soy Project to help halt forest destruction there.
Similar results came from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Reports on deforestation from cattle ranching in Brazil. Following those reports, The Nature Conservancy began working with the Brazilian beef industry after years of reaching out to the sector with limited success.
However, there can be two unfortunate (and unrelated) side effects to this model.
One, if companies react to the pressure by simply cutting off suppliers and “red-lining” areas, significant change won’t happen. For instance, if WalMart says it won’t get beef from the Amazon anymore because of deforestation, they’ll simply move to other supply chains that damage less high-profile, but still sensitive areas — like Brazil’s Cerrado — and claim victory.
When this happens, suppliers who source meat from the Amazon don’t whither up and die, they simply start selling their beef to other less scrupulous companies and countries. (For an excellent deconstruction of this conundrum, see this post on the Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog by David Cleary, director of conservation strategies in South America.)
Two, big NGOs like The Nature Conservancy and WWF are often criticized by people in the environmental movement for working with the corporations Greenpeace and other activist organizations put pressure on to change. Some environmentalists see these NGOs as “being in bed” with big corporations or accuse them of greenwashing by working directly with corporations to bring about change. The reality is that without these NGOs, the Greenpeace campaigns wouldn’t succeed because pressure and heat go away — and in today’s 24 hour news cycle it goes away pretty quickly.
If there weren’t NGO experts these companies could turn to for help, it would actually be much easier for them to wait out the Greenpeace campaign, close off their Facebook comments and give the media 48 hours to find the next shiny thing.