Absent George W. Bush’s undergoing a conversion like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, there probably won’t be much good environmental news out of Washington in Bush’s second term. Environmentalists will fight to limit further mischief, but these will be holding actions. Actual progress against climate change, deforestation and other unfolding disasters will not come from inside-the-Beltway policy battles.

Victories have been scored on another front, however: by campaigns that target specific corporations for environmentally destructive behavior. Since Bush’s victory in November, two of America’s best-known brands–Ford and Victoria’s Secret–have been badly stung by such campaigns, and more are planned. Such campaigns are not silver bullets, activists concede, but they offer more hope than banging on the locked doors of Washington, especially under the current right-wing reign.

Anticorporate activism is, of course, hardly new in the United States: Farm workers urged consumers to boycott nonunion grapes in the 1970s, antisweatshop activists blackened Nike’s name in the 1990s. And it’s worth noting that most big Washington-based environmental groups continue to shun the strategy, perhaps in deference to their corporate funding and board members. The Ford and Victoria’s Secret campaigns were instead organized by coalitions of national grassroots groups based in the more radical San Francisco Bay Area. The campaigns confront corporate polluters rather than just their political overseers and hit them where it hurts most: in their revenues and reputations, which in today’s brand-conscious world are increasingly linked.

“We view corporate campaigns as an end run around political systems, where government action hasn’t kept pace with the destructive effects of corporate behavior,” says Jennifer Krill, a campaigner at the Rainforest Action Network, a leading group in the Ford campaign. Noting that federal policy battles over auto fuel efficiency have dragged on for twenty years with no real progress, Krill adds that RAN decided to target Ford because rainforests are threatened both by the global warming Ford’s vehicles cause and by the oil drilling needed to fill gas tanks. Niel Golightly, the director of sustainable business strategies at Ford, respects the activists’ pressure tactics. “We deal with them not only because they have a stick to whack us with but because they represent a large and legitimate part of public opinion that expects better environmental performance from Ford and other automakers,” he says.

Unlike some past anticorporate campaigns, today’s use both the carrot and the stick. The activists’ goal is not simply to get a corporation to clean up its own act but to use that corporation to push an entire market sector in a green direction. “I call our strategy ‘beyond boycotts,'” says Lafcadio Cortesi, a campaigner with Forest Ethics, which spearheaded the Victoria’s Secret campaign. “Instead of just saying ‘Don’t clearcut,’ we’re trying to harness market forces to get corporations to do the right thing.”

Activists have been particularly successful regarding the wood and paper industry; the campaign against Home Depot, the world’s largest lumber retailer, is the model. Beginning in 1997, activists mounted a public shaming campaign against Home Depot–picketing stores, hanging banners on the company’s headquarters, protesting at shareholder meetings. Home Depot executives eventually decided that going green was preferable to losing environmentally minded customers. In 1999, Home Depot pledged to phase out the sale of old-growth wood, and its market power led other retailers, including Kinko’s, to do the same. Activists then worked with Home Depot to deploy its market power “upstream,” against the logging companies that supply wood. The results so far include agreements that protect 3.5 million acres of Canada’s Great Bear Forest and a million acres of Chile’s native forests.

A separate campaign has led Staples and Office Depot to compete to be the greenest company in the office supply industry. Both retailers now aggressively market recycled paper and sell much more of it. Tyler Elm, the director of environmental affairs at Office Depot, insists these changes are permanent. “Given their business model,” he says of the activist groups, “I can’t say they won’t be back. So we have adopted an environmental brand that is responsible, transparent and accountable.”

The campaigns against Victoria’s Secret and Ford follow the same script. First, public shaming via full-page ads in the New York Times. The Victoria’s Secret ad, which featured a lingerie-clad model hoisting a chain saw, accused the company of using endangered Canadian forests for the catalogues it mails to US households (at the astounding rate of more than 1 million a day). The ad sparked news stories by USA Today, the Today show and others. Ford was hit by a series of ads that mocked CEO William Ford Jr.’s claim to be a “lifelong environmentalist.” The ads reminded Ford that his company has lobbied against stronger fuel-efficiency laws and “ranked dead last among all major automakers in overall fuel efficiency every year since you became CEO.” The ads coincided with nationwide demonstrations at Victoria’s Secret shops and Ford dealerships. The demonstrations not only showed there was real grassroots muscle behind the ads; they attracted still more news coverage that further spread the protesters’ message.

To what end? Ford executives met with activists in San Francisco in January, but neither side reported much progress. “We know comprehensive change doesn’t come overnight,” says Krill of RAN. “Home Depot is still implementing commitments it made to us in 1999.” Anthony Hebron, a spokesman for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, Limited Brands, says the campaigners have no effect on his company. “We were going to increase our recycled content anyway…and we’re committed to doing more.”

Cortesi of Forest Ethics promises that activists will keep the heat on Victoria’s Secret. But a broader question remains: Can corporate campaigns deliver more than incremental change? Given a global economic system that demands ever more production and consumption, can reforming a few companies make a difference? “No one can change the whole system,” says Paul Hawken, an author and business theorist who set up the meeting between activists and Ford after a conversation with Bill Ford Jr. “The most effective thing anyone can do is to affect the part of the system they can and have faith they’re not acting alone. One by one, issues are being addressed and something cumulative is happening, even if it doesn’t show yet.”