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.”