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Environmentalists Bypass Washington to Pressure Corporations

May 25, 2005

Scripps Howard News Service
Joan Lowy

After four and a half years of policy defeats at the hands of the Bush administration, some green groups are finding they can achieve greater success outside Washington by exerting pressure directly on corporations.

In recent years, environmental activists have successfully employed pressure tactics ranging from shareholder resolutions to humorous ad campaigns to street theater in an effort to force some of the world’s largest corporations to change their behavior on issues like logging in old-growth forests, greenhouse gas emissions and computer recycling.

Currently, environmentalists are pressuring Ford Motor Co. to do something that they have been unable to persuade the federal government to order despite more than two decades of lobbying: significantly increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks. Since the campaign began in 2003, protesters have targeted more than 100 Ford dealerships around the country.

A local order of nuns met with the owner of a Ford dealership in Madison, Wis. Actor Woody Harrelson transported activists to a Santa Fe, N.M., Ford dealership in his bio-diesel bus. Organizers in Greeley, Colo., persuaded a car dealer to write Ford headquarters asking for increases in fuel efficiency. Greenpeace activists recently forced the temporary shutdown of a Land Rover factory owned by Ford in the United Kingdom by chaining themselves to plant equipment.

“Our goal is to make it the largest corporate campaign on climate issues on the planet by expanding the geographic scope and types of groups involved,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, one of the groups spearheading the “Jumpstart Ford” campaign.

Ford ranks last among the world’s top six automakers in fleet-wide fuel efficiency. Environmentalists are demanding Ford’s fleet of vehicles achieve an average fuel efficiency of 50 miles per gallon by 2010, which they say is possible using current technology.

“We are doing the best we can to move fuel economy forward – that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Ford spokeswoman Chris Morrisroe. “If we could do that now, we would. It’s not like we’re looking to have bad fuel economy anywhere.”

Called “market campaigns,” the essential strategy is to publicly link one of a company’s chief assets – its brand name – with harmful environmental practices.

“I think it’s an enormously effective tactic, especially in a globalized world where multinational corporations play an increasingly powerful role,” said Idelisse Malave, executive director of the Tides Foundation, which helps fund the Rainforest Action Network and other groups. “The focus of achieving change cannot just be on government.”

Canvasser at DoorIn January 2004, the combination of a market campaign by national coalition of environmental groups and pressure from liberal shareholder activists controlling hundreds of billions of dollars in assets – including the pension funds of religious orders, government workers and labor unions – forced Dell, one of the world’s largest computer markers, to change its recycling policy.

Environmentalists went door-to-door in Austin, Texas, where the company is headquartered, explaining why they wanted Dell to do more to keep old computers, which contain toxic chemicals, out of landfills. At a major electronics show where Michael Dell, the company’s founder, was the keynote speaker, environmentalists showed up in black-and-white striped prison garb and passed out literature criticizing Dell’s practice of using prison labor to crudely recycle computers.

“Dell had this image of themselves as being a positive force for change and as being a clean company,” said Robin Schneider of the Texas Campaign for the Environment, one of the groups leading the protests. “Being shown as a dirty industry … that’s not how they wanted to be seen.”

After nearly two years of protests, Dell announced that it would recycle a computer of any brand at no charge from customers who buy a new Dell computer.

“We thought that was great,” Schneider said. “They are not required to do that by law … We actually gave Michael Dell a certificate that said, ‘Way to recycle, Michael!’ And he talked about how they don’t want to do this just in America, but that it should be a worldwide program.”

Key to the success of the campaign was the ability of environmentalists to show Dell that the company could make money by offering computer-recycling services to big corporate customers concerned about protecting the privacy of data on outdated machines.

“I think the campaign was certainly successful in getting our attention,” said Dell spokesman Bryant Hilton. “What got us really going was that we found we can meet our business needs, we can meet our customers’ needs and we can do what the stakeholders are asking of us all at the same time.”

“The desire of corporations to be accepted by the marketplace and to be personally liked has spawned an entire industry of activism and corporate capitulation that I’ve never seen before – it’s unprecedented,” said Eric Dezenhall, a Washington public-relations executive who defends corporate clients under attack by environmentalists and other interest groups.

“I’ve seen situations where companies are simply being harassed so badly that it pays to get out of a certain endeavor just to make the harassment stop,” Dezenhall said.

In April, banking giant JPMorgan Chase unveiled a set of sweeping new environmental policies that govern the company’s global business activities after more than two years of negotiations with shareholders and activists and after facing an aggressive campaign by Rainforest Action Network. Among other actions, environmental activists put up Old West-style wanted posters featuring JPMorgan Chase’s CEO William Harrison in his tony Greenwich, Conn., neighborhood. The posters accused Harrison of funding environmentally destructive practices and urged his friends and neighbors to ask him to “do the right thing.”

Last year, two other of the nation’s largest banks – Citibank and Bank of America – announced similar policies in response to environmental protests.

“This is not about bringing a company down,” Malave said. “It’s about working with companies so they can do good while they make money.”


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