Offering Solutions or Compromises?

Sharon Beder

Citation: Sharon Beder, ‘Offering Solutions or Compromises?’, Chain Reaction 87, 2002, pp. 14-15,26-7.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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When the Head of Greenpeace in the UK, Lord Peter Melchett, took a job with notorious PR giant Burson-Marsteller, most people were surprised. Not so some Greenpeace (GP) insiders. An internal memo stated: 'our view is that since GP has been giving advice to business for years it is no surprise that Peter will be giving the same advice in a different capacity.' However following incredulous media coverage in the UK, Greenpeace International asked him to resign from their board.

The idea that working for a PR company is not so different to working for Greenpeace when it comes to the services provided to business is one that evolved during the 1990s.

When Greenpeace emerged as an international organization in the 1970s, it embodied a spirit of courageous protest by activists who were willing to place their bodies on the line to call attention to environmental injustice. Its mission was to "bear witness" to environmental abuses and take direct nonviolent action to prevent them.   

In the 1990s, however, a new current of thought grew, both at the international level and at the level of national affiliates such as Greenpeace Australia. Greenpeace leaders and many members began to talk of going beyond negative criticism. The Greenpeace Australia web site proudly asserted this new philosophy: "We work with industry and government to find solutions."   

This approach carries an obvious emotional and intellectual appeal, but it also carries dangers. Greenpeace continues its traditional work of exposing some of the worst instances of environmental degradation, but its new focus on "solutions" can undermine that work. Its activists are often committed and genuinely concerned to save the environment, but are caught in the contradiction between "bearing witness" and the compromises that arise in the process of seeking solutions.   

A Solutions-Oriented Approach

The change occurred in the early 1990s when Greenpeace was in the process of organizational soul-searching as its membership began to decline after the boom years of 1989-1992.  The number of paying supporters world-wide fell from 4.8 million in 1990 to 3.1 million in 1995, but the loss was particularly pronounced in the US, Canada, Sweden, NZ, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. In Australia membership declined from 103,000 in 1992 to 60,000 in 1997.

Like many large environmental organizations that depend on subscriptions and donations, Greenpeace became sensitive to media portrayals of it as being "too radical" and "too negative".  So it reinvented itself as an organisation that offered solutions and worked with industry and government to get those solutions in place, in the mistaken belief that this would bring in more subscriptions.

In 1992 when Paul Gilding was promoted from head of Greenpeace Australia to head of Greenpeace International, he took with him the idea that Greenpeace needed to focus on 'solutions'. There he argued for closer cooperation with corporations. 'If we had just kept on saying there was a problem, then people would have switched off' he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

When Lynette Thorstensen replaced Gilding as executive director of Greenpeace Australia, she continued his emphasis on 'solution strategies' such as the Olympic Games village design and a CFC-free refrigerator.  "Greenpeace is now convinced the best path to progress is via the country's boardrooms," said the Good Weekend magazine when it interviewed Thorstensen in 1993. 

Greenpeace campaigners once criticised green marketing. 'Bung a dolphin on the label and we'll be right' was how Gilding referred to green marketing strategies. Yet this is just what Greenpeace did for the Sydney Olympics. Greenpeace helped sell the concept of the Green Olympics despite the toxic waste landfills on site, the waste plant emitting toxic emissions in its midst, and the use of ozone depletors in Olympic venues.

A June 1999 Greenpeace brochure stated that 'Sydney authorities were thorough in their efforts to remediate before construction began. Most of the waste remains on site, in state of the art land fills, covered with clay, vegetated to blend in with the Olympic site.' This raises several problems for Greenpeace credibility. For years it has campaigned against disposing of toxic waste by landfill because it is impossible to prevent toxic material from leaking into underlying groundwater. The major landfills on the Olympic site contain dioxins and organochlorines and heavy metals without even linings underneath to mitigate the flow of leachate through the underlying soil.

Indicative of the changing culture at Greenpeace was the appointment of Bob Wilson, a former government bureaucrat, to chair the Greenpeace board. Wilson presided over the Sydney Water Board in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Board was using large doses of public relations and outright secrecy to cover up the gross contamination of the ocean that its sewage discharges were creating, because they contained so much toxic waste. Fish studies showing fish caught near the outfalls contaminated with organochlorines hundreds of times the National Health and Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) maximum residue limits were kept secret by Water Board request.

Nor was this shift in direction confined to the Australian branch. Greenpeace International wrote to Olympic sponsors, including BHP, Coca Cola, General Motors-Holden, McDonalds, and others,  offering to help them earn the name of 'Green' in the same way as the Sydney Olympics has: 'As sponsors, you have the opportunity to play a key role in this success. One of the many benefits of being part of the Green Games is the chance to demonstrate your company's commitment to the environment and to future generations. The Sydney Olympics offer your staff the opportunity to take part in a long-term global initiative to protect the world's environment... Greenpeace would like to work with you to explore the areas in which you can make an environmental contribution during the Sydney 2000 Games.'

So for example, although BHP was named one of the worst 10 corporations in 1995 by Multinational Monitor for polluting the Ok Tedi River in Papua New Guinea with a 'daily dose of more than 80,000 tons of toxic mining waste' and 'helping to draft legislation for the PNG parliament that would make it a criminal offense to sue BHP', Greenpeace offered to help BHP demonstrate its commitment to the environment by conserving energy or using environmentally-safe refrigerants.

Greenpeace Australia did a similar service for Nike, a company much in need of good PR following media coverage of working conditions in factories producing Nike shoes in third world countries. In its 1998 Olympic Report Greenpeace congratulated Nike for 'promising' to eliminate the use of PVC in its products, making 'PVC free sportswear available to athletes and consumers'. In fact, the only part of most Nike shoes made from PVC is the "swoosh," according to a Nike representative in Australia.

Gilding's business-friendly approach was also followed by his successor, Thilo Bode, an economist from industry with World Bank experience and no environmental credentials before being appointed head of Greenpeace Germany in 1989.  Bode was hired for his management skills which he demonstrated by making Greenpeace Germany the richest of all Greenpeace operations.

Bode, like Gilding, believed in liaising with industry and allowing the Greenpeace name to be used to endorse 'green' products such as CFC-free fridges by Westinghouse. This is despite the fact that Westinghouse was used in The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash as a prime example of corporate greenwashing: 'In the US, when people hear the name 'Westinghouse' they think of household appliances. Only rarely does the company publicize another side of its business: nuclear weapons and reactors'. No doubt their Greenpeace endorsed CFC-free fridge will perpetuate that.

Bode was keen to promote a more 'solutions oriented' approach in Greenpeace. One of his initiatives was to work with car companies to produced a more fuel-efficient car. Greenpeace Germany has invested DM2.5 million in a Renault car to cut its fuel consumption by about half. This investment and the ensuing promotion of the car caused some disquiet within Greenpeace amongst those who were uncomfortable about promoting cars at all as a form of transport, rather than promoting public transport.

Moving Motivations

Greenpeace still carries on its historic mission of "bearing witness," but its focus on "solutions" has required Greenpeace to sometimes turn a blind eye to the environmental sins of the companies it works with. The problem is not that everyone in Greenpeace has sold out but that the new emphasis on solutions is leading to compromises that the former Greenpeace would not have considered.

In the downsizing of Greenpeace the solutions oriented people have come to dominate and those unwilling to compromise have left. Those remaining seem to believe what they are doing is right or have convinced themselves it is. They don't recognise it as greenwashing. Whereas once there was bitter division about the new direction of Greenpeace and its solutions focus it no longer seems to be an issue amongst current employees. It is just accepted as the right way to go.

The Greenpeace Book of Greenwash points out that using greenwash 'industry has devised a far-reaching program to convince people that TNCs are benefactors of the global environment... Greenwash has worked, in as much as it has helped corporations distract the public while they simultaneously fight off measures which would make them liable for their actions and accountable to the people affected by their activities.' It warns citizens to look under the surface of corporate announcements of environmental initiatives 'and be aware of the overall context in which they exist. It is clear that certain basic characteristics of corporate culture have not changed.' What may have changed, however, is the culture of Greenpeace so that corporate culture is no longer seen to be the problem.

As the number of world-wide subscribers to Greenpeace continued to drop in 1998  to 2.5 million despite the shift to solutions-based campaigning, there were reports that Bode was considering how to take advantage of Greenpeace's brand name. As early as 1994 Gilding noted that 'As a trademark, Greenpeace is right up there with Levis and Coca-Cola'. And from at least 1995 Greenpeace has been licensing its name to private firms which produce Greenpeace calendars, greeting cards and other miscellaneous items. The Economist reported that an American firm of management consultants estimated that the 'worldwide value of the Greenpeace brand' was around $410 million in 1998. It noted 'Stamped on various eco-friendly products, it could lend a cachet that might become de rigueur in trendy green circles.'

To date Greenpeace policy does not allow the organisation to take money from industry or government so it is not the commercial opportunities which are converting Greenpeace into a greenwashing operation. It appears to be the career opportunities available to individuals, rather than the funds available to the organisation that is influencing Greenpeace decisions.

Greenpeace has become a site of the ubiquitous revolving door between industry, government, and NGOs. Not only are people like Bode and Wilson, who come from industry and government and see nothing wrong with a 'reformist' solutions-oriented approach, coming into Greenpeace, but those who embrace such an approach such as Karla Bell (champion of the Green Olympics whilst at Greenpeace) and Paul Gilding are finding career opportunities as consultants to industry when they leave Greenpeace.

Others include Rick Humphries, who joined Gilding at Ecos Corporation and Blair Palese who left Greenpeace to work as Head of PR for the Body Shop International and then returned to work for Greenpeace four days a week and Ecos Corporation on the fifth day. Michael Bland left Greenpeace in 1989 to work for a Sydney-based marketing firm Environmental Marketing Services. Bland then started his own consultancy, Environment Matters, before returning to work for Greenpeace in 1993. In 1999 he left Greenpeace to work as a PR consultant for the Sydney Games authority. 

Like many groups, Greenpeace is at a crossroads. Will it remain a principled green activist group confronting polluters and despoilers or will it become a deal-making, compromised collaborator with the powers that be?

The original version of this article appeared in PR Watch. A longer referenced version forms a chapter in the revised edition of Sharon Beder, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, Revised edition, Scribe, Melbourne, 2000

Professor Sharon Beder is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at