Tuesday, 7 May 2002

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

I am covertly writing this during a meeting. Meetings are one of my least favorite things in life, ranking right up there with going to the dentist. Especially multi-day meetings. Can you say root canal? You know the kind of meetings I’m talking about. By the end of the second day your eyes are so glazed over you can’t even blink anymore and you’re doing things like seeing how long you can hold your breath, just to try to keep yourself awake. But meetings are a little easier to sit through when you are plotting the transformation of one of the most polluting and environmentally damaging business sectors on Earth: the paper industry.

At this particular meeting, representatives from some of the leading groups working on paper markets are huddling together in San Francisco’s Presidio, slugging down massive amounts of coffee and even larger quantities of chocolate chip cookies while talking about paper and market campaigns. And I’m smiling. At a meeting, a two-day meeting no less, in a cramped room with those chairs that you can adjust into any position except the one that would make you comfortable.

Stopping Staples.

Here’s why I’m glad to be in this meeting: We’re trying to figure out how we can all work together more effectively. These are groups that have different approaches, that haven’t spoken to each other in years — everyone from the environmental movement’s Brahmins to the street fighters. If the paper industry bigwigs knew what was going on, they’d have a collective aneurysm.

You may be wondering what all this talk is about the marketplace, market campaigns, market this and market that. The sad fact is we live in a consumer society, and to me that means we ignore the marketplace at our peril and at great risk to the environment. Market campaigns are nothing new, but they have been gaining momentum in recent years; at ForestEthics, they are pretty much all we do. Forest protection work has traditionally been based on land trusts, litigation, legislation, or regulatory reform, and tree-sits, road blockades, and other means of protest where people put their bodies between a forest and a logging company.

Markets campaigns expand the toolbox. For almost every practice that harms the environment, there is a corporation behind it and a product or service on the market where you can try to establish accountability and reform. The development of such a campaign is part analysis and part alchemy, having to do with market share, leadership in a sector, heavy brand name investment, the possibility of victory, etc. Once you have the right sector and the appropriate lead target, the real work starts.

How do you influence your target? Talk to them first. Some companies want to do the right thing and they may be persuaded. We tried talking with Staples for 18 months and the company reps ignored us. So we went to work organizing a coalition to target the company and sent a letter announcing the national campaign. Suddenly there were three Staples vice presidents knocking on our door. They weren’t willing to make many changes, so the campaign went on — but we had their attention.

Michael’s nervous and the lights are bright.

Staples has spent hundreds of millions on its brand. To them it means a huge selection and cheap products. But where did all those cheap paper products come from? Mostly from trees, not recycled fiber. What we want people to do is associate Staples with forest destruction. (Some grassroots groups literally re-branded the company: Stumples). So in addition to continuing to negotiate with company managers, we work on the media, both paid and earned, we look for an internal champion, do lots of online activism to spread the word, encourage celebrity involvement, and organize national days of protest.

Thanks to an all-star organizing team and lots of great allies, last November we had the largest known day of action, with over 200 public demonstrations in the U.S. and Canada. Thanks to our partner the Dogwood Alliance, we have also done some public education work with the rock band R.E.M.

That photo is of me explaining a paradigm shift to Michael Stipe. (You can also see the public service announcement at the Paper Campaign website.) Why is R.E.M. involved in a market campaign? Here’s what they have to say about it: “Market campaigns, like this one being run by the Dogwood Alliance and ForestEthics, are one of the most effective way to cut to the chase and protect our forests.” I couldn’t agree more.