We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.
Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.
The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.
Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…
The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.
The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.
It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.
The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)
These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.
Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.
The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?