Greenpeace's Campaign Strategies

By Gilles-Philippe Pagé | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

Greenpeace's history began in 1971. A group of ecologists opposed to the war in Vietnam contested US nuclear testing in the north Pacific. They decided simply to position themselves in the middle of the testing zone. In September they left Vancouver, heading to Amchitka, an Alaskan island. The first trip did not achieve its main objectives, for the little fishing boat did not even make it to the test site. However, its broadcasts regularly made the news and garnered amazing public support, demonstrating the use of media to raise awareness. The first trip was inspired by the Quaker ideology of bearing witness: You are responsible for opposing your neighbor if you know he is doing something that could harm the community. Even if you cannot intervene directly, you cannot let the community ignore it.

When the US government stopped nuclear testing in the area, Greenpeace started to look for a new cause. This disorganized group of adrenaline-addicted activists embarked on a campaign to save the whales. Using Zodiac inflatables, they put themselves between the whales and the harpoons, generating images too sensational not to broadcast and creating new public pressure.

Today Greenpeace represents more than 2.8 million members, with a presence in 40 countries,1 addressing such issues as climate change, genetically modified organisms, and trade. It owns a research station in Antarctica and three "media warships" around the globe, denouncing governments and industries that threaten the environment. Here I want to appraise Greenpeace's three campaign strategies: (a) direct action, (b) political lobbying, and (c) public education and awareness.

Direct Action

Creative nonviolent action mobilizes public opinion against the unsustainable practices of governments or corporations. The objective is to obtain as much coverage as possible through the media in order to mobilize public opinion on certain issues. Greenpeace has mastered the art of using images, as for example in 2001 when two activists climbed the CN Tower in Toronto and unrolled a giant banner proclaiming: "Canada and Bush, Climate Killers." Greenpeace used such high profile actions during the Bonn meeting on climate change when the US decided not to participate in the Kyoto protocol and at a time when the organization thought Canada would follow suit. Without a Greenpeace action, the media would probably not have pointed out that the United States and Canada were the two main forces working against cooperation. The action forced the Canadian government to take a public position.2

Public Education and Awareness

Outreach occurs through door-to-door and direct dialogue3 fundraising programs. Every day in Toronto and Montreal approximately 35 canvassers meet the public, distributing fact sheets and consumer guides. Three times a year, the Greenpeace magazine is sent out to every member. When Greenpeace started its international boycott of Esso in 2001, the publications reached more than 2.8 million permanent members around the world. When the organization tells a company that they will begin a pressure campaign, this company knows that it will have a tremendous affect on its image. The same is true for government. Greenpeace's scientific and market research becomes pressure tools. In 1998, it had a campaign against persistent organic pollutants (POPs). One important source of released POPs comes from the incineration of plastic, especially PVC plastic. The campaign aimed at reducing the use of PVC by revealing a well-known (but ignored) fact: that PVC plastic used in toys threatened children's health. This research forced the government to accelerate legislating against the use of PVC in toys.

Political Lobbying

Greenpeace campaigners attempt to reach "mainstream" politics. During the campaign for the ratification of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, Greenpeace was not powerful enough to counterbalance the fossil fuel industry, which with government promoted the idea that Kyoto would not be economically viable. Greenpeace showed the lack of consensus on that issue. They approached the insurance industry, which was losing ever larger amounts of money from natural disasters. They approached the salmon industry concerning the migration of salmon due to changes in water temperature. They approached the wheat industry about losses through drought. Even the maple syrup producers from Quebec joined the Greenpeace lobby after the ice storm ruined their season in 1998. Other authoritative groups, such as health practitioners, began to promote the ratification of Kyoto, realizing that global warming has already begun to have its impact. Greenpeace convinced these groups to use their lobby power collectively to pressure the government.

From their headquarters in London, Greenpeace representatives can reach "media gatekeepers" who determine what millions of people will watch on the news that night. With one faxed press release followed by a phone call, Greenpeace headquarters has the potential to reach a global audience. However, this visibility has a certain price: The organization's story needs to "sell" well and be presented in language that broadcasters understand. If a piece submitted by Greenpeace does not meet certain criteria, they will not propose it to the agencies. As Elaine Adams from the GPI communication department explained,

"We made a video on land mines. It was eight minutes, which is far too long for the agencies. They phoned me up and said, 'For God's sake, it's eight minutes, Elaine.' And I said, 'Yeah, but I'll tell you where the juicy bits are. Man with leg being blown off at time code so-and-so. Bomb: time code so-and-so. Soldier diffuses bomb: time code so-and-so.' So they said, 'Thanks, this is exactly what we need.'"4

But what does sell well? First it needs to be entertaining. The Bonn meeting on climate change was not interesting enough, but blockages of logging roads in British Columbia's rainforests will be covered. "It is always better when people get arrested," explained the action coordinator of Greenpeace Canada during my preparatory training for the Esso blockage of May 2002 in Montreal. When you set a banner up well, using costumes and masks, you are able to give a strong image to the media.

Also, your coverage will often be limited to a two-minute clip that emphasizes an action more than its purpose; activists may have only one sentence to make their point. Some people question the use of the mass media for environmental issues involving complex, nuanced arguments. Complex issues are reduced to a one-line banner or a fact sheet -- more propaganda than actual information.

Even if this type of strategy cannot meet educational objectives, it does influence decision-making in the political arena. And Greenpeace is only one organization within an environmental movement including other organizations that work more at the community level. On the other hand, Greenpeace has the political power to get results where smaller organizations are not very efficient. It is in the interest of the movement as a whole to use a complementary approach, with each group playing its special part.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Greenpeace expanded beyond Europe and North America. Climate change and trade-related environmental problems needed to be approached from a global perspective. This was not easy; people see the world through very different eyes. Traditionally, 'Western' environmental organizations have imposed their understanding of what is needed for the environment. Their conservationist approach assumes that people can afford to conserve available resources. As Ricardo Navaro, president of El Salvador's Center for Appropriate Technology (CESTA), explains, "In El Salvador, the ecological problem is not the Panda Bear of WWF. It is: Where do you find the energy to cook your food when the forest has been taken away from you? What we are experiencing now in El Salvador is that pollution is sending people to hospital and the lack of water, pollution of water, is generating political conflict. We are soon going to be killing each other because of the lack of water in El Salvador."

Navaro says this is not the time to adopt a conservationist strategy that will further reduce people's access to resources necessary for their survival. Such a power dynamic has led African countries to accept protection from organizations in developed countries with values very different from the local population. Sometimes the implementation of a wildlife reserve has displaced communities and created a tremendous population pressure on other areas where environmental degradation was intensified.

Some critics complain that Greenpeace actions in less developed countries were not appropriate; they were not equipped to address the single most important cause of environmental degradation, poverty. Can Greenpeace really address poverty issues? I think they can, by working on trade agreements such as the World Trade Organization that influence income distribution and poverty alleviation in less developed countries. It would be easier to represent the different interests within a more pluralistic system, but could many smaller organizations have the kind of impact Greenpeace has on powerful institutions such as the WTO or in the United Nations structure? Only to the extent that they are able to work together, which is not easy.

Controlling the Message

Greenpeace has had to adopt an exclusive strategy in order to control the message and protect its image. Its denunciation of powerful actors such as corporations and governments has placed great pressure on the organization. When Greenpeace was pressuring the French government to stop nuclear testing, the tension rose to an unprecedented level. The French government perceived Greenpeace as an enemy of the State and its nuclear program. Its secret services tried to stop the campaign by sinking the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship. The 1985 attempt in New Zealand killed a photographer. The most damaging blow to Greenpeace integrity was a movie called The Rainbow Man by the Dutch producer Magnus Gudmunson.5 The movie exploited the resentment of idealistic Greenpeace founders who dislike the direction that Greenpeace has taken.

This constant pressure coming from different sources has created an internal paranoia that made Greenpeace very protective of its message. Such paranoia does not allow for an inclusive space where people can participate actively. Very rarely is Greenpeace going to organize mass mobilization, since they are wary of seeing their name associated with a discourse that they do not control. The best way to help Greenpeace, as they present it, is to donate to Greenpeace: "Give us the power of representing your voice." The problem with this approach is that it allows people to absolve themselves from modifying personal behaviors fundamental for sustainable environmental changes.

However, the recent increasing use of consumer guides as a strategy tries to address this issue in Canada, and is a more inclusive approach. These guides are tools for consumers, empowering them to make responsible consumption choices. For example, in April 2004, Greenpeace published a consumer guide listing over 140 tissue products, telling which ones contribute to the destruction of ancient forests and which do not. Understanding that this guide would be read by a lot of consumers, Cascade--one of the most important tissue companies in the country--agreed to buy 90% of their wood product from sources certified as following sustainable methods.

Greenpeace is the only group that can bring changes in the political arena by efficiently targeting pressure points through the use of mass media. However, the environmental movement is composed of complementary actors that need each other to achieve sustainable results.


1. Greenpeace International Annual Report 2003,

2. See for online CBC television coverage of the action.

3. Direct dialogue: canvasser approaching random people in the street to convince them to support the organization through participation in a monthly donation program.

4 Stephen Dale, McLuhan's Children:The Greenpeace message and the Media, Toronto: Between the Lines, 1996.

5 Gudmunson, Magnus, The Rainbow Man, video.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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