Befriending the Sleeping Giant

By Sandra CyrFE_logo

The David and Goliath scenario is a universal reality for many nonprofit organizations, where organizations typically assume the role of the underdog in an effort to slay the giant. But what if the perceived giant is the advocate, not the adversary? What if you could view an obstacle as a powerful tool for achieving your mission? It is this belief that has led ForestEthics to great success in making the impossible possible.

Pioneers in the field of corporate campaigning, ForestEthics works to get the attention of large corporations in order to develop partnerships to create solutions to environmental issues world-wide. Though some of their efforts may appear to an outside observer to be aggressive or over the top, their track record of building partnerships with large corporations to address major environmental concerns demonstrates their unique ability to transform corporate policies and practices.

ForestEthics evolved when members from a variety of conservation organizations came together to seek a different approach to extreme logging in Canada’s coastal temperate rain forests. The existing methods of protesting logging companies were not producing the results they wanted, so their attention turned to the marketplace: logging companies weren’t cutting down trees because they dislike the environment or environmentalists. They were cutting down trees because they had contracts with purchasers that they were under obligation to honor. ForestEthics needed to move up the supply chain.

Stephen Danner
Stephen Danner

“We do a lot of chain of custody research into supply chains,” says Stephen Danner, Director of Development. “So our work – before we even chose a target is to connect the dots between some of the most endangered ecosystems that we are working to protect and the consumption patterns that are driving that destruction. So in the paper and pulp industry it goes from a clear-cut forest, to the logging industry who is responsible for that, to the contracts they have signed with paper and pulp distributers to the corporations who are buying that paper and pulp. In many cases, it can be a very complicated chain of custody.”

Once the corporation has been identified, the question becomes, how do you impact the purchasing decisions of a huge behemoth? ForestEthics works to find the ideal point of leverage, connecting the corporate values of the businesses they target to align with the purchasing decisions the businesses are making.

In viewing these large corporations as partners rather than obstacles in achieving their goals, the focus of the corporate campaigns is on relationship-building. Campaigns typically start off with a letter to the corporation, followed by a reminder about the letter, and then a phone call. In many cases companies will respond, and the situation can go from conflict to resolution very quickly, or at least start a conversation. But when companies don’t respond, that’s when the campaign starts to escalate.

ForestEthics is loud about their public campaigns. They are edgy. They are funny. “It is not just important, it is essential for us to have that kind of voice based on the nature of the kinds of issues we work in,” according to Danner. “Our unique brand of campaigning is one in which humor is important – we are dealing with intense issues related to human rights, equity, livelihood, well-being, climate change, all of these very heavy, huge human challenges. To bring levity into a dialog about these issues is, in our experience, something people are grateful for. If you can start a relationship based in gratitude and laughter or a baseline amusement, you are already starting off on the right foot.” The idea is to wake the sleeping giant, but not to anger it. Rather than attacking a corporation, ForestEthics uses hard-hitting approaches combined with softer, more humorous approaches to get the attention of the public and the employees and to begin to create conversations within a corporation. Forest Original

Often times, the targeted corporations are unaware of the environmental consequences of their purchasing policies, and this engagement established by the corporate campaign helps bring that to light. ForestEthics’ corporate campaigners are expert negotiators and help move the dialog with the corporations towards building advocates for their cause, and the impact of these partnerships has been incredible. Since their start in 1999, they have secured protection agreements for 65 million acres of forests and impacted hundreds of millions of dollars of purchasing policies from dozens of major US companies.

Because of the strength of the relationships that they form, ForestEthics can transform an entire sector from just one campaign. In the early 2000’s, they launched a campaign with Victoria’s Secret, one of the largest catalog distributers in the United States using virgin fiber that was being sourced from the Canadian boreal forests. The success of this campaign led to Crate and Barrel, Williams Sonoma and several other major catalog distributers enacting similar, or sometimes stronger, policies than Victoria’s Secret parent company The Limited announced.

“You’re building advocates and you are creating incredible leverage that extends far beyond a corporate procurement policy,” according to Danner. “You’re building power for a movement, you’re unleashing the power of some of the wealthiest entities that exist on this planet. And those relationships are still active today.”

Affecting change in the market to affect human behavior is ForestEthics’ essential theory of change. It is not a campaign against the basic consumer, but rather, a campaign with the largest consumers in order to address environmental concerns. In developing and growing these partnerships with the corporations, these perceived giants become the source of power for slaying the real Goliath: environmental destruction.

ForestEthics’ mission is to protect endangered forests, wildlife, and human well-being. Their campaigns consider all of the issues that affect wild places and the wildlife and people that depend on them—from biodiversity to air and water quality to climate change. 

Sandy Cyr is the Managing Editor for the Philanthropy Journal, and a fan of all things related to the nonprofit sector.

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