Interview with James Turner, Communications Head of Greenpeace

Matthew Metz interviewed James Turner, Communications Chief for Greenpeace about how consumer consumption patterns can be changed, and role of major environmental organizations such as Greenpeace in promoting that change.  

MM:  What is the way forward in moving consumers to curtail their gasoline usage?

JT: Greenpeace doesn’t work on the consumer side in terms of trying to change personal behaviour. You know, we sort of suggest things that people can do if they’re looking to reduce that footprint, but our attitude is very much, the most effective thing you can do is to lobby your Congressman or woman in order to change the legislation, to change the top-down measures that could, for example, increase engine efficiency or increase the use of public transport or cycling in urban centres.

So that’s very much where our focus is right now. I think that historically there has been some hesitation or some fear, I suppose, about talking directly to people (I prefer to use the word “people,” rather than “consumers”) about their personal choices and personal behaviour – fear of being seen as lecturing them or preaching at them.

Personally, I feel as if the time has come for a grown up, adult conversation with our supporters and with other members of the public, which looks at that construct actually of the idea of the consumer and starts a conversation about how we construct our identity and our measure of success in the modern world. And I do think it’s time for a new conversation where that becomes replaced with how happy you are, how much time you spend with your family, and how healthy you feel.

MM.   Can you just give me a little bit of history on the origins of that original decision to avoid talking to consumers about lifestyle? Where did that decision come from and how long has it been in place for?

JT.  I’m not sure there was ever a specific decision on that. Greenpeace’s modus operandi since the early 70s is to look at very iconic examples of environmental harm and then lobby the decision makers and the power brokers to fix them or to introduce, for example, a ban on nuclear waste dumping at sea, which was a huge environmental crime that was occurring in the 1970s, and so we’ve continued with that kind of strategy.

The other thing to remember is, we are a relatively small organization. We don’t have the advertising budgets of a government or a large corporation, and so our ability to reach large numbers of people is quite limited, and I think we feel as if it is the best strategic use of our resources to try to effect these top-level decisions which can have a large effect over huge numbers of people.   Certainly in the 1970s and 1980s we relied almost entirely on traditional media and broadcast media, and news media in particular, which is not a good format for behaviour change messages. You know, they are looking for a cause, a decision maker, a conflict, and that doesn’t fit well with an address to the public at large.

So, I think it’s a combination of our resources, our size, but also the way in which we have campaigned historically that’s led us to this point.

I do wonder if we were to work on behaviour change if we would be able to measure success and progress in such a distinct way, and I wonder whether or not that’s one of the reasons behind this – that if you’re trying to essentially change behaviour, but also culture, really, public opinion, that can be very hard to measure; it can also be very, very slow. It can take 5/ 10/ 20 years. Sometimes our planning cycles and the way we measure success needs something a little bit more quickly than that.

MM:  At what point do you think conditions are right for more of a mainstream push towards consumers on behavior change? What needs to be in place or what needs to happen for that to really start to work and be effective?

JT:   Well, I think one of those things has already happened, and one of those things that I’m thinking of is the move from traditional media, the very high concentration of power and influence amongst a relatively small number of media outlets being really collapsed by the arrival of social media, social sharing, peer-to-peer sharing, and I think that now gives us an advantage or a leg up against the large corporations and the large channels of yesteryear. So that part has already happened.

The second thing that I can think of is actually whether or not a Sierra Club or a Greenpeace is the right organization to be doing this, and the reason I say that, certainly in the US and this is true in the UK as well, is that the environment has become a highly politicized issue and those groups are seen as on the left. Now, whether or not that’s correct or not, environmental action and the groups who campaign on it are seen very much on the sort of far left on the spectrum.

So, for one of those groups to be the messenger for any kind of message on personal behaviour change, I think we get very polarized very quickly and you might see some quite vitriolic attacks from, you know, the GOP and potentially from their supporters in the country. So, what I think needs to happen is for perhaps a new, less politicized organization to emerge which is based on some, you know, universal tenets: things like the fact that spending time in our community and with our family is, you know, makes us happy and makes us more fulfilled.

Things like – I know, this may sound slightly heretical – the idea of owning less stuff, or buying less stuff as a root to wellbeing, you know, that is not by nature a political statement, but I mean, it would be seen as highly controversial for Greenpeace to say that at this time.

So, maybe it is, you know, about spinoffs of these organizations or entirely new organizations emerging to say these things, but I also think they would then require funding, they would require donations, and it’s interesting to think about how they could get the visibility and the news, sort of, profile of a Greenpeace or or a Sierra Club if they are working in this new space.

MM: It was a very strong campaign against Shell and there was even action at gas stations, but you didn’t quite take it to the point of “Don’t buy.” It didn’t quite make it there.

JT: I think consumers want to take action, they want to do things, but I think sometimes the environmental groups are in quite a difficult position with regards to what you can actually have people do, and that the received wisdom on boycotts is that it needs to be huge in order to have any direct financial impact, and that, in fact, if your boycott is ineffective, or if it goes on a long time and not many people engage with it, then it actually make you look weaker to the oil company. So, that’s some of the qualifications we have for that.

One of the big challenges I think we face is to not sell this as a sacrifice or as a thing to do on behalf of others, but to actually make the benefits of this more visible and attach prestige and status to these behaviors in the same way that we have around driving fast cars.  I do see examples of that happening in California, in Los Angeles, where a lot of cultural thought leaders and artists and creative people are starting to leave these different behaviours, but I think it will take some time to trickle down and I think it needs to be accelerated massively and I think that there is a role for art and culture to do that, but I also think there is a role for the creative industry in terms of advertising and marketing.

Advertising traditionally worked by making behaviors or choices seem attractive and desirable, whereas campaigning normally works by making people feel worried and gloomy and depressed. And it’s very interesting that certainly the campaigning organizations, the charities don’t seem to learn an awful lot from advertising, even though it’s clearly the most effective form of communication out there, and I think they should learn some of those tricks and that the consequences of that in selling the solution, selling the alternatives rather than kind of carping on about the problem so much, but again, that’s very difficult for an organization like Greenpeace to do.

It is very possible to think of an ad where fossil fuels are denigrated and seen as socially unacceptable, but which big advertising agencies take on that brief when its other clients are Ford and GM? So, you know, there’s an awful lot of vested interest and money on the other side.