Malcolm Poynton
Oct 22, 2022

How Greenpeace needs to modernise its activism to make itself relevant to new audiences

On the eve of COP27, are the global eco campaigners in danger of losing their activist edge?

How Greenpeace needs to modernise its activism to make itself relevant to new audiences

While last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow attracted much fanfare, will conversations and pledges progress to action for COP27? As the recent Conservative Party Conference hit the headlines, Greenpeace also made a splash of its own.

Heckling Liz Truss, just a few minutes into her speech, Greenpeace activists were heard shouting, “Who voted for fracking?”, while holding up a banner that read “Who voted for this?”

While I love seeing brands being opportunistic and surprising consumers, it seemed to me that the stunt was a bit lame as a piece of communication.

It may be unfair to call Greenpeace a one trick pony but, on the other hand, while Extinction Rebellion has upped the ante with long-term sit-ins and headline-grabbing bridge closures, can a banner really cut it these days? 

And even if it does draw attention to an issue, then what? Liz Truss is obviously not going to respond positively. In fact, some thought it helped her, by showing how calm and in control she was, when others might have panicked or lost their head. Surely not the point of the disruption.

And I can’t see it driving up donations, certainly not among those at the conference, but also not from those watching it on TV. And donations are essential to the running of any charity.

So perhaps it’s time for charities to step beyond throwing stones or rattling tins and move into a new space, one that would provide both serious funding and make serious progress. I’m talking about consulting.

As strange as it may sound, it’s often more effective to work with those you want to influence, rather than to protest against them.

With the depth of research and knowledge charities have on the climate emergency, many are ideally placed to be the best possible consultants on environmental strategy and policy, especially when those in government are not experts on their portfolio.

The Wildlife Trust for instance is working with social housing developer Orbit Group to test out how the charity’s commitment to 30% of the UK’s land being managed for nature by 2030 (30 x 30) can be instigated across Orbit’s estates.

It is, however, probably easier said than done, especially when working in the midst of widespread corporate greenwashing.

It would certainly require a binding agreement that protects charities from government influence in exchange for consulting on the policy of the day, keeping them independent and therefore able to continue their work, even when governments change political persuasion.

After all, government money is taxpayers’ money, just in larger sums than from individual donors.

But that wouldn’t mean charities couldn’t throw stones when it’s necessary, like Greenpeace’s boulder-drops off the south coast to prevent destructive industrial fishing in a marine conservation zone. 

Nor does it mean becoming political. In fact, there is an urgent need for independent consulting. And then the fees paid for such expertise could be ploughed back into ever greater research and knowledge.

Would governments and big business take up the offer? They’d be crazy not to, given our desperate need to address the environmental crisis that is upon us.

With COP27 on the near horizon and a lack of meaningful action from COP26 so far, we need to make space for independent charities and their decades of experience at the top table, where they can advise and consult, rather than forcing them to spectate, disrupt, petition and protest.

It’s a counter intuitive model for sure, but with diminishing returns on stunts and protests such as Just Stop Oil’s recent antics, it offers a real way forward and a real voice to charities such as Greenpeace at the heart of policy making.

And surely everyone would vote for that.

Malcolm Poynton is global chief creative officer at Cheil Worldwide.

Campaign UK

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