Coming to Some Common Ground
Getting to Know the Top 10 Stakeholders Driving the Debates Over Keystone, Climate, Oil Sands and Fracturing
There is no shortage of environmental and social issues plaguing our world, and it seems like every day the news carries stories of protests or disruptive activism that affect companies’ bottom lines.
The array of rallying cries can seem dizzying or confusing, but most actually have common underlying goals. It’s helpful to understand why activism trends happen, and the role prominent organizations play in successfully shaping the dialogue around environmental issues, with little more than social media adeptness and a strong network.
Currently, some of the hottest issues concerning activists include oil sands and climate change, as well as food safety and biological diversity. Often, these issues can overlap or exist in several different contexts. For example, concerns regarding biological diversity might manifest in response to a species becoming endangered, but they also might manifest in response to industrial agriculture and GMOs. These two manifestations are separate but related. Concerns about chemicals occur in anti-phthalate campaigns but also figure heavily in campaigns on hydraulic fracturing.
In many ways, the social and environmental concerns we face as global citizens are connected. Like dominoes falling, ocean pollution affects the safety of sea creatures, and, in turn, the people who eat them. Carbon emissions contribute to climate change, leading to rising sea levels and extreme weather, which threatens the very habitats of plants and animals we depend on for food.
Luckily, many people, as individuals and members of organizations, rise to the intimidating task of subverting this cycle. Among these stakeholders are many forceful, proactive groups. Just as a number of the current environmental and social issues overlap, so do many of the groups advocating for social and environmental protection.
Some focus primarily on one issue, believing that other positive changes will arise through fighting that particular issue. Others fight for an overarching ideal, such as a clean environment as an umbrella for many issues. Other groups campaign and fundraise, then disburse to organizations whose mission they support.
All of these groups are fighting to improve the state of the world. There are 10 among them (in no particular order) that are especially notable for their effects on the dialogue surrounding their issue of choice: Sierra Club, 350.org, CREDO, Greenpeace, Idle No More, Rising Tide North America, Food and Water Watch, NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and ForestEthics. Each has its own unique origin story and mission, yet many bear similarities to one another.
Some of the most influential stakeholders tend to fall into four different types: funders, opinion leaders, campaigners and mainstreamers. Funders are people and groups who provide money to finance campaigns or activism. Opinion leaders are persuasive, charismatic people who inspire others to “fight for the cause,” and, often, celebrities are recruited into becoming opinion leaders. Campaigners tend to be grassroots activists inspired by the opinion leaders, engaging in market campaigns or civil disobedience. Mainstreamers are institutionalized forces, often with the potential to wield power through lobbying for their interests. Most of these 10 stakeholders tend to fall into the first and third categories.
The Sierra Club, founded by John Muir in 1892, is a venerable institution that proudly touts its standing as America’s largest and most influential grassroots organization, though it is considered mainstream on many environmental issues. Its mission is to explore, enjoy and protect the wild places of the Earth. This year, the Sierra Club has been gravitating more toward its activist roots as one of the major forces opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, executive director Michael Brune was one of 48 leaders who engaged in civil disobedience to protest the pipeline at the White House in February. Sierra Club is also one of many fighting for the labeling of GMOs and fighting for clean air, water and the preservation of wild spaces.
Bill McKibben is an opinion leader heading up 350.org, the organization that has steadily built a grassroots movement drawing from a large student base to combat climate change. McKibben also protested Keystone in February. The organization experienced a good deal of success with online campaigning and has a highly mobilized network of volunteers in more than 188 countries.
McKibben’s organization has been assisted in its endeavors by CREDO, a ‘funder’ organization that mobilizes activists on a range of social issues. It works to generate revenue for progressive nonprofits, running campaigns for organizations like Planned Parenthood and ACLU, as well as 350.org.
Greenpeace is another heavy-hitter in the “campaigner” category, though it often works collaboratively with companies. The organization operates independently, with no permanent allies or enemies, in an effort to stay true to its belief in action led by the conscience. Greenpeace conducts its own investigations of environmental abuse, exposing and confronting problems and working for solutions while promoting peace.
It shares this message of peace with Idle No More, a movement that has been active for more than a year.
Founded by four women in November of 2012 around the issue of oil sands development, Idle No More has become a major player in the rejuvenated Canadian Indigenous Movement. It seeks to protect land and water by asserting indigenous sovereignty. Something that has made Idle No More remarkable is that it has forged powerful alliances between indigenous movements and international environmental groups, which before (with a few notable exceptions) had remained largely separate.
Rising Tide North America is also concerned with environmental impacts, particularly around climate change. Rising Tide is a grassroots network of groups and individuals that promotes community action to combat the climate crisis, believing that corporate efforts will ultimately be unhelpful in the fight. Rising Tide is sometimes seen as radical, though the group promotes nonviolence.
Food and Water Watch (FWW) has a very simple, straightforward mission: to ensure that the food people consume is safe, accessible and sustainably sourced. Like other organizations, FWW works to protect oceans and the environment, but is also unique in its focus on nutrition and on educating people about where their food comes from.
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) combines grassroots efforts with lawyers and scientists to fight everything from climate change to threats to clean water. The council bears some similarities to the Center for Biological Diversity in the use of science and law to protect the earth, though the center’s focus is on the value of diversity and protecting the ecosystems where creatures are most at risk.
Finally, ForestEthics protects endangered forests, wildlife, and the well-being of people. It hopes to see a more transparent, ethical system with corporate and government powers that act with accountability.
While most of these groups have unique missions, methodologies and philosophies, they are all fighting for the same thing: a thriving Earth full of a diverse array of wildlife and happy, healthy people with access to fresh air, water and food.
This vision is similar to what people in companies want as well, but, all too often, we see our differences more acutely than our similarities. The ways in which these groups progress toward their goals and the ultimate outcomes vary. Each stakeholder group is astute at leveraging its unique strengths in the overall ecosystem of change.
To understand the true power of market campaigns, it’s important to note that most organizations fighting for change manage to make a large impact with very limited resources. While companies may not always agree with their methods, it’s worthwhile to understand that their underlying goals are not too far from the company’s bottom line — a thriving, just world makes also for a thriving economy.
Bill Shireman is president and CEO and Rebecca Busse is stakeholder engagement manager at Future 500.
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