Greenpeace has always recognized and celebrated the power of the dissenting individual voice. When I think of Greenpeace, I picture a single tiny boat up against a French destroyer or a Japanese whaler, a potent symbol of dissent turned into direct action. It's that spirit of activism, along with bravery, humor, and better environmental scholarship than anyone else, that set Greenpeace up as an obvious partner for The Body Shop when we made our first foray into public activism in 1985. And it was the first time Greenpeace had linked up with a commercial company.
The following year, we used the shops directly for the first time as a platform to protest against the slaughter of whales. I loved the enthusiasm and energy of those first joint campaigns. It took me back to my student days when I went on protest marches, or when I was a teacher and I organized all the kids at school on a march against hunger. I think that's the way a lot of people have come to Greenpeace over the years, as their introduction to activism.
Greenpeace has always taken up the issues that connect with ordinary people in the most straightforward ways, and created campaigns that allow people to express their own feelings about those issues. That's why one question faxed by Greenpeace to a food manufacturer in 1999 was enough to persuade the company to promise to take genetically modified ingredients out of its baby food. Any business that relies on a positive public perception knows that Greenpeace is asking those questions on behalf of millions of consumers. (However, Greenpeace revealed in August that the company had not made good on its pledge to remove GM ingredients from its baby food products, after all. A one-day campaign outside the company's headquarters was enough to force the company to acknowledge its failure and renew its promise.)
Which brings us to Esso and what is potentially the biggest consumer boycott in history. We'd just finished our Make Your Mark campaign with Amnesty International, where millions of people around the world expressed their support for the defenders of human rights, and had just set up our biannual The Body Shop Human Rights Award in 2000.
With the start of a new century, we were ready for another campaign that would be as effective (i.e. global) as possible. The issue that kept coming up as a huge international concern was climate change.
At the same time, Greenpeace was gathering more and more evidence that showed how the US giant ExxonMobil (Esso in Europe) was the true villain of global warming, relentlessly campaigning against and subverting climate control initiatives such as the Kyoto Protocol, denying the overwhelming scientific evidence of causal links between fossil fuels and climate change. Despite showing the largest corporate profits in history ($17.7 billion in 2000), ExxonMobil was set to spend $7.9 billion in 2001 year on oil and gas exploration and production, but not one cent on renewable energy or research into green fuels. In fact, one company spokesman had gone so far as to damn renewable energy sources as "fashionable."
In May 2001, The Body Shop was the first international company to join Greenpeace's Stop Esso campaign, calling on our staff and customers to buy petrol from anyone but Esso. I saw it as a good opportunity to repoliticize our staff. If we couldn't vote George W. Bush out of the White House, at least we'd be able to vote with our wallets against the company whose will he was exercising when he pulled out of the Kyoto treaty.
Alongside the Esso campaign, Greenpeace and The Body Shop are collaborating on a campaign for green energy. The "Choose Positive Energy" campaign is the biggest campaign in the history of The Body Shop. As well as building on the public support of customers across 32 countries who are joining the petition in stores, it is our first truly global campaign because you can also join it through the campaign's own Web site. The idea is to build visible, global demand for renewable energy for everyone on the planet, including the two billion people currently without electricity. This global petition will be laid before world leaders at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (otherwise known as the "Earth Summit") in August.
The enthusiasm and energy behind these campaigns are taking me back to those first joint campaigns 15 years ago. From then to now, I realize the most important lesson I've learned from Greenpeace -- that joy is the secret of resistance. Dissent also consists of dreaming, of yearning, of unleashing the imagination. Capture that, and you can change the world.
You can be a part of both campaigns. Go to the Stop Esso Web site and pledge to boycott ExxonMobil/Esso and receive a campaign pack with more information on global warming and the company's sabotage of Kyoto, along with stickers, posters, and other goodies. Then surf on over to the Choose Positive Energy site and help challenge international leaders to make cleaner, non-petroleum energy sources a priority. Make your voice heard!
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Big Issue.)
Photo courtesy of the Stop Esso campaign.