Exit Interview: Phil Radford, Greenpeace

Phil Radford joined Greenpeace in 2003, a logical move along a trajectory as an activist that began in high school near Chicago. While studying political science and business at Washington University in St. Louis, he directed campaigns and canvass offices for a variety of environmental and human rights organizations. Radford began at Greenpeace to start its outreach program and, in 2009, at age 33, was selected as the youngest Executive Director of Greenpeace USA.

I first met Radford in the early 2000s, when he was founder and executive director of Power Shift, a grassroots-driven online community seeking to empower and serve as a hub for the youth climate movement. As he rose through the ranks at Greenpeace, I watched that organization grow its corporate engagement, variously serving as “good cop” and “bad cop” as it nudged — or, in some instances, shoved — companies to make significant changes in their products, processes and supply chains.

Radford recently announced that he’ll be leaving Greenpeace in April. In the run-up to his departure — and his appearance at the upcoming 2014 GreenBiz Forum — I spoke with him about what he’s learned about making change happen in the private sector.

Makower: You’ve spent a lot of your tenure at Greenpeace trying to move companies away from destructive practices. What have you learned about how change works in business?

Radford: The last major new environmental law passed through Congress that wasn’t an amendment was in 1980 — the Superfund law. There were a lot of things that were incredibly different between 1970 and 1980. There were millions of people in the streets for Earth Day. There was very little corporate opposition to policy. Companies were caught flatfooted.

And there were far more protestors. One study showed a strong correlation between protest and direct action and laws actually passing. Because the idea of my going to Greenpeace, which was already great at moving companies, was to bring another component that’s incredibly needed for social change for the environment: millions of acts of people to push politicians and companies. The opportunity seemed too good to be true.

Makower: You’ve headed Greenpeace USA, one part of a global network. How did you come to work on deforestation in Southeast Asia?

Radford: Greenpeace is basically a coalition of 28 different organizations, all with a license to use the name. An example of how we coordinate very closely is the Asia Pulp & Paper campaign we ran.

In that case, Greenpeace Southeast Asia had 80 people in Indonesia. They asked the government if they would pass a law to stop deforestation. The government said no. They asked Asia Pulp & Paper, which was responsible for over half of all the deforestation for pulp and paper in the country, if they would stop deforestation, and they said no.

So we stepped back and asked, “How can we make it in Asia Pulp & Paper’s self-interest to cease their ways?” Greenpeace and WWF and Rainforest Action Network targeted the biggest buyers in the world of APP’s products. In the U.S., we cut about over 75 percent of their U.S. market. In Canada, Greenpeace cut a significant portion of their market; also New Zealand and Western Europe.

Finally Asia Pulp & Paper said, “What do you want?” Our Indonesian office said, “Let’s negotiate.” [Greenpeace] said, “We want you to stop deforestation, period, and not destroy this important bioregion, which is important for biodiversity and for carbon storage.”

Asia Pulp & Paper said “OK.” The president of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, the president of Indonesia, the environmental minister and the CEO of APP all stood at a press conference together. And that day Asia Pulp & Paper stopped deforesting the most important forest in Indonesia.

[Editor’s note: Aida Greenbury, Managing Director of Sustainability & Stakeholder Engagement at Asia Pulp & Paper, will be joined by Rolf Skar, Greenpeace Forest Campaign Director, in conversation at the 2014 GreenBiz Forum.]

Makower: When you engage companies like that, is there a tried-and-true Greenpeace methodology, or is each company and campaign unique?

Radford: I try to get my staff and my team to think of themselves as jazz musicians: They need to be great at the basic licks, and know the basics to come back to, but to always be trying new things. There’s 80 percent similarity for many campaigns, but there are huge variations.

There are two kinds of companies. There are those where what we’re asking them to do is a small change for their business but makes a significant change in the world. So, for example, asking Coke to get new refrigerants. A fairly small change in their business, a big win for the world. Or asking Mattel to no longer buy pulp and paper for its packaging that destroys ancient forests — a really small change for their business, but really high leverage over the pulp and paper companies doing the damage.

With those types of companies, usually what we do first is sit down and talk. Very often, the companies don’t respond, but we’ll send a letter, we’ll make phone calls. They’re just the basic techniques of being a reasonable human being. We always do deep research. It usually takes a few years to do the research because we’re figuring out a chain of custody of a fiber from a tree that ends up in a piece of packaging or paper.

If they don’t respond, we’ll usually pick one of the biggest or the worst to run a public campaign. And usually when one company moves, the rest go. So when we ran a public campaign on Mattel to change its buying practices on pulp and paper, Lego, Disney, Hasbro and several other companies followed suit very quickly.

The second type are the companies where it’s fairly core to their business to destroy the environment. So logging companies, where we want them to transform the way they log and where they log. Duke Energy, where they’re building a new coal plant. In those situations, that’s where the creativity comes in.

With Duke Energy, for example, we had to step back and ask how can we start to transform Duke to become a modern utility and a modern company? It’s taken us running a ballot initiative in Cincinnati to get every single rate payer in the city to dump Duke and shift to 100 percent clean energy, which we won. It’s taken us intervening to stop them from getting rate increases in North Carolina, where they were asking for 15 percent; we knocked it down to about seven. Then we asked the attorney general to weigh in and knock it down to zero. It’s involved finding out who they care about in terms of customers, which it turns out is the IT sector, and launching an entire campaign to pressure Apple, Facebook, Rackspace to commit to 100 percent clean energy and commit to the lobbying with us to pressure Duke and public utilities commissions to allow clean energy.

That’s where these big companies — the APPs, the Dukes — that’s where there’s a lot more improvisation that you need to do a lot more strategic thinking, a lot more adaptation and creativity.

Makower: I have a hunch that there are some in business who secretly root you on while playing defense for their companies. They may not like a Greenpeace action but they appreciate it because it moves the company along a path that the sustainability exec herself thinks it needs to go. Do you have those kinds of back-channel relationships with companies, where you’re getting guidance from the sustainability folks on how to engage the company more effectively?

Radford: More often than not we don’t. But I think you’re right. If we can create what feels like a crisis for the company — if you’re Michael Dell, it’s just not just worth your time to have to focus on dealing with a Greenpeace campaign when it’s easy enough to get toxics out of your electronics.

There are always people in companies that care about the environment; young workers especially. But across the board there are people inside that care about the environment. A lot of the executives, too, but just haven’t focused on it. What we can do is create a sense of focus, and then the person in charge of sustainability becomes the answer to the Greenpeace problem. It probably gives them space to move on what they’d like to work on more quickly.

Makower: So, when Greenpeace comes calling to a company with some challenge, demand or grievance, what do you wish companies would do —  obviously beyond total capitulation — to make the process smoother or more effective? Or is the dance that takes place necessary just because the way the world works?

Radford: I think things could go more smoothly. I think if we’re calling a company and what we’re asking is them to do something that is not a change to their core business, but the leverage that they have could make a really significant impact, the best thing they can do is pick up the phone and call us back. It’s the companies that stonewall that turn into campaign targets.

Makower: So, at minimum, not being combative and ideally at least starting a conversation and seeing where that goes?

Radford: Absolutely. We were running a campaign for about four years to push Kimberly-Clark to stop using ancient forests in their tissue and other products. At one point somebody said in exasperation, “There’s not enough sustainable fiber and logging out there to supply us.” We said, “We know. It doesn’t have to be this year. Let’s talk through a timeline and let’s have you transform the market.” They said, “Oh, OK.”

There would be a lot fewer companies worried about whether we’re scaling their building or on their roof if they just answered the phone.

Makower: When you have victories — Asia Pulp & Paper is a great example, Kimberly-Clark is another — there’s always a bit of cognitive dissonance for me, and I suspect others, when a company that has long been seen as a villain is suddenly held up by Greenpeace as a hero. There must be pushback even within your organization or within the environmental community.

Radford: What we try not to do is say that a company is good or bad, but that a behavior is good. We tend not to want to be in permanent alliances or adversarial relationships with companies. And so we’ll say, “Apple, this is great what you’re doing on clean energy.” But we won’t say, “Apple as a company is great.”

Same thing with Asia Pulp & Paper. Asia Pulp and Paper has committed to a great forest policy, so we can say that behavior is great. But you’ll rarely hear us say, “Asia Pulp & Paper is a hero.”

Makower: What should we be looking for from Greenpeace next? What are some of the big issues you’ll be taking on?

Radford: There are a few things. One is that once we’ve worked with companies to get them to a place where the company is working in a really principled way on issues, you’ll see more partnerships with those companies to pass policies that lock that in for their industry.

Makower: So, you’ll be pushing companies to get involved with policy making?

Radford: An example is our oceans work. Half of all seafood in the U.S. is sold through supermarkets. Over the last five years, we’ve gotten about 20 percent of the most threatened fish off the shelves of supermarkets in the U.S., and that’s been by negotiating with retailers, but also some public campaigns.

Now, a set of those retailers that have a tremendous amount of buying power are partnering with us to make sure that the fisheries that they rely on are around for the long haul. In places like the Bering Sea, we’ve had retailers and other major buyers of seafood stand up with us and say, “We need there to be better regulations of the fishery.” Same thing with the Ross Sea in Antarctica, where we’ve been working to pass a marine reserve there.

Another example is Apple and Google. They pushed Duke Energy to allow them to have clean energy, but that took a change in the regulations at the public utility commission. So Apple and Google pushed Duke to push the regulators to allow solar into the state of North Carolina.

So, we’ll no longer say, “We only want you to change your practices.” We’ll say, “We want you to change your practices and we need you to work with us to make sure that these rules apply to everybody through regulations.”

Makower: So, it’s getting companies to help change the rules.

Radford: Absolutely. I think that there haven’t been any new environmental laws in the U.S. Congress because companies have been so powerful and environmental groups have walked away from involving people. I think the opportunity is to re-embrace millions of people as part of a movement that works together, and then leverage the power of companies that have come around. If you can bring the people power and the power of some of the best companies together, I think we can start to move things forward again.

Makower: You’re leaving Greenpeace. What’s next?

Radford: I’m still thinking. I’ve been with Greenpeace for 10.5 years. I’m stepping back and looking around, seeing what’s out there and making sure I don’t make a rash decision.

Makower: Is it going to continue to be activist work, or is there some other path you’re considering?

Radford: I could see nonprofit or for-profit. My area of focus is climate and energy, and it will be somewhere along the path that I think is necessary to push for the right solutions. As the cost of doing the right thing, like buying clean energy, gets lower and lower and lower, and the political costs for being on the wrong side gets higher and higher, we’ll see things shift really quickly in terms of climate policy. That’s where I’ll be focusing: where the costs are dropping and the political costs are increasing to flip the debate on climate.

Top photo courtesy Greenpeace.