Turncoats? Moving from Greenpeace to the corporate world

Talent Show

Turncoats? Moving from Greenpeace to the corporate world

I love talking to the iconoclasts who make drastic career changes, like those who leave a grassroots nonprofit for the halls of a corporation. That’s what Jonathan Wootliff and Danny Kennedy did when they went to the private sector from Greenpeace. I wouldn’t call them turncoats, but rather people who took their passion to a different side of the equation. The way I see it, businesses need pressure to do the right thing coming from the outside as well as the inside. These guys agree. What I was most curious to ask them was, why go into the private sector after publicly damning companies, and how is the work different?

Tackling the energy revolution from the inside (and) out

Kennedy, who founded the residential solar company Sungevity after managing political and solutions campaigns for Greenpeace Australia Pacific as well as running Greenpeace’s Clean Energy Now campaign in the U.S., told me that Sungevity involves a lot of the same work and uses much of the same skills as with Greenpeace. “I can have the same big impact by representing, fundraising, organizing around a goal, setting a vision and measuring with metrics,” he explained.

Kennedy clarifies that at Greenpeace he wasn’t always damning the private sector; rather, his approach was that “speaking truth is a good thing to do. I wanted to also leverage the power that business and the corporate sector have for good, which is evident in a lot of social movements over time. I have a theory that social change movements, historically, have always needed to be able to say what they’re for, and to demonstrate what they’re for as well as to be able to say what they are against. Business, small business especially, entrepreneurial businesses are really great at creating a new vision and starting that transition that is social change.”

This type of transition follows Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction theory that economic development in a capitalist society stems from the breakdown of a previous economic order. In other words, climate change has led society to transition away from fossil fuels. “Doing Sungevity was a way to show that there is a path, there is a solution, and it can scale rapidly when done right,” as Kennedy put it.

Kennedy believes that working in the private sector for a solution to fossil fuels is not necessarily more effective than finding solutions within the nonprofit sector, but that it is “just appropriate to the time and the task. In the history of change, there are different stages that social movements go through,” he says. “At one point you have to stand in front of the tanks to draw the world’s attention to the oppression, and at another point you have to work to reform the system.”

“We’re very good as activist at saying no; we’re not so good at saying how. I think it’s very effective to be in the business side of this struggle right now. It’s the most important place to be,” given the combination of his personal journey and where he thinks broader public opinion is. Kennedy feels the timing is ripe for a company such as Sungevity to thrive “because the technologies are ripe, the finance industry is ripe and entrepreneurs are needed to guide that into being.”

Photocollage by GreenBiz Group

Wootliff, head of corporate accountability at Reputation Partners, was formerly director of communications at Greenpeace International. Similar to Kennedy, Wootliff seemed adamant that at Greenpeace he wasn’t damning the private sector, but helping to get areas of the private sector to improve practices. “This was not about and is not about groups like Greenpeace attacking corporations. This is about identifying corporations that could or should be improving on their environmental or social performance, and then trying to work with them to get them to change their practices. If they are not prepared to do so without a little bit of ‘encouragement,’ then there is no better way than getting them to stand up and listen to what we had to say than casting aspersions on their reputations,” said Wootliff.

This is because companies highly value their reputations, and when that reputation is in danger, he said, they will sit up, listen and be prepared to engage and find a solution. Wootliff does believe his work objectives haven’t changed — he simply has discovered that he can do this from the other side. “Whereby instead of being on the side of the pressurizers, I’m now helping companies to 1) look at their reputation and brand through external lenses, 2) identifying what they’re doing that might have room for improvement, 3) predicting and preempting areas of potential controversy, public criticism and reputational attack, and 4) looking at how they might consider actually adapting to the demands and expectations of the modern world,” he said.

When I asked him whether he thought the carrot or the stick was more effective, Wootliff illuminated that groups such as Greenpeace don’t just beat up on companies, but they actually provide carrots: “There’s no better endorsement of your sustainability practices than to have Greenpeace say, ‘You guys are doing the right thing.’”

He gave an example of a meeting with the CEO of a major oil company after Greenpeace had been occupying one of their oil rigs. The CEO told him they should meet regularly and that Greenpeace could offer his company a lot, but that Greenpeace didn’t need to keep embarrassing this company because they could find common ground. Wootliff explained the Greenpeace response: “With all due respects, we wouldn’t be sitting in the office of the CEO of one of the largest companies on Earth if we weren’t occupying your oil rig. So we have carrots we could be offering you [and we did subsequently], but we wouldn’t have an audience or your attention if we didn’t provide a little aggressive prod.”

Thus, Wootliff sees the combination of both the carrot and the stick as the most effective method for change. That’s why he argues to companies that the reason they should take the sustainability approach is not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for your business. He said that an organization like Greenpeace, “you’re really in the role of the watchdog or the external critic. The roles you play are fairly obvious and straightforward. It’s not uncomfortable to be critical of a company when you’re wearing that hat.”

Adversely, when you are a consultant, he said, and you’re paid by the company “and you’ve been hired by them on the premise that you’re going to be playing devil’s advocate, there are limits to how far you can go in terms of playing that role, or at least you sometimes feel there are, because if you go too far, you could be in fear of losing the client. And then you have lost some revenue — or if you’re in-house, your job. Therefore you have to say to yourself, how far am I prepared to push this issue?”

Clearly choosing “sides” presents challenges and opportunities, but ultimately these two don’t feel like they have had to abandon the root of the issues about which they care deeply.

What about you? Tell us which side you chose, and why?