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'Follow the Money': How Rainforest Action Network Is Beating the Corporate Giants

We’ve arrived at a dangerous milestone. For the first time in human history, as Amy Goodman reported this week, "the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has topped 400 parts per million." Climate scientiststs have warned that we should seek to stabilize emissions no higher that 350 ppm if we hope to fend off catastrophic planetary changes.

The climate crisis demands that we take action, and that those actions have the greatest impact possible. That’s what motivates the organizing strategies of Rainforest Action Network. Since 1985, RAN has been a leader in the fight to protect rainforests across the globe and the people who live in and near them. But as the climate crisis heats up, all of our lives have become dependent on protecting these vital ecosystems.

One of the signature strategies of the organization has been to follow the money — it's waged campaigns against corporate giants like Burger King and Disney, and won. Its success in recent years was driven by visionary leader Rebecca Tarbotton. But last December, Tarbotton, 39, was killed in a swimming accident while vacationing in Mexico. Her death sent the environmental community reeling. (Read AlterNet's 2010 interview with Tarbotton here.)

Since then RAN has named Lindsey Allen, the organization’s forest program director, as acting executive director. RAN's board chair called Allen, “a world-class campaigner with more than a decade of experience and an unmatched track record pressuring and inspiring some of the world’s largest corporations to protect rainforests. Rainforest Action Network’s board, leadership team and staff stand behind Lindsey 100 percent as she takes on this crucial role. She is the natural choice, and the perfect choice.”

Allen and RAN’s communications director Nell Greenberg recently sat down with AlterNet to talk about RAN’s current campaigns and their vision for taking on the country’s biggest polluters.

Tara Lohan: What campaign are you most excited about now?

Lindsey Allen: Right now the campaign that we are most excited about is the launch of our palm oil campaign. What folks probably don't realize is that palm oil is in roughly half of processed foods that you find at a grocery story. We're going to be targeting snack companies and taking the top 20 of them to task for using palm oil because it's clearing orangutan habitat. It's causing human rights violations. There's forced labor on palm oil plantations.

We're looking at this as the last stand of the Sumatran orangutan. We won't be able to say that we didn't see extinction as a very real threat and that we didn't see this coming, because it's very clear. There are very few animals left, especially in northern Sumatra.

TL: How are you going to get people excited about a campaign that's happening very far away?

LA: Well, it's not as far away as you might think. If you walked around your house you can find palm oil in every room of your house, so there's a very direct connection between the decisions that people are making with their pocketbooks and what is happening in a place that might seem very far away. There are people that are at the other end of the supply chain so our decisions are all directly affecting those communities.

This is a local action you can take that is globally relevant when we're talking about Indonesia where there's the biodiversity threat. There's the land tenure issues, where communities’ lands are being stolen to plant these palm oil plantations. And everyone now needs to think about climate as a backyard issue. This does relate to that because Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases and it's primarily related to deforestation.

TL: Which are the top offending companies?

LA: We don't know yet. We will know who the biggest offender is based on the companies that are unwilling to move. There are many companies that have policies already that either have not implemented them or they’re using a tool that's not working such as there's an industry round table that makes sustainability claims and it's not able to show that this product is really sustainable. We will know based who doesn't move once we say you need to really start really enforcing your policy or adopt one if you don't have one already.

Nell Greenberg: We recently sent letters to 20 of the top companies that are producing snack foods with palm oil and we always give companies an opportunity to respond and show that they can do good before we then go after them, which is why we're kind of holding it back. We are giving those companies basically four weeks to say, yes, we will address this; or no, we won't; and that's how we'll start to then shake out who our big targets are. The truth is that it's 20 of the biggest name brands you can imagine in snack food. Nobody is safe.

TL: I know you guys work on mountaintop removal coal mining issues. There seems to be no good that can come from that in terms of jobs or environmental impacts, but yet it still continues. What are you guys doing to shift that?

NG: The background is we had a campaign that just focused on mountaintop removal mining for two years and the priority was to get the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to basically pass restrictions that made it harder for MTR companies to get permits. Then secondarily we were focusing on all the banks that were financing the MTR companies and getting them to basically pass policies to make it harder to get money. That was sort of a beautiful confluence where the EPA did pass those restrictions. There is a huge reduction in the amount of permits they give for MTR and eight of the banks made policies to restrict funding and stop funding Massey Energy all together which was, back in the day, kind of the most heinous.

The reality is MTR is still the Achilles heel of the coal industry and it's still the most heinous and it's still happening. Now we've focused on basically going after coal at large because we have gotten to the point where it's a holistic problem that needs to be dealt with that way and we're focusing on defunding the coal industry and going after banks like Bank of America. There's a huge movement going after coal and climate and our focus has been on getting the ATMs of the coal industry and trying to get them to fund renewable energy and stop funding coal. But it's a long road.

TL: So are these banks funding coal projects at the extraction level or the burning level?

NG: They are funding across the board. It's the whole life cycle of coal and huge on the export side too.

LA: What we're talking to Bank of America about, for instance, is to look at how they consider themselves to be an environmental bank as many big ones do because they've made a monetary commitment [to renewables] and they're not looking at the entire life cycle, and what they're doing beyond this commitment which is really just a small portion of their financial deals. What we're saying is think about your financed emissions. It's being released into the atmosphere and start to track it and then once you know what it is you can start to reduce it. Of course it's not an idea that they are excited about at this point.

NG: Yes. It's so crazy. I mean they announce things like we're going to put $20 billion into renewable energy and they think “well, that makes us the greenest bank because we're putting more money into renewable energy than any other bank,” but the minute you say well, actually look at emissions if this is about climate, let's talk about the number of emissions we're demonstrably reducing in order to curb climate change. If you look at it from that lens, it's like you can't have an all-of-the-above energy strategy. They are at the point where they admit climate change exists, but their way of dealing with it is by funding everything as opposed to starting to actually move. It is inherently about getting banks to make tough choices that are against their nature to some degree.

TL: I saw that you guys have a blog about how Bloomberg’s list of “greenest banks” are actually climate killers.

LA: Yes. It's such a long, sorted tale. We've had such a long process of trying to convince them to have a different angle for looking at their list and trying to get them to again, like what Nell was saying, to actually look at financed emissions, but banks aren't reporting on that so Bloomberg refuses. They just look at basically what banks are doing in terms of LEED-certified buildings and in terms of recycling reduction, in terms of energy or money into renewable energy and they don't look at the whole spectrum. Every single year we have this very subtle and soft campaign on Bloomberg to try to convince them to have a different analysis.

That's a big part of what we're really doing. We're at the point where we're needing to make basically paradigm shifts and the questions that we ask and the way that we finance everything and the way we run our economy and how we make products and packaging. So we went through a five-year strategic plan last year and a big part of it was how do we get deeper, faster changes that actually reflect the urgency of the crises we're in and do it systematically as opposed to telling people to just not buy packaged goods that have palm oil or telling people to just not bank with Bank of America. How do we actually aggregate people power so that we transform changes in a bigger way?

I can tell you that it is refreshing. We sort of freed ourselves last year to actually ask the hard questions and not just say "OK we're satisfied with millions of people signing the petition" or "OK we're satisfied with people showing up at one protest." We are at a really good place of being hungry and unsatisfied and wanting deeper changes which feels good. It's not quick.

TL: How are you urging people to participate in this Bank of America campaign?

NG: There's a couple of ways that people can participate. One is to tell the bank what they think. There's been an outpouring that started with Occupy focused on Bank of America and the question is, will that continue? I think we are the people who will answer that question, so we can say "Yes we haven't forgotten about people losing their homes. We haven't forgotten that you're one of the top financiers of coal." As consumers we can still exert that pressure.

Then there are also specific opportunities. There will be folks attending the Bank of America shareholder meetings to bring people's voices into that board room to ask them to question their role and their approach to financing as it affects our lives. That's one way. I think there are other small opportunities that bubble up. One of which will be around Keystone so it's separate, but related. As we look at the role that extraction is playing in our lives, that's another place where people can start to take action really specifically.

We've joined with Credo to do this pledge of resistance. The thinking is that we need to draw this line in the sand and we need to make clear to Obama that he can't accept anything and he can't give all of these people five years of promises on addressing climate change, put it in the State of Union, and then approve some of the dirtiest oil in the world. As a result of that we are directing some of our focus and we're going to take some of the folks that are so riled up about coal and Bank of America and try to unite all of these movements and to specifically say, let's make this a line that he cannot cross and if it is crossed let's make it a line that's never crossed again. That will start bubbling up in the summer with some trainings that we're going to be doing all across the country.

TL: That's great. What's your best guess as to what might happen with Keystone? I’m a little pessimistic myself.

LA: I think everybody is pessimistic and there's a rationale behind that, but I also think amazing things happen when people push for what's needed as opposed to what people think is politically possible.

NG: I also think obviously the no-Keystone movement started about a pipeline, but it's more than the pipeline. I feel like the movement goals have surpassed everybody's expectations. I feel like on that point it was about getting the environmental movement to be more bold, more creative, much more in the streets and that's already happened. I feel like yes, we want to stop the pipeline, but we also now have this very galvanized movement that's about every pipeline and every export terminal and every coal plan. That didn't feel like where we were at two years ago. It's not the same as the direct emissions goal of stopping the pipeline, but I think it is very real.

TL: So, what’s the Pledge of Resistance regarding the pipeline?

LA: It means that people are committed to doing everything up to and including civil disobedience to show that yes, this is the line. Do not cross it. There is a level of seriousness around this fight that is going to continue. The idea is to take Obama to task so that he really has to think about who he is representing and who he is alienating as he make these decisions.

NG: The goal is to have more than 100,000 people pledge to take action if Obama decides to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Those will be 100,000 badass people who are ready to stand up to this pipeline and every other one.

TL: Are you guys planning to jump into the fray on the fracking stuff?

LA: Not yet, no.

TL: Any reason why?

LA: We're a little busy. Also in terms of our regional base, it's not in our backyards. It's not as much of the communities that we've worked with. It's just a little more challenging.

TL: In terms of energy stuff, I've been looking into trying to get solar panels and it's a little expensive, and if you don’t own your house it's particularly tough. What should people be doing? It's not as easy as not buying something with palm oil in it.

LA: I think it is as easy as reducing consumption as a first step. I think when folks start to think about it there's some very innovative new tech tools that help you to understand where your consumption is too much or more than it needs to be. I think there are ways that we can help to build a type of community that is less energy dependent. Instead of driving up to Marin to go hiking, you go to the park near you, ride bikes, think about what you're cooking, how you're cooking — all of your daily consumption.

I do think that starts to make a difference and then the next step that we go to is once you have that level of caring you can also think about your voice and how your voice is contributing to the change. That's where I think on energy issues the voice hasn't been there in a united way for a while and now it could be and now more and more it is. There's not an easy way I'm going to unplug my house from coal. I'm going to pop a solar panel on the roof and I'm going to be all set. It does need to be this gradual shift that we start to make together.

TL: You guys have had a lot of success in targeting corporations and targeting pocketbooks by going after banks. Do you have any advice that you would offer to other organizations even outside the environmental movement about how to do that effectively.

NG: Follow the money. Follow the money.

LA: That's our trick. I think that's the strategy at the simplest level to figure out where the money is coming from and it gets harder and harder to see as it goes further upstream. I'm an optimist in that I believe in humans and I think that humans, Americans, when we look at what is happening and if something is exposed and brought to light and folks are given the opportunity to choose something different, they will choose something different and better. Because I still believe in that theory, I think, follow the money, expose it and then give a couple places where people can target their pressure. As people target the pressure together they have an experience of seeing what that feels like and how effective it is and then they can expand out from there. I think that can work in many sectors on many issues.

TL: Talk a little bit about the Disney campaign, because I know that was a huge win for you.

LA: A couple of years ago we were looking deeply at our area of concern in the Indonesia rainforest for all the reasons we've talked about — climate change and human rights, and then we started to just follow the money — which in this case is about following the pulp and figure out where is it going. We found it’s going into manufacturing facilities in China. There are these two giant companies one of which is Asia Pulp and Paper and then it's entering all these different supply chains that are a little hard to find. Because we weren't finding it quickly we started testing products that we thought would likely be connected and we found that kids' books of all things contain rainforest fiber. Rainforest fiber that you can isolate to say that the likelihood is that it's coming from Indonesia.

We took on the top 10 U.S.-based, but globally significant publishing companies of kids' books. We started to get progress from some of the names you might recognize like Scholastic. We started to move on these policies, they really agreed that Indonesia was critical for biodiversity, our climate and for rights so they committed to making progress. Then we get down to the two laggards. One of which is Harper Collins, part of the Murdoch empire and the other of which is Walt Disney Company.

We were weighing which one are we were going to really push and we found out that Disney is the largest children's book and magazine publisher in the world. If you take into account all of the ways that they use paper, vendors, licensing, parks, etc., they are very significant so Disney very much hit our radar. One morning as executives went to work in Burbank, Mickey and Minnie were out there waving to them chained to the gate with signs that say, "Rainforest destruction is no fairy tale."

Within a week they were in our office with some executives saying that they were really serious about figuring out how to address their paper issues. It ended up taking us 18 months of negotiation because they did have very complicated supply chains and we wanted to make sure that the action they were going to take they could make real. It's the same thing that we're asking for with the banks which is first, know what you do and don't know. Look at what you're financing and then start to change it. We had to do that process with Disney. What is the paper, where are you getting it from? Then start to cut out the worst, change the way you're designing products so that you can reduce your consumption and then increase your recycle content.

So then we announced it in October. The implementation will continue for quite a while, but it's the broadest ranging policy that we've seen. It includes when you look at all of their vendors and licensees you are talking about everything from doll packaging in Russia to a napkin on a cruise ship. It's 25,000 factories, 10,000 of which are in China. It's tapping into these places that were considered untouchable.

TL: That's great. Harper Collins must be glad they didn’t get your attention.

LA: Harper Collins quietly updated their website with a new policy that is very familiar looking.

TL: I was going to ask about the vision for the organization and what sort of long-term goals ... you mentioned some of your deep thinking, but I don't know if there's anything else that you wanted to add.

LA: Right. I think that the big picture stuff is looking at how do we give people the tools that they need to get the right type of change in the time frame that we need it. I think when you look at a lot of organizations and their strategies around climate, the numbers don't add up. We are feeling the impacts of climate change and we need to start to have change at that scale. That's what we're really diving in deep and assessing is how do we tackle these underlying drivers that are allowing these systems to run out of control and take us in the wrong direction.

How are we moving these very large targets? On the palm oil campaign for instance, it's not just the top 20 snack food companies which have products they are selling all over the world, but it's also looking at the traders, so it's companies like Cargill. They are the middle players who are supplying this to markets. Cargill making a change could create a ripple effect that would go through the entire food system. The same thing with Bank of America, so part of it is to make sure we're still hitting a level of target that would be very significant and we're demanding the right level of what's needed, not what people is assume is possible.

I think it's that kind of sweet spot where all those pieces come together. We have the right big targets and we are giving people tools that they need and we're figuring out how to bring those pieces together to move the ball more quickly and to undermine some of the systems that would otherwise keep us on this dangerous trajectory.

NG: As an organization we really, really took a look in the mirror and asked, are we genuinely getting the change that we want and need to see from corporations? Are we genuinely working at the level of urgency that's required? We got very clear that our core purpose is around protecting rainforests and stemming climate change through people powered corporation campaigns.

We, at our core, recognize the interconnectedness between forest issues and climate issues and we very much believe that going after the largest corporate giants in the country is the way to get the biggest change. We saw it with Disney and Disney just made us hungrier. We were a $4 million organization sitting at the table with a $40 billion company and leveraged the kind of change that actually changes supplies down to the napkin on a cruise ship. We want more of that. That's what we want all the time. I think that it was a big year and it was a big year for a lot of reasons, but I think we're ambitious and eager to do more of that.

TL: Lindsey, you mentioned being an optimist. Despite all the difficult work that you do and knowing what we face, what is it that keeps you going, doing the hard work and fighting the corporate giants?

LA: I believe it and I know that it needs to happen. Marina Silva has this great quote where people will always ask her, "Are you an optimist or a pessimist?" and she says "I'm persistent." I have a very similar mantra. If I don't like what is happening, I want to have a role in stopping it or changing it. I'm optimistic that I and other humans can do that.

Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, has just launched the new project Hitting Home, chronicling extreme energy extraction.

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