Calling them tree-huggers wouldn’t be wrong. In fact, the Wall Street Journal called the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) “the most effective environmental agitators in the business.” And the group’s mission is to save trees by halting destructive deforestation and its attendant climate-change and human-rights problems.
But the 21-year-old group—with its 30 staffers and $3 million budget—does more than wave anti-logging posters and protest outside the homes of corporate managers. To get companies to adopt pro-environmental policies, RAN has been known to squeeze corporations by choking off their revenues and blocking their bank financing. Indeed, the activists can play a good deal of hardball, drawing on their access to Henry Paulson of Goldman Sachs, Charles Prince of Citigroup, and dozens of other prominent CEOs.
As the Sundance Kid said to Butch Cassidy as the two were being dogged by a relentless posse in the 1969 western: “Who are those guys?” A candid talk with Michael Brune, the executive director of RAN, offers clues.
Is it fair to say that RAN’s strategy is to “follow the money?”
Yes, we use that phrase a lot. We’re somewhat unique in the social- change movement. Our strategy, in general, is to “bypass the middle man,” which means we don’t focus on Congress or the White House but go to the source of the problem. Eight or 10 years ago we started market campaigns. [As part of that effort] we train our staff and campaign workers to think like CEOs. We ask ourselves, if I’m a chief executive, what do I care about?
What answer did you come up with?
If you’re Boise Cascade’s CEO, [for example] you care about where you sell paper and wood, and where you get your financing. So, [to get Boise Cascade to adopt an environmental policy] we went to the marketplace first, to Boise-Cascade’s customers, like Home Depot. We convinced Home Depot to start phasing out wood products that were not certified as coming from well-managed forests. We went to 400 other companies in the Boise-Cascade campaign. It took a few years, but Boise Cascade adopted a corporate environmental policy in 2003.
RAN also convinced major banks to adopt policies that halt or limit lending to companies and projects that you consider destructive to the environment. How did you get a seat at the table with Citibank, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs?
By asking repeatedly, and being persistent. It was very hard. During the 1990s, the banks wouldn’t even return phone calls. But we have a good track record of pressuring companies [into adopting environmental policies] and then applauding them publicly when they do.
What kind of pressure are you talking about?
Years filled with advertisements on CNN and in the New York Times. Protests at bank branches and in front of CEO’s homes. When Sandy Weill [former chairman of Citigroup] was vacationing in Europe, we took out an ad in the International Herald Tribune. We create pressure by raising awareness, and then investors, employees, and customers usually ask how they can help. Executives get it from all sides.