The New Ford Focus

With so many environmental groups actively campaigning for causes that are at the forefront of the political scene (global warming, arctic drilling, oil consumption, deforestation and mercury poisoning all come to mind), the question becomes, which approaches are most effective?

Case in point: last week the Sierra Club, long an enemy of the Ford Motor Company (due to its outright refusal to manufacture more fuel-efficient vehicles even though it has the technology) shifted gears and applauded Ford for its new Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV.

RAN ad

Meanwhile, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), relying upon more disruptive tactics, placed a controversial full-page ad in the New York Times on Thursday that featured Dick Cheney, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and William Ford, Jr., CEO of Ford. As part of its Freedom From Oil campaign, RAN's ad posed the bold rhetorical question, "What do these three men have in common?" The answer: "They all love gas guzzlers."

In a recent interview with the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, RAN chairman Jim Gollin (himself a Buddhist) told a tale that best sums up his group's approach to environmental activism:
There's a story about a guy with a mule. He couldn't get the mule to move. His friend says, "You've just got to whisper 'Move' in his ear and he'll move." So the first guy whispers into the mule's ear. Nothing. He says louder, "Move!" Nothing. Eventually the friend says, "Here, I'll show you." He takes a two-by-four and whacks the mule on the head. Then he whispers, "Move" into the mule's ear, and the mule moves. The first guy is shocked by the violence. "What was that about?" "Well," says the friend, "first you have to get his attention."
For years, RAN has relied upon the two-by-four approach. During its campaign to get Home Depot to stop selling old-growth forest products, it managed to misappropriate the code for all of Home Depot's intercom systems. At 162 stores on the same day, customers were treated to this message: "Attention, Home Depot shoppers! There's a sale on wood in Aisle 13. This wood has been ripped from the heart of the Amazon basin. There may be some blood spilled on the floor, so please be careful. This wood is leading to the dislocation of indigenous communities, soil degradation, and the destruction of Mother Earth."

The Home Depot and its shoppers got the message loud and clear.

On the other side of activist scale is the Nature Conservancy, a non-confrontational non-profit that collaborates with big businesses (including Home Depot) to achieve conservation goals. According to Conservancy spokesperson Emily Whitted, "Before our first major project with the Home Depot, we met with them several times to talk about the issue of illegal logging and how they could become a part of the solution."

While RAN got Home Depot's attention with antagonistic maneuvers, the Conservancy delivered its message softly.

In 2002, Home Depot gave the Conservancy $1 million to combat illegal logging in the Southwest-Asian island of Borneo (in the region of the country that is part of Indonesia), after the Conservancy discovered a large population of wild orangutans, a highly endangered species of primate. Then, roughly a year ago, the Conservancy took its alliance with Home Depot a step further, introducing the use of bar codes placed on timber in Indonesia so that consumers can ensure that their wood has not been logged illegally.

In comparing the results of both RAN and the Conservancy's tactics, RAN won hands down in shock value. While both organizations got Home Depot to cooperate, the fact remains that
Home Depot is the world's largest purchaser of wood products, and yet less than one percent of that wood comes from Indonesia.

How was the Conservancy so persuasive in getting Home Depot to promote sustainable timber harvesting in a country where it has few business interests? Jennifer Krill, director of RAN's Zero Emissions campaign, believes that it took three years of non-violent and peaceful stunts from RAN, the World Wildlife Federation and a broad coalition of grassroots organizations like Rainforest Relief and the Canadian-based Forest Action Network to bring Home Depot to the table in 1999. Once there, the Conservancy was able to step in. Basically, the non-confrontational approach was as effective as the more aggressive track, but as in Gollin's story, it took the two-by-four to get the mule to obey a whisper.

Dan Becker, Washington director of Sierra Club's Global Warming Program, offered another perspective. "It's really easy to run a campaign against a target that's ignoring you. It's much harder when they're listening."

The Sierra Club is the country's oldest and largest environmental group, and one founded on the idea that activism is the key to conservation. For a long time, it held fast to the RAN route. During Ford's 100th anniversary celebrations in 2003, for instance, the Sierra Club ran an ad in the New York Times that read, "A century of innovation, except at Ford." The ad featured a picture of an old telephone next to a cell phone, a phonograph beside an iPod, and an old Model T alongside a Ford Explorer. The Model T reached 25 miles per gallon, and despite William Ford's pledge in 2000 to improve Ford's fuel economy by 25 percent over five years, the Times ad pointed out that the Explorer averages a measly 16 miles per gallon.

Interestingly though, the Sierra Club didn't sign on to an ad made recently by environmental activist group the Bluewater Network, which likened William Ford to Pinocchio -- the ad was supported by both Greenpeace and Public Citizen of California, and garnered a cease-and-desist letter from Ford. Instead, Dr. Robert Cox, former president of the Sierra Club, ran for Ford's board of directors in an attempt to improve Ford's environmental record from the inside. "Not surprisingly," Becker said with a laugh, "Bobby lost."

Still, it seems as though the Sierra Club's technique of mixing the two-by-four with a soft whisper is beginning to win out. "We're trying to use many approaches, demanding clean cars that go farther on a gallon of gas," Becker said. The Sierra Club has already laid the facts about the new Ford SUV for 300,000 of its members through its Insider newsletter. Due to an electric motor that allows the 133-horsepower gas engine to shut down automatically in stop-and-go traffic, Ford's new hybrid SUV gets about 33 miles to the gallon in the city, almost twice that of its other vehicles.

The website features a Q&A for skeptics that Becker co-wrote, which even posits that legendary environmentalist John Muir might drive a Mercury Mariner Hybrid if he were alive today. At the Sierra Summit in San Francisco this September, the Sierra Club will attempt to get 3,000 of its leaders to take the new Ford hybrid for a test-drive. Also at that conference, the Sierra Club plans to distribute a new educational web-based game that teaches consumers how to get the best mileage out of their hybrids.

When asked if Sierra's civil approach to dealing with Ford has cost it some of its more militant campaigners, Becker mentioned a few angry emails that he chalked up to spur of the moment outrage. "What it comes down to," Becker said, "is that it isn't everyday that Sierra applauds the action of the Ford Motor Company. We want them to make cleaner vehicles and to change their policies and use union labor, which they're more likely to do this way than if we keep criticizing their every move."

While RAN's Jennifer Krill agrees that these are encouraging signs from Ford, she feels that Ford shouldn't simply niche-market these hybrid vehicles to Sierra Club members; the auto company should be mass-producing them. Krill suggested that Ford's sudden willingness to work with the Sierra Club is a response to the successful hybrids produced by competitors Toyota and Honda. "It is because of Ford and other automakers," Krill said, "that we're engaged in an endless war for oil in the Middle East." She said RAN will continue to demand that Ford dramatically improve the fuel efficiency in its automobiles, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental groups, including both RAN and the Sierra Club, agree that the technology exists to enable vehicles to average 40 miles per gallon within the next decade, saving more oil than the U.S. currently imports from the Persian Gulf or could ever draw from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, combined. To that end, RAN will keep staging events like the Fossil Fools Day it held on April 1, in which RAN members flocked to dealerships throughout the country to grill sales reps about the cars they sell.

Unlike the Home Depot campaign, where hindsight allows a better view of which activist strategies were more successful, the battle against oil consumption and the automotive industry has no end in sight. Certainly, the Sierra Club's recent support of Ford doesn't suggest that it will hesitate to pressure the automotive conglomerate in the future.

"The way toward less oil dependence and for consumers to save money at the pump," Becker concluded, "is to go further on a gallon of gas. Ford has the technology to make their cars do this, and we need to encourage them to use it. They've begun, and now they need to do it a hell of a lot more."

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