Pin-Striped Protesters

Greenpeace activists are a colorful bunch. They chain themselves to doomed trees, ram whaling boats on the high seas and stand between harpoons and baby seals. Just last month, felony charges were dismissed against 15 members who tried to disrupt a missile test launch by boating in restricted waters off a California Air Force base. Yet increasingly, a visit from Greenpeace does not bring headlines, or a confrontation with a demonstrator in a death mask. The activist will most likely be dressed in a suit and armed with a PowerPoint presentation on how penalties for carbon emissions will hurt the bottom line.

A cultural revolution is underway as protesters in pinstripes figure out how to work the capitalist system. To learn the new language, Greenpeace in Australia sent its corporate campaigner to a 10-week strategy course for company directors, and Friends of the Earth can now draft shareholder resolutions. Protest groups tap members over the Internet for business expertise, commission financial studies, collect free advice over lunch with sympathetic investment bankers and poach talent from the corporate world. Amnesty International last week released a global map of 34 countries accused of human-rights abuses, and warned that 129 multinationals working in those nations put their reputation, and their share price, at risk. "We finally realized it's all about money, so we have to talk that way," says Fouad Hamdan, a Greenpeace director in Germany.

These new corporate tools are especially useful after September 11, which has inspired many anti-global activists to rethink theatrical protest strategies. Greenpeace is worried about how its famous "direct action" stunts will look now. And the Enron debacle, activists hope, will bolster their demands for greater transparency. Thanks largely to the protester lobby, the European Union is calling on companies to publish social and environmental reports. A British law says pension trustees, who control a quarter of stock-market investment, must ask fund managers to define such policies. "We're starting to see this kind of liability linked to the bottom line," says Martin Whittaker, managing director at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, a Toronto firm that assigns environmental ratings to 1,800 companies.

Social investment funds welcome the new activist interest in finance. These green funds use the threat of embarrassing shareholder resolutions to pressure companies to adopt more responsible social or environmental policies. Simon Billenness, senior analyst at Trillium Asset Management of Boston, says that five years ago he had to recruit activists to these campaigns. "Now they are sophisticated enough to come to us," he says. As a result, the number of these resolutions is soaring.

The power of this new alliance is evident at Citigroup, which has been on activist hit lists for years for underwriting the controversial Three Gorges Dam in China. Rather than rally outside the bank, Friends of the Earth organized a "dialogue group" that included other activists, green fund managers and Citibank. In a letter dated Jan. 28, Citigroup described a number of changes it has made in its environmental policy, most notably a checklist on environmental risks that project finance teams must include in the deal file along with a credit assessment. On Feb. 13, Trillium dropped a proposed shareholder resolution that would have required such a document.

Greenpeace, together with Trillium and other investors, has helped import this tactic to Europe. In April 2000, a resolution calling on BP Amoco to abandon plans for oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to redirect investment into its solar energy earned a 13.5 percent vote. In 2001 they called for a timetable for switching from oil to renewable energy.

Pin-striped protesters are claiming more tangible victories as well. Greenpeace in Sydney opposed the Stuart Oil Shale Project, a partnership between Australian companies and Suncor of Canada, because extracting oil from shale emits four times more greenhouse gases than normal drilling. Once again Greenpeace chose to make a financial case, rather than chain activists to the gate. Corporate campaigner Monica Richter hired Innovest, which estimated that reducing the greenhouse emissions would cost Suncor up to $200 million per year. Suncor pulled out of the project, and now says it decided to focus on Canadian operations instead.

Greenpeace's love-hate relationship with business started in the early 1990s, when it launched an effort to develop environmentally friendly appliances. Its Greenfreeze design for refrigerators is now used by appliance makers across Europe, and its in-house engineers are devoted to finding cost-effective wind and solar energy. Benedict Southworth, Greenpeace director for international climate control, says that hours meeting in dreary conference rooms have given activists an appreciation for the company view of business detail. "Most of this work is teeth-curlingly dull," he says. That's why, instead of demanding that Coca-Cola have ozone-friendly refrigeration at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, Greenpeace worked out a program to have it ready by Athens in 2004.

Many more radical activists see any cooperation with multinationals as corrupt, and Greenpeace is very sensitive to charges of selling out. "We do not give out a Greenpeace seal of approval, no way," says Christoph Thies, director of the forestry campaign, noting it will always act out if talks fail. He orchestrated a groundbreaking deal for a moratorium on ancient-forest logging in British Columbia, but had to sit at the table with loggers to do so. In fact, argues John Elkington of SustainAbility, which advises companies on social issues, it must retain that good-cop/bad-cop balance for dialogue to work. And then there are the suits. Hamdan has upgraded from jeans, but refuses to shave cleanly for business meetings, sporting a "chic shave" as "my own personal protest." It's more subtle than a death mask, but it seems to work.