Environment Boycotts Reach Past Governments

June 13, 1993|By BEN BARBER

When 19 rhino horns prized for their aphrodisiac qualitie were publicly burned June 3 in Taiwan, it marked success for a determined group of activists who are creating their own foreign policy to protect the world's environment.

Fed up with slow official efforts to protect the earth's vanishing forests, whales and clean air, these environmental activists are going over the heads of their governments and asking consumers to boycott products, companies and whole countries achieve their goals.

The Rainforest Action Network ran a full page advertisement in the New York Times May 10 asking for a boycott of Mitsubishi's cars, televisions, Nikon cameras and Kirin beer to protest Japanese logging operations "from Alberta to the Amazon."

And a coalition of four other organizations asked consumers in January to boycott products from Taiwan, which it said is "a black hole" into which endangered species such as rhinoceros and tiger vanish -- their horns and bones ground up for aphrodisiacs.

The boycotts have had some success. In early June, Taiwan publicly burned 19 rhino horns and 1,600 pounds of elephant tusks, worth $400,000, that it seized at airports; and China has just published a ban on trade in rhino horn and tiger bones.

Critics question whether the bans will be enforced. Among more substantial victories so far, however, are that Iceland stopped whaling after a Greenpeace boycott and that tuna is now largely caught without the needless killing of dolphins.

"We're fairly agnostic on boycotts -- there is not a view that boycotts interfere" with U.S. policy-making, said a State Department official. "Many U.S. government agencies have sympathies very much in line with calls for direct action." He said the threat of boycotts can be helpful during negotiations to protect the environment because "when you see the people across the table, it's known that they've got the same groups breathing down their necks."

"Boycotts have been fairly effective," said another U.S. official involved in trade. They alert the public in countries such as Norway and Japan that "the will of the American people" is behind policies to save whales and "it's not just the government trying to exercise its muscles."

"Historically, the domestic NGOs [non-government organizations] have set standards, held boycotts and then, over time, Congress or the administration acts to incorporate some of the ideas into law and international regulations." Now, NGOs participate in negotiations such as the International Tropical Timber Organization, and "if there's a breakdown, they could move to boycotts," said the trade official.

Environmental boycotts have become sophisticated, moving a long way from the starry-eyed idealists who spray-painted slogans against corporate greed in the 1960s.

Campbell Plowden, coordinator of Greenpeace's boycott of Icelandic fish, said he identified the major customers in Germany, England and the United States and sought to influence them.

The weak links were institutional buyers such as school lunch programs and fast food chains that were influenced by petitions, pickets, demonstrations and letters to corporate officials. Mr. Plowden said he obtained a few shares of Pillsbury, owner of Burger King, to be able to speak at the annual corporate meeting about saving whales by canceling Icelandic fish contracts.

Four or five main buyers were targets at a time. When one agreed to respect the boycott, a new target was added. By 1990, three years after the campaign began, Iceland stopped whaling.

Boycotts work when the organization has the resources, tools and public support to go the distance and the target is appropriate, such as attacking fish to save whales, said Mr. Plowden. A boycott of Japan Airlines to save whales fell flat. And hitting Taiwan computers to save rhino horns seems also remote.

"A boycott, like direct action, is a tactic of last resort," said Mr. Plowden. "It is most effective as a threat. Alaskan wolf hunting was banned after the threat of a tourism boycott, for example."

"Based on the tuna and whale campaigns, we learned that shame should be a centerpiece of the strategy," said Michael Marx, who directs the Rainforest Action Network campaign against Mitsubishi.

"Executives see the pickets. We've got 300 companies that do business with Mitsubishi -- AT&T, Daimler-Benz, Volvo, McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Apple. We've prepared materials and videos and will go directly to them. Many have signed the Valdez principles" that pledge corporate environmental responsibility. And his group plans informational picketing as well.

"If we get one company to cancel a mega-million dollar contract with Mitsubishi, we've done more than by convincing many consumers," he said.

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