Represented on seven continents and throughout the seven seas, Greenpeace's best-known image is perhaps that of a ship, sailing the high seas upholding the Greenpeace mission to sustain the natural environment and protect endangered spaces and species.
And it's been highly successful at attaining those lofty goals: It has been directly responsible for over 25 international treaties and conventions of the United Nations and other international bodies, involving issues such as toxicity, ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity, and endangered species.
But Greenpeace has started to experience some high water in the last decade as it battles with the perils of being multinational, incendiary, and fiercely righteous.
The organization began 30 years ago in 1971 by a committee in Vancouver, British Columbia, who were fed up with the US atmospheric testing in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Other environmentals, such as World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth, are perceived as organizations that work within the system; Earth Liberation Front and EarthFirst, on the other hand, are often seen as too extreme and destructive. Greenpeace managed to carve out a niche between these two extremes and emerged as strong and unyielding, yet responsible and respectful of all living things.
The name of the group was originally Don't Make a Wave, a title that seems almost comically inappropriate compared to Greenpeace's methods of operation since. The name Greenpeace quickly replaced the original, deriving from the vision to create a green and peaceful world.
Over the years, commando-style protests have included members chaining themselves to nuclear waste cargo, cutting off ships to intercept whaling efforts, and blocking waste discharge pipes in open water sources.
But perhaps most memorable has been Greenpeace's battle with the French. Since the early formation of Greenpeace, the French have been directly tied to ramming a protest boat, beating up Greenpeace members, and most outrageously blowing up the famous Rainbow Warrior as it headed to the island of Mururoa to protest French nuclear testing. Ironically, these events just helped shape the Greenpeace brand and increased membership enrollment.
Greenpeace is now a global organization staffed by volunteers, with offices in over 30 countries. As their literature says, they are an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization, supported by 2.9 million members worldwide.
However, in the late nineties, Greenpeace went through a cutting back in resources and manpower. Depending on which source you believe (research turned up a varied list of membership figures), one thing is certain, Greenpeace's membership has dropped roughly in half since 1991. And as we all know, a fall in membership means a fall in fundraising and a fall in fundraising means death to a non-profit.
It's not clear if any direct cause can be tied to a loss in membership but there are several threats that can be linked. One is that an ironic fallout of making people more aware is that now there are less opportunities to shock or instigate -- a talent that was crucial to the Greenpeace brand. Oil companies have their own environmental consulting teams, paper companies frequently advertise their awareness of tree replenishment and water pollution issues in general news and lifestyle magazines, and governments meet yearly to discuss environmental conditions and controls to implement worldwide. Greenpeace's reputation was built as a whistle-blower, and suddenly the opportunities to flex this brand image are getting scarce.
Naturally there's still lots to do, particularly in recently industrialized regions such as Asia and South America. But, as a multinational organization it faces a consistency conflict in dealing with local issues. For instance, an office in Norway or Japan may be hard to sustain while protesting whaling; the profit in clear-cutting rainforests to grow beef for McDonald's hamburgers creates conflict for local South American offices. What may be obvious in one country lacks clarity in another where locals may be struggling with religious, cultural or lifestyle issues that are at odds with Greenpeace's agenda.
The larger the organization becomes the more it may suffer from some of the bureaucratic bloat of other large NGOs, as it is less able to turn and protest on a dime without consultation by committee first.
Some of Greenpeace's recent moves to attract members and disseminate its message have also come under attack. Last year Greenpeace teamed up with advertising agency, HHCL & Partners, to advise their clients on corporate ethics and the environment, in return for communications work for the group.
HHCL's affiliations connect it with clients who are more likely to make the A-list for Greenpeace's dartboard than a cozy informational get together on the merits of tree hugging. Frankenfood producers, Montsanto, the global nuclear company BFNL, fuel suppliers, BP and Texaco, and the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, are all affiliated under the WPP umbrella to which HHCL belongs.
Supporters say this is the best method for message dissemination and besides companies can be quicker to change than government regulations. Critics argue that Greenpeace is giving a "greenwash," and in the long run, weakening its own credibility and integrity.
And recently, in an attempt to raise revenue and awareness levels, Greenpeace decided to license its brand and name to companies who followed the Greenpeace mantra. The Greenpeace name carries a significant cache for other brands hoping to tie their product or service to the Greenpeace reputation. Greenpeace maintains that the demand for environmentally sound products exists and consumers are willing to pay more for them. Critics worry that this form of revenue will cloud Greenpeace's objectivity in judging brand owners' environmental records.
It's obvious that the changing world holds some changes for Greenpeace as well. Non-profits, as with private sector companies, are dependent upon their brand to help distinguish them from other organizations, inspire their members and reach out to donors. The next thirty years will be interesting to watch as Greenpeace refines its brand to meet the changing needs of our environment.