Speaking to power

There are occasions when it makes sense to be on the inside, when it makes sense to suit up and reach out to the captains of industry for some straight talk or, as we would say in Greenpeace, “direct communication”. After all, there are occasions when we go to great lengths — often involving a very long rope indeed — to get our message heard by company directors.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos over the past few days I have had meetings with no fewer than 15 chief executives of major corporations, men (they were all men) whose decisions help shape our environment and affect workers’ rights and ultimately what kind of world we pass on to our children and grandchildren.

One example among many serves to highlight the value of showing up. The first was a breakfast briefing with Unilever and about 150 of its customers. It was an opportunity to raise awareness of the impact of the company’s sourcing policies, to talk about the impact of palm oil plantations on rainforests in Indonesia, on wildlife, the small farmers and the indigenous peoples who are often cleared with the forest.

I was invited by the chief executive, who in offering me a chance to address the audience, spoke of the curious relationship his company enjoys with Greenpeace.

He spoke of our debate about the need to protect the forests and of the time last year when Greenpeace activists descended from the roof of Nestlé’s annual general meeting to press home the point about palm oil and rainforest destruction.

Davos is not exactly a revival meeting for the socially or ecologically aware, but there are many who are beginning to realise that social and ecological bottom lines are directly linked to their companies’ bottom line. They know that more and more consumers are looking at the true cost of products and voting with their pockets to demand clean production and respect for the rights of workers and local people.

For me, Davos is a key opportunity to speak truth directly to power and to stress what connects us rather than what divides us. It is a chance to make a direct appeal to the captains of industry as parents, grandparents, and fellow citizens on this finite, fragile planet of ours.
Kumi Naidoo is executive director of Greenpeace International.

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