Greenpeace Canada and US Forest Campaigners from left: Richard Brooks, Lindsey Allen, Christy Ferguson and Scott Paul pose with the Greenpeace logo in the lobby of the Greenpeace office.

It’s fitting that fifth year celebrations are known as “wood” anniversaries since that’s largely what this one is about. On August 5th, Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace will mark five years of the company’s new fiber buying policy and the end of the “Kleercut” campaign. That day, conflict and confrontation turned into collaboration that continues to this day.

The story of the long campaign, while colorful, is not the subject of this blog. You can check out a timeline of the campaign that began in 2004 here. And, on Tuesday August 5th you can join in a Twitter chat featuring folks from both sides (including yours truly) to ask questions and share your thoughts.

In the meantime, here are five things that stand out to me about the Greenpeace Kleercut campaign and its resolution a half decade ago.

1. People didn’t really believe it

 

Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark sharing a stage on August 5th, 2009

The announcement that Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark were going to stand on a stage together – with smiles on our faces – was a little too far-fetched for many people to believe. Within the environmental community there were critics that found reasons to disparage the deal. Others assumed the big company had just bought off Greenpeace somehow (tip: before you assert this, remember Greenpeace does not take money from companies, ever). And, there were some on the Kimberly-Clark side with similar suspicions. Was Greenpeace being genuine? Or, was this all some sort of elaborate ruse that would end with another banner being hung and egg on the faces of executives who took a chance to work with the tree-huggers?

It’s funny looking back. Do humans get used to conflict? Are we sometimes more comfortable picking a side and digging in our heels than letting our guards down and, in the process, having to make new sense of the world and our place in it? Whoa. I don’t know. What’s clear is that, after years of collaboration and Kimberly-Clark making good on its commitments, most of the cynicism and criticism has disappeared.

2. No permanent friends, no permanent enemies

Protests at the “point of destruction” in the Canadian Boreal forest

The Greenpeace forest campaign has an unofficial motto: “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies.” Shout out to Scott Paul, my old boss and the guy who did much of the trust-building that led to August 5th, 2009, for popularizing that phrase. What it means is that Greenpeace should always stay focused on the cause. It’s about the forests, stupid, not any given company. And, it’s never personal. So, activists can be locked down to an office building one day, and the next we can show up in suits with smiles if it means getting something done for the forests.

Ahem. That doesn’t mean things won’t be awkward.

We’re all people, after all. Sitting in friendly meetings with Kimberly-Clark, I am reminded that I didn’t always make life easier for my counterparts. It’s hard not to feel a little funny about that. After years of collaboration it’s only human to like the people you work with. To care about their families. To hope they enjoyed that trip to the Boundary Waters or whatever. Thankfully, if our shared humanity makes things awkward at times, it is also the source of what helps us get over ourselves, see the good in others, learn from our past, and form trust that helps us move forward.

Cuffed activist at a Kimberly-Clark office

3. It was all about the Boreal…but not anymore

Contrary to what some assume, Greenpeace does not just start picking on a company for the heck of it. Our forest campaigns begin with a strategic priority: a place. From there we do analysis to figure out what the largest threats are to that forest, who is part of the problem and who could be part of a solution. In the case of Kimberly-Clark, Canada’s Boreal Forest was the priority for Greenpeace. While a lot of work was being done on copy paper, newspaper and book publishers made from Boreal wood, the tissue issue was relatively unaddressed.

Over the last five years, Kimberly-Clark has done a lot to ensure the wood it gets from Canada is more sustainable. But, the wood buying policy they developed with Greenpeace input is global in scope. And, so is Kimberly-Clark’s market reach. So, whether it is addressing social issues associated with eucalyptus plantations in Brazil or keeping tiger habitat standing in Indonesia, the policy applies. And, people and forests are better off because of it.

4. Kleercut was a long campaign – was that a good thing?

As a forest campaigner, I want to see change and I want it fast. Natural forests are shrinking around the globe, and we don’t have much time to save them. Greenpeace has enjoyed a number of short campaigns where companies wake up, smell the sawdust, and make changes in a matter of days or weeks. That was not the case with Kimberly-Clark.

Activists hang a banner at Kimberly-Clark facilities in Tennessee

Looking back, that may not have been all bad. The campaign became, over time, way bigger than Greenpeace campaigners like me, with people around the world coming up with their own creative ways to maintain pressure on the company. And, the issue of tissue – along with the broader idea that companies should be responsible for what ends up in their supply chains – reached audiences around the world.

It also seems to have had more of an effect on Kimberly-Clark than simply changing its fiber procurement practices. From what I’ve seen and heard, years of Kleercut campaigning may have set in motion something unintended and more profound: a shift in corporate culture. I’m not saying the 142-year old company is totally different because of Greenpeace. But, over the last five years, sustainability, and the innovation necessary to support it, seems to be much more a part of what Kimberly-Clark is as a company. And, its customers seem to be responding, which is good news for the triple bottom line.

5. I have no idea where this is going

Well, I do have some sense. Kimberly-Clark regularly reports on progress towards achieving its fiber-sourcing and sustainability commitments. And the company has long-term goals that clearly state where it is trying to go. But, the world is changing rapidly, and so is the tissue industry. Will Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark be talking more about “alternative” fiber sources like corn stalks and bamboo than wood five years from now? If so, we may have to refer to the ten-year mark of this journey together as the “bamboo anniversary.”

Want to share your thoughts? Join the Twitter chat with Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace, hosted by Triple Pundit, on August 5th.