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Trump Is the Wrong Target for Climate Activists

The administration isn't going to change its mind on protecting the environment. But consumer pressure on corporations could do just that.

Joshua Lott/Getty

Patagonia, the outdoor sportswear company, made a bold business decision last week: They threatened to sue Donald Trump. “The President Stole Your Land,” the company declared on its website, an angry rebuke of Trump’s decision to shrink two national monuments in Utah. The removal of federal environmental protections for much of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments is “the largest elimination of protected land in American history” and “illegal,” the site read. “Tell the Administration that they don’t have the authority to take these lands away from you.”

The company’s sales reportedly skyrocketed. According to GQ, Patagonia gear sold by non-Patagonia retailers sold six times faster than normal on the day after the announcement; for the next two days, sales were five times higher than usual. That wasn’t the company’s intention, according to Vincent Stanley, Patagonia’s director of philosophy. “We were not driven by thinking that this was what our customers wanted,” said Stanley, who has been with Patagonia since 1973 and co-wrote a book about the company’s pro-environment business strategy. “This action is just built into who we’ve been as a company for a long time.”

Patagonia is a uniquely environmentally friendly company, but other companies should take note. Americans increasingly want brands to prove that they’re helping, not hurting, the environment. A 2016 study in the International Journal of Communication showed that consumers are supporting companies they consider environmentally friendly and avoiding those they consider irresponsible. Corporations fear this wrath such that, when facing boycott or “buycott” campaigns, they change their behavior 25 percent of the time. That’s a much more tangible impact than achieved through protests of the Trump administration, which has followed through on much of Trump’s environment-related campaign promises to gut federal clean air, water, and climate change regulations.

So why are environmental activists still focusing their energy on changing the Trump administration’s behavior? They should shift resources and strategy toward corporate environmental activism—a proven strategy which can make meaningful differences in emissions reductions, and have the side effect of changing federal policy, too.

Former Congressman Henry Waxman spent 40 years in the House of Representatives trying to convince the government to address pollution and global warming. He knows what success looks like: He was the author of the 1990 Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996, both of which are now law. Waxman also knows that things are different now under Trump’s anti-regulatory regime. “When you can’t rely on government at all,” he told me, “you have to find other ways to accomplish your goal.”

Waxman, who retired from Congress in 2014, is now the chairman of the environmental group Mighty, which is trying to build a consumer-driven environmental advocacy movement. Their latest corporate target is Tyson Foods, which they assert is responsible for most of the water pollution across the Midwest. Rivers and streams in the heartland have long been plagued by fertilizer runoff from agricultural operations; the water supply in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, is often polluted with nitrate, which can be fatally toxic for babies. “When we’re talking about people who live in Trump country, they can’t look to government to help them because the policy of the Trump administration is not to regulate and not to protect public health, but to let industry to do whatever is necessary for them,” Waxman said. “And so it’s important to have direct campaigns on these corporations to talk about the environmental impact of agriculture.”

Even though Tyson Foods does not own or operate many farms that pollute, the Big Meat behemoth buys its products from farms, and are therefore the main drivers of their demand. That’s why Mighty has been pressuring Tyson to better police its supply chain, recently delivering a petition with 70,000 signatures asking Tyson not to buy from farms responsible for widespread water pollution. According to Mighty campaign director Lucia von Reusner, the group also helped mobilize a rural Kansas community that successfully prevented Tyson from opening a large chicken processing plant near their town.

While Tyson has not yet pledged to change its supply chain practices, it’s been steadily taking steps to improve its environmental image. In April, it hired a “chief sustainability officer.” In May, it eliminated the use of antibiotics in its chicken. Last week, the meat company increased its investment in Beyond Meat, a meatless product that contributes less to global warming. “Our strategic intent is to be the world’s best, most sustainable protein supplier,” Tyson’s new CEO, Tom Hayes, said last month.  Von Reusner thinks these shifts were the result of negative press from her group and others, out of fear that consumers will stop buying what they believe to be harmful. “Sometimes your dollar is more important than your vote,” she said.

There have been many consumer-driven victories over the last two decades. Mitsubishi pulled out of an salt-extraction project at a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mexico after cities in California passed resolutions against the company and people sent 700,000 letters of protest. Seaworld stopped breeding orcas through their breeding programs. Nestlé stopped using palm oil in its supply chain to stop deforestation. Kimberly-Clark created new paper procurement policies to reduce deforestation. And the company that owns Zara, a clothing store, eliminated the use of fur. “The best way to drive change is to hold companies accountable,” Waxman said. “While politicians are becoming less and less accountable to the public, companies are finding they have to be more accountable to earn the public trust.”

There’s a notable limit to this strategy: the fossil fuel industry, which contributes most to climate change and physical pollution. Unlike agricultural, food, and most other corporations, oil, gas, and coal companies are less vulnerable to pressure from consumers because for many people, these fuels are necessity. Car commuters need gas, for instance. This also applies to the utility companies that get their energy from fossil fuel sources. Ideally, consumers would have the option of using a company that gets more of its energy from renewable sources, but most Americans don’t have a choice of utility companies: There’s only one game in town, and people can’t afford to go without electricity or heat. Unless tens of millions of Americans begin fully powering their homes with solar panels, for instance, power utilities won’t feel pressured to move toward more renewable sources. (Von Reusner says Mighty is thinking about ways to make consumer-driven campaigns against fossil fuels and other heavy industries. “We’re testing the model and expanding it,” she said.)

This caveat aside, it’s still far more likely that meaningful change will come from environmental activism targeted at corporations rather than the government—which may well force regulatory changes that activists can’t. For instance, as companies are pressured by consumer activists to change their behavior, they’ll want their competitors to be forced to do same. Thus, they’ll lobby for government regulations to level the playing field—and who, after all, does the Trump administration listen to more than corporations? According to The Guardian, Trump’s EPA has granted almost every single one of the American Petroleum Institute’s demands for regulatory rollbacks. What if, in order to please these industries, Trump instead had to take steps to protect the environment?

Perhaps this is a long shot. But it’s far more realistic than activists’ convincing the Trump administration to do anything about climate change. Trump doesn’t care that tens of millions of Americans want environmentally friendly policies. Corporations do.

Sharon Zhang contributed reporting.