Friday, April 06, 2007

Organizing consumers against water profiteering

Wednesday's "Think Outside The Bottle" (TOTB) meeting left me curious about the style of organizing I was seeing and reflective about the particular opportunities and challenges implicit in what Corporate Accountability International is doing.

It puts the campaign in perspective to learn, from the website, that Corporate Accountability International is the current name of what used to be the organization INFACT. INFACT started life as the Infant Formula Action campaign which from 1977 to 1986 sought to prevent Nestle from marketing baby formula to women in poor countries as a "better" substitute for their own breast milk. Irresponsible promotions led to women losing the ability to feed their newborns or to afford the magic new "food" Nestle had got them hooked on. After seeing passage of the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes, INFACT went on to take on General Electric over its manufacture of nuclear weapons triggers and the tobacco industry.

So going after the water privatizers and profiteers -- that's Coke, Pepsi and longtime nemesis Nestle -- is old hat for these folks. They have a track record of combining international work, mobilizing actual political clout, and involving thousands of grassroots consumers in their campaigns. There are not a lot of organizations whose model of organizing reaches across so many arenas. Think about it:
  • Unions deal first and foremost with organizing people as workers in their workplaces; community campaigns and community allies are the stepchildren of that effort. Political allies are just useful adjuncts.
  • Classic community organizations are neighborhood based and member driven -- and therefore usually very local indeed and often insular.
  • Many environmental advocates and PIRG groups need the capacity to manipulate science and law at a level of sophistication which makes them, of necessity, professional and staff-driven. Any grassroots base is peripheral, touted when numbers and small donors are needed, but little involved in the actual work.
  • Progressive electoral campaigns are short term projects that require broad-based coalitions of convenience. They can't and don't dig in for tough principles for the long haul.
So what INFACT and now Corporate Accountability International does, reaching across national boundaries, into political systems, and out to individuals as consumers is quite unusual.

That said, the model has its problems and they were all on display on Wednesday night. Not wanting to trash anyone, but here is a visitor's perspective:

Dealing with allies: Any outfit pursuing such a wide vision needs local partners. Organizers seemed to be from out of town -- so local groups were drawn in, including the speaker from the city department of the environment and a goodly list of sponsors that have some local base. You don't get 85 people in a room without some local turnout capacity and TOTB clearly had that help. But I had to wonder what those local partners felt they got out of it.
  • Up near Mt. Shasta, the McCloud Watershed Council is apparently fighting a local water grab by the Nestle corporation. This was mentioned, but did those activists feel they had gotten the support they certainly need? I hope so.
  • The event was billed as somehow involving "interfaith" activity and a Methodist group was one of the sponsors -- but the only nod to "religious" participation was a closing pitch by a nice, but inaudible, gentleman from Green Sangha. Did other religious types perhaps pull a no-show on the organizers?
  • In an orthodox organizing sense, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was the target of the meeting: we were asked to sign a letter urging him to make the city unfriendly to plastic water bottles and the water profiteering industry. But Gavin was clearly also a main prop of the meeting, sending his Environment Director to speak and aide Wade Crowfoot to explain how strongly he supported TOTB's efforts. This makes sense for Gavin. The most significant opposition he'll face for re-election will almost certainly be a Green; we have more Greens than Republicans around. Getting out front against plastic water bottles, he gets himself an easy environmental issue that won't force him to work with the city's gritty local enviro activists. These folks want things Gavin doesn't want to give them like Saturday road closures in Golden Gate Park -- anathema to the city's rich culture vultures who donate to the likes of Gavin. So TOTB apparently has decided to carry water for its target -- and thereby advance its cause. This is a choice that a local group that depended on local environmental activists probably couldn't make.
Very notably, none of the excellent materials about the campaign pictured at the top of this post had any local contact address on them. Where are these TOTB people anyway? TOTB got our contact information, but organizing will be very shallow if communication is a one way street.

Replicable educational models. Big organizations pull off big campaigns by designing simple, replicable tools to give participants a common base of knowledge of their issue. That's a good thing. Last night we got a sample of TOTB's educational model. We were seated at tables of five, plus a table leader. The table leaders were supposed to lead us through a series of exercises to help us engage with some basic facts about water in today's world: who has it, who uses it, what we do with it, how the private water industry works, where those plastic bottles of water come from and what they do to our environment.

How effective these exercises were probably depended on the quality of the table leaders. If the table leader really had a grasp of the material in the script, the process probably went well -- in my particular case, we had a leader who could barely figure out what she was supposed to do and we stumbled along. Moreover, the people at the table had widely varying levels of pre-existing knowledge about water and were not particularly cooperative. To make this work, they needed strong leadership.

Many of the table leaders in this meeting were interns, folks who were inexperienced with both the material and with moving groups through the exercises. Some didn't do very well. Big outfits like TOTB need both to create easily replicable educational methods-- and invest in training whoever they assemble to use them. Organizing is very labor intensive and very expensive, but the structures we can build through these organizing methods will have shaky foundations if the investment in training is insufficient.

What can we do? There is little point in mobilizing groups of people to a cause if you don't put them to work. I was genuinely surprised at how poorly this TOTB meeting carried out its "crunch" -- the part where you get people to take action. There was a weak fund pitch from the Green Sangha guy (organizing theory says get a respected local leader to do this) and vague mention of a letter to Gavin -- something that seemed less than useful since his people had all but made this a Newsom campaign event. This was the moment to put the bevy of interns to work -- give them clipboards and don’t let anyone out without getting signatures, promises to attend specific future events, etc. I was genuinely surprised not to be more vigorously solicited to action.

Does this campaign really want grassroots engagement? No one should ever come away from an organizing meeting asking that question.
Okay -- this was just one meeting. The campaign is clearly a right one, and also, very likely, ending our addiction to plastic water bottles can be won, in the developed world anyway. The track record of the sponsors is that they keep at it -- kinks will probably get ironed out. I bother to point a few out because I respect the project.


Jane Meyerding said...

I've tried many times to get the water message across. What people invariably hear is (instead of what I said) that "it's silly to spend money on something you can get almost free." To which they respond that they hate the taste of tap water, even though they've heard of the studies saying their tap water is safe to drink (at least as safe as the bottled water). The idea of water as a right, the idea that different communities have different access to water, the idea that the water I buy in a bottle today was other people's water last week (possibly having been bought out from under those people by a mega-corp).... These ideas don't seem to penetrate, perhaps because the people I talk/write to still take their own water so much for granted. And when I give them material from TOTB, they don't seem to respond any differently.

janinsanfran said...

Hi Janey -- great to get a comment from you.

This is going to be tough, but I think in the United States, we'll make progress over time against the plastic bottles. Nobody would have believed we'd have made smoking indoors unthinkable either.

Outfits like TOTB will make carrying fancy aluminum bottles cool (they sell one, but I don't feel like advertising it). Nalgene and Camelbak have come out with reusable bottles -- probably not recyclable, but if they are like the rest of their products, they'll last forever. Urban jurisdictions will act to discourage all those office water coolers -- and the bottom line will help.

It is in poorer countries that making progress on the bottles will be hard. For lots of folks they are a huge convenience. And they sure don't have a lot of water.

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