Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Interview - Ben Ayeliffe - Greenpeace (2006)

One of the earliest interviews on the Building for the Future radio show was with Ben Ayeliffe from Greenpeace back in 2006. With much of what Ben said being as relevant today as it was then, it seems like a good idea to put it online here on the blog. . .
One of the topics covered early on was the effect that small individual actions can have, when they are performed by lots of people. Ben gave the example of GM food, saying. .
“In the past I’ve also worked on the GM foods campaign and I think that more than anything else was an example of consumer power really and here we had a technology which was unproved it was untested. In Greenpeace’s view it was playing with nature at a very fundamental level and we had these big powerful American companies telling us we were going to eat this food, we were going to enjoy it , we were going to like it and there was nothing we could about it and yet almost overnight as soon as shoppers and consumer around the country really realised what was going on and said hang on we don’t want GM foods, the supermarkets reacted overnight and pulled GM from the shelves and that was in 1998 and today you can go to a supermarket and you won’t find any GM foods and yet you know, supermarkets are full of organic foods which Greenpeace believe is a decent alternative so that was a cracking example if you like of just how strong consumers can be.”
BFTF dug a little deeper into this area by asking how many letters, emails etc it typically took for the head office of a company to start getting nervous. In response, Ben commented that . . .
“I think actually it’s a lot less than your average person on the street might think. I would say that every little counts. I remember that we heard sort of off the record from one of the big retailers that for every letter that they receive from a customer on an issue they consider that there are another 1,000 people out there who feel the same way but haven’t taken the time to write so it might sound a mundane thing to do, and a slightly pointless thing to do but believe you me, the effect of people badgering supermarkets and companies in general really is phenomenal they don’t like having to justify their positions which many you know positions which people might find unpleasant or wrong to the people that shop in their stores.”
This is certainly valuable information and BFTF hopes that it gives people the confidence to challenge retailers (and other organisations for that matter) if they are not acting in an ethical manner.
Moving on, the interview next tackled the subject of fish, asking Ben’s opinion on fish that had been caught long distances from the UK. His feeling was that . . .
“Really I think it’s quite simple you should really only buy locally caught fish and if it doesn’t say where it was caught on the label you should ask the retailer, and if they can’t tell you then the chances are that it’s come from half way around the world, it’s been flown over at great cost and. . . that does have a big impact on the environment.”
Another topic that gets a lot of coverage is that of sustainably sourced paper, so BFTF asked Ben for an overview about why should we care where books and stationery and printer paper is made?
“I think people really should care because paper grows on trees really and the paper that you buy, and the newspapers or the books that you buy, the paper will more often than not come from forests which are again a bit like fish, really under threat and we’ve seen that 80% of the world’s natural forests have been completely destroyed and the remaining 20% are under threat from industrial, and in many cases illegal, logging. Certainly in paper you find that an awful lot of the original source of this paper, the wood pulp, comes from areas like Finland and Finland has the last remaining natural European woodlands and this is really … it’s completely devastated up there, it’s massively under threat from illegal logging. The Finnish government is heavily involved in the industry and they’re making a lot of money by throwing up saw mills, they’re in conflict with the local Sámi people who herd reindeer in these snow forests, and a lot of the time this paper will end up here in the UK and what Greenpeace has been doing is saying to the industry well look, this is crazy, you have to get a more responsible paper policy and what we’re encouraging them to do as Greenpeace is to stop buying paper which is sourced from threatened forests throughout the world, and buy FSC paper. The FSC is the Forests Stewardship Council, and basically they can guarantee that the wood or the paper that you use comes from responsible and sustainably managed forests and they will be … these forests will be basically … they have a future … they’re not going to be completely logged out, so we think this is a sensible long term way to go about getting new paper, and we’ve been running a book campaign recently so we’ve had people like Quentin Blake on side spreading the word through the publishing industr … people like J K Rowling who wrote Harry Potter, has also joined the campaign … that the books that they write need to be printed on this FSC paper and FSC and recycled paper, the paper that has already been used. And this has had a really big impact and already we’re seeing about a third of the UK publishing industry has agreed to go FSC, which is great news. “
BFTF felt that this was fantastic news, to which Ben said . . .
“It really is. And again it’s down to the fact that your average person in the street doesn’t want their paper or the book that they read at bedtime to come from trashed rainforests.”
Ben also reinterated his earlier message about individual action by saying . . .
"We’ve seen the Amazon up in smoke, the paradise forests of South East Asia are being felled to make plywood which is sold here in the UK which is sickening really, it’s stuff that makes advertising hoardings, and again I’ve said this before, consumers really will be amazed at the power that they have over the companies involved in this trade; they don’t like to be associated with illegal destruction of rainforests and people can vote with their wallets, they can stop shopping at certain DIY shops say, or at certain bookstores, and that has a really big impact. . . I think there’s a great deal to be said for kicking up a fuss and asking questions in these sort of places because it really puts companies on the spot.”
One tactic that BFTF had heard some companies were adopting was to gain certification to the ISO14001 environmental standard (which does not actually mandate any specific environmental policies) and then use this as “evidence” that they were acting in a sustainable manner. BFTF asked Ben for his views on this, particularly in relation to paper producers such as APP. .
“Again this is the thing, you speak to people like APP and they’ll tell you that it’s legal and sustainable, well their view of legal and sustainable I think would be very different from the average person’s view of what is legal and what is sustainable. Beyond people like APP we’ve seen within the timber industry that things like illegality, corruption, violence, human rights abuses is rampant really, and because of that we, Greenpeace say that the only way that you can be sure that you’re getting wood or paper that is legal and sustainable is to look for the FSC logo and demand that from whoever you buy your flooring from, your garden furniture, your books, anything like that, because otherwise these very shady timber companies do have a rather different view of what you or I might think of as legal and sustainable, and for instance we did an exposé recently on a company big Malaysian logging company operating in Papua New Guinea, and whilst they were telling people in the UK who were buying their timber to make plywood that it was completely legal, we actually went out and sent researchers out into Papua New Guinea, and found that they were paying the local police force to beat up people … when they said they managed the forest, what they meant was that they were sending bulldozers in, so what a logging company thinks of as sustainable isn’t always really sustainable, so look for the FSC logo"
Taking a wider perspective, the interview now looked at some the other places the Ben had worked . . .
“Certainly I was in … a few years ago I was in southern Tanzania which is quite a strong Muslim areas within Tanzania, and we were doing some research on fisheries, and I was amazed at the fact that these communities have been here for hundreds of years and manage to live in a relationship with the natural environment that we just don’t do here and it was a real eye opener to see how these fishermen would go out and they’d bring in huge hauls of fish but they wouldn’t completely kill off the fish in that local area, they would do it in a responsible and sustainable sort of way, and I’ve been lucky enough to go to places like South East Asia with Greenpeace and I’m always amazed, certainly going to places like South East Asia, at the vibrancy and the passion of local non Greenpeace groups out there who do care very passionately about the same sort of issues that we do, so be it illegal logging or genetically modified foods, that passion is out there. I think where we’re lucky here in the UK is that we actually have quite a well developed consumer and activist network which is perhaps missing from those areas, but that’s not to say that the people don’t care as passionately as we do, because I think they certainly do"
Having talked earlier about individual action being a way to influence governments, the interview now moved on to asking whether individual action could also influence governments . . .
“I think it does work and what I would say is keep your eye out for stuff that Greenpeace does because we do quite regularly ask people from around the world to act on a specific issue, so be it say write to the president of Thailand say on a certain issue, we can generate thousands and thousands of letters and emails. . . .I think Indonesia is a good example and we highlighted, I think it was in 2004, how again it was shockingly enough it was timber that had been illegally logged out of Indonesia that was coming to the UK as plywood so we got on the backs of the industry here in the UK, we got on the backs of the government here in the UK and told them to send a message to the logging industry and the government in Indonesia that what they were doing was not acceptable, and now you can see that the, certainly from speaking to people in the timber industry here in the UK, that the way that the Indonesians are operating is different, there’s a notable difference in the way they operate with regards to the legality and to going towards FSC say, and this is all down to the fact that people here in the UK and around Europe and around the world took the time and the effort to get involved in the activity so that Greenpeace and other campaigning organisations had on this issue so every little does help.”

It’s worth mentioning that this interview was recorded back in 2006, and the overall status of the wood and fishing industries may have changed since then. You can get up to date by visiting

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