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Employing shame for environmental change

Shame’s power: new book explores how shame can challenge environmental transgressors

Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner off of Peru. Overfishing has become a massive global environmental problem, yet to date both governments and corporations have done little to tackle it.  Photo by:  C. Ortiz Rojas.

Chilean jack mackerel (Trachurus murphyi) are caught by a Chilean purse seiner off of Peru. Overfishing has become a massive global environmental problem, yet to date both governments and corporations have done little to tackle it. Photo by: C. Ortiz Rojas.

In 2010, Greenpeace released a video of a bored office worker taking a break with his favorite Nestle candy, Kit Kat. He unwraps the bar and pulls out…an orangutan finger. Undaunted he puts it in his mouth and chews while his horrified colleagues watch—blood spurting everywhere. This clever send-up of Kit Kat commercials was intended to shame Nestle to stop sourcing palm oil from companies engaged in the destruction of Southeast Asia’s rainforest, home to orangutans and countless other animals. And it worked: two months after the video went viral, Nestle announced a new sourcing policy for its products intended to avoid any connection with deforestation in the future.

Anyone who has ever felt the sting of shame, knows its power. Shame has long been used by societal institutions—families, communities, governments, religions—for making individuals tow the line of the majority. But a new book, that’s certain to prove controversial, explores another—arguably more positive—side of shame: its potential to challenge rule-breaking and ethically-defunct corporations.

Written by Jennifer Jacquet, a professor with the Department for Environmental Studies at New York University, the book Is Shame Necessary: New Uses for an Old Tool catalogues the rise of shame in recent decades to take on egregious practices of some corporations, especially where government oversight is either non-existent or has failed. Jacquet, who has spent years studying fisheries, not only outlines a brief history of shame on corporations, but also explores why some shame-based campaigns fail and others, like Greenpeace’s Nestle video, succeed.

Jacquet’s hard-hitting book is also not afraid to critique many widespread practices among environmental groups, including taking corporate money, putting CEOs on environmental boards, running ubiquitous certification schemes, and focusing on individual consumers as the agents of change instead of on policy or institutional change.

For Jacquet, the world’s ecological problems are far too big to be solved by consumers turning off their lights or eating sustainably-certified fish, but instead changes need to be made at scale. And one of the most potent tools to do this, according to her, is shame.


Mongabay: Why shame? Why is it so effective? How can it be used in the environmental movement?

Jennifer Jacquet: The focus of the book is on shame as a tool—one that exposes or threatens to expose a transgressor to public disapproval. Like any tool, it can be applied to any cause, positive or negative. Shame is so effective because of our concern and understanding of the power of reputation. Shaming is already used by the environmental movement, just not perhaps as wisely, effectively, and often as it could be.

Mongabay: What environmental organizations or campaigns use shame effectively?

Jennifer Jacquet: From my research, the environmental organizations that use shame effectively tend to be ones that aren’t too close to corporations. Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) continually came up, and I think that’s because of the pedigree and personality of the institutions, and also because both have clear policies against taking corporate money, which means they have the financial distance to consider shaming as a tool. Both organizations have strong shaming campaigns that are clever and artful in their approaches, as well as funding strategies that allow them to go after transgressors repeatedly (which makes shaming harder to ignore). For examples, see Greenpeace’s Carting Away the Oceans campaign, which brought attention to large supermarkets that sell unsustainable seafood, and RAN’s campaign that targeted banks that finance the coal companies doing mountaintop removal.

Mongabay: In terms of shaming, what is not working in the environmental movement?

A palm oil estate in Malaysian rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A palm oil estate in Malaysian rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Jennifer Jacquet: One thing that isn’t working is that many of the largest environmental organizations have become entrenched with corporations. It might not even be that the organization takes huge amounts of corporate money, but that CEOs of major corporations sit on their board. That makes it difficult for environmental organizations to go after those same corporations when they misbehave.

Another important thing to consider is the appropriate target. Many environmental groups have perpetuated the myth that the individual is the ideal unit of change. This is simply untrue if you want to make changes at scale.

Mongabay: Shaming individuals or companies doesn’t always work. How do some groups serially dodge the impacts of shame?

Jennifer Jacquet: Shaming doesn’t always work, and, in fact, shaming often doesn’t work, which is part of the reason we need to carefully consider its mechanics. There are many ways to dodge or undermine shaming. One is to ditch that bad reputation and get a new one (like Blackwater did). Another is to counterattack the credibility of the source—if the audience loses trust in the shamer, then they won’t rally behind the issue.

Mongabay: How have we moved responsibility for environmental problems from political society to individual consumers? What’s wrong with this approach?

Jennifer Jacquet: Again, the individual is not the ideal unit of change, and individual consumption is not the ideal form of engagement, especially when we need system-wide change. I might be encouraged by an environmental group to take public transit. What if I live in Los Angeles? I should instead be encouraged to rally for a system of public transit that serves the public—a system that doesn’t currently exist in LA. That is not accomplished by exercising my individual choice. If I happen to live in a place where I can take public transportation, but everyone else continues to drive, how does this impact emissions? I understand that people lead busy lives, and might only feel compelled to address an issue as a consumer. But overall, I have the sense that the focus on consumerism or individual choices has distracted what might have been a more vocal and politically-engaged minority.

Mongabay: What are the drawbacks of consumer certification schemes?

Coal mine in Wyoming. Burning coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source fueling climate change. Photo by: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Coal mine in Wyoming. Burning coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source fueling climate change. Photo by: the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Jennifer Jacquet: The biggest drawback I see is that they placate what might have been an active and vocal minority and they give those people the sense that society is on its way to a solution (and they are part of it). Most certification schemes have had a marginal effect on ecology, sucked up major amounts of conservation funding, and, as I argue, have been a major distraction from making bigger, blanket changes.

When I speak about overfishing, many audience members ask me what is best to eat. They ask about eco-certifications. Seven percent of capture fisheries are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, for instance. Not only have scientists (including me) questioned the legitimacy of their assessment of ‘sustainable’, but what does a ‘market solution’ like this mean for the other 93 percent of uncertified fish in a highly globalized market? Why have we failed to get any commercially traded marine species listed on CITES (the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species), even though the science shows certain species (like Atlantic bluefin tuna) are endangered? Why is less than one percent of the oceans closed to fishing? It is not a zero sum game, but I worry that focusing on our own patterns of consumption is distracting us from making effective, large-scale, evidence-based change.

Mongabay: A lot of issues in your book touch on the problems with the current global economic system. What structural changes are needed?

Jennifer Jacquet: I am clearly not the first person to express concern about the global economic system. I agree with the widespread criticism of policy decisions made entirely on a fiscal premise. We simply cannot continue this idea that the economic system accounts for everything we value. A country’s GDP might increase water became privatized and scarce—yet, this would leave almost all of us worse off.

I like Michael Sandel’s thesis that we might have signed up for a market economy, but over the last few decades we (meaning Americans, but other nationalities are close behind) became a market society. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons for guilt’s rise to power. Because guilt can be used and assuaged by market forces more easily than shame can (although check out the rise of reputation management companies—PR on steroids—for proof there is market for everything).

One interesting thing about shame is that it’s one of the only forms of punishment that can single out an entire system. We can’t put the publicly traded corporation in jail, we can’t charge some heavy fine (not to the system, although we can, of course, fine individual publicly traded corporations), but we can shame the idea. We can shame a system of slavery, unequal rights, capitalism, communism, you name it.

Mongabay: How can the wise use of shame help us effectively tackle such massive issues as climate change and the biodiversity crisis?

Jennifer Jacquet: By shaming countries that 1) refuse, but have the means to cooperate and 2) have big impacts.

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