Of the 34 articles we looked at, 20 focused directly on the outcomes of environmental advocacy campaigns. Of these, seven were perception-based case reports (supported by documents and literature), seven were expert opinion (often supported by literature), and six were literature reviews (often non-systematic, including non-peer reviewed sources). 12 articles were related to Zero Deforestation Commitments (seven were experimental, two quasi-experimental, two were expert opinion, and one was a literature review).

The research we examined was fairly scattered and diffuse. We found a number of case studies looking at how advocacy campaigns impacted forest conservation in specific regions or how specific policy outcomes that resulted from campaigns have contributed to conservation results on the ground, for instance. Others zeroed in narrowly on campaigns seeking to change corporate behavior, or markets campaigns. We even found a study that looked at how one specific NGO used photos of charismatic megafauna on its website. But we didn’t find any studies that sought to broadly examine the role advocacy campaigns play in achieving forest conservation, which makes it extremely difficult to make any generalizations based on the research.

The upshot is that the scientific evidence is fairly weak for any claims about the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns. So we also spoke with several experts in forest conservation and advocacy campaigns to supplement our understanding of some of the broader trends and to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.

Why are advocacy campaigns so hard to study?

Of all the conservation interventions we examined for the Conservation Effectiveness series (forest certification, payments for ecosystem services, community-based forest management, terrestrial protected areas, and marine protected areas), advocacy campaigns appear to have the weakest evidence base in scientific literature.

Part of the reason for that, we discovered, is that every advocacy campaign is unique, employing a different mix of tactics, from non-violent direct action and community organizing efforts to petition drives, brand damage, and boycotts. And each makes an ask tailored to the specific power dynamics vis-a-vis the campaign target, such as committing to sustainable forestry practices, protecting some piece of land, joining some non-state market-driven governance body, or purchasing more certified forest products.

This diversity of tactics and goals makes it virtually impossible to precisely define what an “advocacy campaign” consists of, so examining environmental advocacy as some kind of a whole in a scientific manner remains elusive and may in fact not be feasible.

But perhaps the biggest confounding factor is that advocacy campaigns do not operate in a vacuum. Multiple “pathways of influence” are typically at play if and when a conservation plan actually becomes a reality. These include norms and rules promulgated by international governance bodies or non-state market-driven mechanisms; domestic policy and law enforcement; and a variety of market pressures from consumers and the private sector.

Among these pathways is a constellation of stakeholders exerting leverage any way they can, which makes it difficult to tease out the effect of the campaigns themselves. Some NGOs refrain from advocacy, such as the Thailand-based Center for People and Forests, which focuses on partnering with governments in places like Cambodia, where openly criticizing the government can put organizations and their workers at considerable risk. Other stakeholders include community groups, trade groups, or the grassroots organizations and indigenous coalitions that initially started British Columbia’s War in the Woods. The engagement of First Nations throughout the lengthy negotiation process was crucial to achieving the final Great Bear Rainforest agreement, for instance.

Action against a ship transporting paper from Canada made of rainforest wood. Quatsinas, chief of the Nuxalk Nation, joined the activists. Photo © Greenpeace / Philip Reynaers.

In fact, the Great Bear Rainforest example shows clearly that advocacy campaigns are just one of the pathways necessary to create the right conditions for permanent change. Continued pressure from their customers was a key motivator for B.C.’s logging companies to remain committed to the negotiating process. At a series of roundtables, consumer companies were updated by government, industry, and First Nations representatives on the progress being made during negotiations. Nonetheless, the parties failed to meet a March 2014 deadline for full implementation of an agreement. Then, on the eve of a roundtable in June 2015 that brought together investors and customers collectively representing nearly $300 billion-worth of forestry industry revenue, the B.C. government finally released a draft of the legislative package that would enshrine the Great Bear Rainforest agreement into law a year later.

“It was just such a show of force, having $300 billion worth of revenues, representing that sheer amount of the market and the broader expectation of the marketplace, rather than letting it be diminished as one company here or there,” said Rycroft of Canopy, which hosted that final roundtable. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a legislative draft had been shaken loose.”

The story of how British Columbia came to adopt such an innovative approach to forest management illustrates the strengths and limitations of advocacy campaigns, Ben Cashore, a professor of environmental governance and political science at Yale University in the United States, suggests.

“The important part of the story is that the market campaigns, the boycott campaigns, were part of a spark. [But] they had to interact with public policy in ways that created durable and long-lasting effects,” Cashore told Mongabay. “A very complicated set of pathways that involve norms-changing, markets-influencing, and molding public policy were developed by multi-stakeholders in a sort of bottom-up way that, together, created this durability.”

While the need to understand how each pathway of influence comes into play makes studying the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns rather complex, it’s not impossible to determine what works and what doesn’t, Cashore suggests. But he says that, although “there’s a whole bunch of research out there looking at some pretty cool stuff, it’s usually pretty short-term in its attention, and doesn’t really say anything about durability.”

The kinds of long-term research into the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns that Cashore argues are necessary will not result in simple conclusions, however. But then, the point should not be to understand whether or not, say, boycott campaigns are a good way to wring concessions from corporate or governmental targets. Such concessions are merely short-term goals, whereas many NGOs, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, intend to foster deeper, more transformative change (more on this later).

“As we know, short-term impacts often don’t mean long-term solutions. And so theorizing about how those short-term impacts might lead to long-term solutions can be very important,” Cashore said. “When we do that, we tend to see that, actually, boycott campaigns, markets campaigns, are simply one step in a much more complex set of steps to promoting long-lasting change.”

No evidence advocacy on its own drives long-term conservation

Because advocacy campaigns generally aren’t designed to contribute directly to conservation but instead seek to compel relevant actors, both public and private, to commit to policies and actions that would result in the conservation of forests, we can’t really answer the same questions that we did about the other intervention types covered in the Conservation Effectiveness series.

When looking at interventions such as forest certification, community forestry, and payments for ecosystem services, we evaluated the evidence for how well those strategies delivered measurable outcomes for the environment, social welfare, and local economies. To be sure, the NGOs that run advocacy campaigns aiming to deliver successful forest conservation also hope to provide social and economic benefits to local forest communities, but it’s nearly impossible to determine how much they contribute to these outcomes, and almost definitely impossible to quantify those impacts.

One theme that emerged from our analysis was that there is no single, straightforward way of viewing the effectiveness of environmental advocacy, as it depends on what timeframe you’re looking at and how you define “success” for any given campaign. If you define success as shorter-term victories, such as a campaign’s specific demand set being met, then it can certainly be said that there has been much success. Advocacy campaigns have persuaded an increasing number of companies to pledge to do business in a more sustainable manner by joining non-state market-driven bodies like the New York Declaration on Forests, or to adopt policies like Zero Deforestation Commitments, for instance.

A 2007 study that looked at environmental campaigns targeting Indonesian pulp and paper company APRIL provides an example of how differing definitions of success can inform the strategies employed by NGOs in waging their campaigns. Researchers found that “There are significant differences of opinion between the NGOs on APRIL’s progress as well as the route to encouraging sustainable forest management in Indonesia… Part of these differences of opinion is based on the strategy employed by the groups; with WWF willing to accept a step wise approach to the company improving its operations, whilst [Friends of the Earth] Finland seeks an all or nothing method.”

If you define success as more transformative change, however, then the effectiveness of environmental advocacy has been much more limited. A 2017 article that looked at the rise of brand-focused activism targeting the palm oil sector over its impact on tropical forests found that advocacy campaigns may have succeeded in raising awareness of the issue and pushing companies to adopt new sustainability policies, but that they hadn’t achieved much conservation on the ground:

Campaigns since 2007 to demand that brands stop buying palm oil linked to tropical deforestation confirm the rising influence over corporate policies and market demand. Many activists are portraying the outcomes as ‘victories’ toward saving rainforests. Yet, three factors are limiting the value for improving on-the-ground management: industry influence over, and governance limits of, palm oil certification; ongoing sales of uncertified palm oil as demand shifts to nonbrand buyers; and illegalities and weak regulatory enforcement in producer countries, notably Indonesia and Malaysia.

The author of that article added that “the power of brand-focused activism is rising in terms of its capacity to influence the aspirational pledges and purchasing policies of brand manufacturers and retailers, but remains a weak intervention to improve environmental management in tropical countries.” Ultimately, the author concludes: “scholars and activists should be very wary — and far more critical — of the claim that brand focused activism is a powerful way to protect tropical ecosystems.”

Our research into the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns led us to some studies that examined Zero Deforestation Commitments as well as one that looked at non-state, market-driven (NSMD) governance bodies, like the aforementioned New York Declaration on Forests or certification bodies like the Forest Stewardship Council. We included these studies in our analysis because many Zero Deforestation Commitments and pledges to engage with NSMDs are partly the result of environmental advocacy efforts, and we could thus examine some of the indirect impacts of campaigns. But here, as well, we found a main theme that emerged from the literature was that the evidence for the effectiveness of campaigns centered around these kinds of demands is weak at best, mainly because of how many gaps there are in the body of research.

Even in some cases where advocacy campaigns have contributed to what appear to be conservation successes on the ground, it’s difficult to determine exactly how critical of a role the campaigns played because there often simply isn’t research looking into that question. For example, a 2016 study that examined the impacts of a Zero Deforestation Agreement signed in 2009 by some of Brazil’s largest meatpacking companies in response to a Greenpeace campaign found that “simultaneous pressure from NGOs and government bodies can be a potent way to change rancher and slaughterhouse behavior, and reduce the amount of deforestation entering the beef supply chain from direct supplying properties.” But the authors of that study also caution that “few studies have evaluated the effects of these interventions on the ground, which limits evaluation of their successes and shortcomings, and opens the door to greenwashing.”

Pablo Pacheco, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said that it is probably “reasonable to assume” that companies facing social pressure will tend to more actively support sustainable practices, but that we simply don’t know how much advocacy campaigns actually drive successful implementation of sustainability commitments.

“Much of the zero deforestation commitments have resulted from pressure originated in civil society organizations,” he said. “Nonetheless, there is not too much evidence on what is the extent to which zero deforestation commitments resulting from advocacy campaign[s] are more or less likely to be implemented effectively in comparison to commitments not directly linked to campaigns.”

Just as many modern environmental campaigns designed to promote forest conservation urge companies to adopt a Zero Deforestation Commitment, it is not uncommon for campaigns to urge their targets to join some NSMD. We examined a 2016 paper on the impacts of NSMDs on Chile’s forests because it also discussed the role played by a moratorium on natural forest clearance adopted by several companies that was partially a response to a campaign led by the NGO ForestEthics (now called Stand.earth).

While we did not evaluate the effectiveness of NSMDs and thus cannot make any claims about how well these mechanisms produce forest conservation results, it does appear that the evidence base is thin.

The authors of the paper conclude that “Despite the growing optimism surrounding these NSMD governance regimes, questions remain about their effectiveness in achieving environmental outcomes.” They continue: “Clear assessments of the environmental impacts of this new form of environmental governance are lacking, due in part to the short history of NSMD governance and confounding effects of broader market dynamics and government policies. Previous assessments generally failed to meet basic standards of rigor such as comparison with a credible control.”

Greenpeace protesters in orangutan suits at Nestle's shareholder meeting. Street protests are one of Greenpeace's tactics for pressuring companies on their commodity sourcing practices. As a result of this particular campaign, Nestle adopted one of the earliest zero deforestation policies. That policy subsequently became the basis of other ZDPE commitments, which have now been signed by hundreds of companies around the world.
Greenpeace protesters in orangutan suits at Nestle’s shareholder meeting in 2010. Street protests are one of Greenpeace’s tactics for pressuring companies on their commodity sourcing practices. As a result of this particular campaign, Nestle adopted one of the earliest zero deforestation policies. That policy subsequently became the basis of other ZDPE commitments, which have now been signed by hundreds of companies around the world.

How do NGOs measure the impacts of their advocacy?

It’s probably safe to assume that NGOs have found their campaigns to be successful drivers of forest conservation, on the whole — after all, they receive funding to launch new campaigns all the time. Most NGOs would also point to an abundance of anecdotal evidence about governmental and corporate representatives admitting to just how important an advocacy campaign was in bringing them to the negotiating table in the first place.

Given the lack of rigorous, independent research into the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns, we wondered how NGOs evaluate their own campaigns’ impacts. NGOs have to do this kind of tracking — the foundations and supporters who fund their work expect to see results.

NGOs that regularly run high-profile, global markets campaigns targeting corporations and governments say they measure the specific outcome of any given campaign against their larger goals of stopping deforestation, halting climate change, and protecting human rights. But of course groups differ in their methods for measuring and evaluating campaign outcomes.

Robin Averbeck, agribusiness campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network, told Mongabay that the group defines success in terms of improving social issues in addition to achieving deforestation and conservation outcomes. Averbeck pointed to RAN’s campaign against Indonesian forestry giant APP, which she said is currently involved in over 400 land conflicts. “Real success in the campaign does look like resolution of those land conflicts in addition to stopping deforestation in APP’s own operations as well [as] third-party suppliers,” she said.

RAN’s model for tracking progress in achieving those larger goals is multi-tiered. The group partners with local NGOs and communities to be its eyes and ears on the ground, then keeps companies’ executives and corporate social responsibility teams informed about how their operations are performing and pressures them to take further action when needed. “We will actually know at the point of negotiation and agreement for a quote-unquote success of the campaign that the company has either implemented or not implemented their commitments because we’re working with partners on the ground who can see and monitor and are working with the workers on the plantation themselves,” Averbeck said.

Because RAN is a relatively small NGO, with a staff of about 50 that is based almost entirely in San Francisco, California, partnering with NGOs at the ground level not only extends its ability to monitor the impacts of its work, but also helps set a precedent “that can then be used to create a shift and to use a success in one place to motivate similar successes elsewhere,” Averbeck added.

Greenpeace activists close off access for all imports and exports from palm oil trader IOI in the harbor of Rotterdam, palm oil’s gateway into Europe. Photo © Marten van Dijl / Greenpeace.

Greenpeace, on the other hand, is a large organization with national or regional offices in over 40 countries and far more resources at its disposal than RAN. Rolf Skar, Greenpeace USA’s forest campaign director, said that the group can rely on its own internal network and even deploy its own remote-sensing technologies to monitor what’s happening in the forest.

“We’re fortunate to have a pretty robust mapping team in most of the key forest areas, and certainly in the Amazon we have a pretty sophisticated mapping team that has also paired satellite data with overflights,” Skar said.

Greenpeace uses this data to monitor how its campaigns impact deforestation rates, as well as to challenge government accounts of deforestation data when necessary. Skar added that these monitoring capabilities also inform campaign priorities. “It’s not all about total hectares of deforestation. It might be there’s an emerging trend that we want to get out ahead of. So even if the deforestation rate in Papua is lower than Kalimantan, you know, we don’t want it to get worse and will sort of change our strategy,” he said.

When Greenpeace is able to declare victory in a campaign, that’s not always the end of the group’s work. In some cases, it will stay involved throughout the implementation process to ensure that corporate or governmental dedication to honor commitments doesn’t wane.

“The Great Bear Rainforest would be a good example of where engagement with big brand companies went on for years and years in order to keep the ambition levels of producers in British Columbia and ultimately the government high,” Skar said. “Home Depot and others had to continually be engaged over the years to finally get that agreement in place.”

But Greenpeace’s ability to do this kind of follow-up depends on resourcing, he added: “And since resourcing isn’t always up to, say, a forest campaign staff, and there can be turnover and new priorities, that can be disruptive to our ability to see things through with the companies.”

Matt Daggett, who leads Greenpeace International’s global forests campaigns, said that the group is willing to re-launch campaigns if they discover that positive outcomes aren’t being achieved, however. “One of Greenpeace’s campaigning mottos is: ‘No permanent friends, no permanent enemies,’” he told Mongabay. “On the one hand, that means we are always ready to sit down at the table to craft long-term solutions even after a long, contentious public campaign. On the other hand, Greenpeace will always share the hard truths about what we are witnessing.”

NGOs know all too well that multiple pathways of influence are involved in effecting lasting change, which is why an exercise called “power mapping” is frequently one of the first steps in designing a campaign plan — essentially, charting the many avenues of influence that are available to move the target. If NGOs are able to understand those influencers well enough to leverage them into campaign victories, is it, then, possible for NGOs to also parse the individual contributions made by all those separate influencers in order to more fully determine the direct impacts of a campaign?

Holly Gibbs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, says that determining the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns that precisely is perhaps possible but, nonetheless, probably not feasible. “They are sometimes simply shifting the conversation or opinions of one person in a company but not leading to major agreements or outcomes,” Gibbs told Mongabay. “It’s all part of a process. I think you could lead quality research to assess outcomes from major campaigns, but there are all the other smaller ones that lead up to it. So many actors and players and overlapping conditions and policies would make it extremely difficult.”

Intangible outcomes

Sam Cossar-Gilbert, a program coordinator for Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), said that his group also measures its impact in terms of progress towards the broad, societal changes they want to see.

“The kind of success metrics we’re looking at are: Does this build people’s power? Does it contribute in a meaningful way towards the sustainable society we want to create?” Cossar-Gilbert told Mongabay. “For Friends of the Earth, our strategy of advocacy, what we call a theory of change, is that everyday people coming together to take action is what changes the world. And we’ve got to keep proving that to be possible.”

Like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth is a larger NGO, with its own network of local and regional chapters in more than 70 countries around the world. Cossar-Gilbert pointed to Friends of the Earth’s global campaign to stop palm oil from driving the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests as an example of how the group takes something of a bottom-up approach to designing its campaigns.

FOEI determined that one way it could contribute was to support Friends of the Earth Indonesia in its campaign to stop palm oil exports for biofuels in the European Union. “We thought that is a key driver of palm oil, and something that our member groups have power over, because they have large member groups in Europe and can pressure decision-makers,” Cossar-Gilbert explained.

Just two days before Cossar Gilbert spoke with Mongabay, the European parliament voted to ban palm oil from biofuels, which he said represents 6 percent of global palm oil production and 42 percent of Europe’s consumption of palm oil.

Not every campaign victory leads directly to reduced demand for a forest-destroying commodity, however. And lowering demand for one particular forest-destroying commodity won’t necessarily lead to reduced deforestation, either. But for Cossar-Gilbert the point is that it’s all of these little bits of progress that, in the aggregate, end up constituting long-lasting change.

The limited research we examined on the subject tended to conclude that, while there’s little evidence of advocacy campaigns driving long-term conservation, they are quite effective at raising awareness and driving the adoption of ambitious conservation targets and policies. Awareness-raising and ambition-setting, of course, are less tangible outcomes than lowered deforestation rates. Yet Cossar-Gilbert argues that raising awareness about the issues and encouraging citizen engagement in policy-making processes are some of the most powerful outcomes of advocacy campaigns.

“The main thing that organizations can do is to convince everyday people that getting involved actually makes a difference,” he said. “I don’t think people don’t care. I think a lot of people do care, [but] I think a lot of people don’t think that them taking action is going to make a difference. That’s the most powerful, intangible outcome of every campaign victory, and even some losses: Bringing people together to create change.”


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Citations for all of the literature reviewed for this article are available here.

Writer: Mike Gaworecki, Researcher: M. Fernanda Tomaselli
Editors: Rebecca Kessler, Zuzana Burivalova
Copyeditor: Hayat Indriyatno

This is part six in the Mongabay series Conservation Effectiveness. Read the other stories in the series here.

Reviews conducted for this series are not exhaustive, and we encourage authors of research that is relevant to post links to their study in the comments section under each article.

Editor’s note: Mike Gaworecki worked for Greenpeace USA and the Rainforest Action Network in an online communications capacity from 2008 to 2014.

Banner image: 16 Jun, 1997 – Activists in temperate rainforest protest against deforestation. A banner reads “Standing together to protect the Great Bear Rainforest.” © Greenpeace / Greg King.


Article published by Mike Gaworecki
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