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Ben & Jerry’s reef campaign shows that green groups are vital for democracy

US-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s recently caused a stir by siding with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Australian Marine Conservation Society’s Fight for the Reef campaign.

Queensland environment minister Andrew Powell suggested that Ben & Jerry’s signed on to the WWF propaganda and urged Australians to boycott the company. But environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs) and their campaigns play a vital role in healthy democracy.

Meanwhile, the federal government is planning to alter Section 45DD of the Competition and Consumer Act so that environmental organisations and community organisations can no longer implement secondary boycotts as a protest strategy. Perhaps the Queensland government missed the memo.

While not strictly a secondary boycott – perhaps a “govcott”? - Powell has called on Australians to say “No!” to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The Queensland government has since referred the company to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. 

Government and mining under attack

Powell accuses Ben & Jerry’s of threatening the reputation of the reef and consequently tourism dollars and jobs. In his estimation, these doyens of the ice cream world are victims of WWF propaganda.

In 2013, Fight for the Reef ran a series of campaign ads featuring Bob Irwin. Could we infer some QLD government criticism of Bob Irwin? Now there’s a political gamble not worth taking. It might be viewed as a strategic PR move on the part of the Queensland government to confine its criticisms to the WWF.

Coincidentally, in the same week, Queensland Resources Council (QRC), the peak industry body for mining, minerals and resources launched their own TV campaign refuting claims, presumably from the “Fight for the Reef” Campaign, that the GBR is under threat from development proposals. The council may have been stretching the truth in some of its claims.

It is developing into a rather strange merry-go-round, in which the Queensland government and the QRC claim the state is under attack from ENGOs and ice-cream makers, who in turn argue that the reef is being attacked by government and industry. The claim and counterclaim don’t stop there, though.

Green thuggery?

WWF and Greenpeace have been accused of “thuggery” towards the beef industry, in seeking to hold farmers to account in their dealings with major buyers such as McDonalds.

Historically, WWF and other international ENGOs are effective means to bring local environmental disputes to international attention – and new communications technology and social media have brought substantial benefits to their campaigns.

Ironically enough given the Queensland government’s stance, boycotts have been hailed as a crucial weapon for environmental campaigners.

We are now in an era of international protests in response to global environmental crises — occurring within a global system of market capitalism where reputation matters

In the case of the Great Barrier Reef too, ENGO power is amplified by the willingness of the World Heritage Committee to consider their submissions and protests.

Indeed the most recent statement from the World Heritage Committee — which paves a way for the GBR to be confirmed as a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2015 — cites the WWF /AMCS or Fight for the Reef submission at numerous points. And then there’s the ice-cream…

Protest goes global

Recent work by UTAS Professor Libby Lester investigating Japan’s 2012 withdrawal from Tasmanian Forest Industry products and in particular, from exporter Ta Ann Tasmania has some parallels here and is instructive if not prophetic.

Lester concludes that Tasmanian governments and the forest industry failed to recognise the legitimacy, and underestimated the influence of a “transnational community of concern”.

In the context of transnational communities of concern and international ENGOs, Australian government proposals to ban secondary boycotts look anachronistic, while the Queensland government’s stance against Ben & Jerry’s comes off as parochial.

We are now in an era of international protests in response to global environmental crises — occurring within a global system of market capitalism where reputation matters.

So appeals to nationalism, jobs and the domestic economy in defence of developments within the GBR World Heritage Area to assist the non-renewable resources industry will fail to appease international ENGOs and the wider international community. And that really could hurt the tourism industry.

Nobody wants to be the company which is killing the proverbial orang utan. And in an era of global capital and competitive markets, the edge may well be distance or boycotting developments which do not support a “green progressive” corporate image.

Just ask Australia’s major banks, recently accused by Oxfam of banking on “shaky ground”, investing in companies where land had been acquired illegally or improperly.

In failing to grasp this bigger picture, Queensland is currently failing to see the reef for the coral.

Changing boycott laws dangerous for democracy

Regardless of their relevance though, efforts by governments to limit the strategies of ENGOs is dangerous ground for democracy.

While we can accept that ENGOs like the WWF may be characterised as “corporate” in their structure and operation and so subject to corporate law, they are also an organised and powerful forum for civil society participation. A healthy robust democracy is dependent upon civil society – a plural category where debate and contention are inevitable.

This does not mean that these international ENGOs should be without criticism. But given their proximity to civil society, should caution against legislated changes to limit their freedom to protest, to challenge and to question. Indeed, research evidence points out that ENGOs have had a very positive effect on industrial and regulatory innovation that has greatly improved environmental outcomes

At any rate, secondary boycott bans are unlikely to produce any silencing of ENGOs, rather as evidenced in the Tasmanian case, more likely to amplify international protest.

And it would seem that these international forums – be it the World Heritage Committee or the international reach of the WWF – are emerging as the most effective pressure points for global industry and markets, including tourism markets.

In Queensland, you could say that the whole World Wildlife Fund is watching.

Dr Kerrie Foxwell-Norton is a senior lecturer at Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia where she teaches journalism and media studies and social enterprise. Professor Marcus Lane is the Dean (Academic) of the Arts, Education and Law Group at Griffith University. This post originally appeared in The Conversation.

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