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Back Chat with Greenpeace UK's executive director John Sauven: 'It's my dream that marketing could be used for good in a real sense'

In the latest installation of Back Chat, we chew the fat with Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven, who discusses the importance of online and offline activism, inspiration and the symbolic power of the tree.

What’s been keeping you busy?

Shell has been keeping me busiest because it’s decided to go up to the Arctic and drill for oil. The campaign to ‘Save the Arctic’ has probably been the biggest Greenpeace has run in recent history. It hasn’t been successful inthe sense that we’ve managed to stop Shell, but I think it has been extremely successful in terms of the numbers of people we’ve managed to bring into the campaign. Over seven million have now signed on to the Save the Arctic website and it’s challenged many major brands in terms of their relationships with Shell.

Lego had a relationship that went back 50 years and they broke it off because of the campaign. Other companies have done the same. I think Shell is beginning to feel like a lonely force.

How important is digital to your campaign efforts?

We’ve used everything we can in terms of social media, emails or online petitions. We’ve had some of the best creative brains in the industry – people like Trevor Beattie, and agencies like Dare and Don’t Panic. We’ve been very successful in getting people to watch the content we’ve created.

The web has given us huge amplification and power to activate audiences around the world, but offline activism is important as well. Just one recent example was Santander, which was loaning money to an Indonesian company involved in large scale deforestation in Sumatra. Although there were several hundred thousand people contacting the bank, signing the petition and sending emails, many of those were Santander customers who physically went into the bank to complain to their manager about its involvement in deforestation. That’s extremely powerful.

What’s your biggest gripe at the moment?

Obama recently made this huge announcement about how he wanted to take America down a renewable energy path, and this is the future if we’re going to deal with some of the huge environmental problems we’re facing. We need to look at all aspects of our economy and the way we go about business. I’m not saying this in a hairshirt way, I’m just saying that we’ve got to do things differently, but the tragedy for me is that in the past few weeks this government has dismantled so many things that Obama just came out and supported. It’s a giant step backwards at a time when the US, China, Germany, everyone else is taking a giant step forwards. It doesn’t really add up. It also sends a very negative signal to businesses who were all geared up and ready to play their part.

And what have you been loving?

I’ve just come back from Port Eliot, a festival in Cornwall. It was great because it brought together artists, writers, environmentalists, human rights campaigners and musicians. It was great to be able to discuss issues in their broader context and look at the interplay between art and the environment, and so on.

So much of the time, people get quite pigeonholed and narrow in our perspective, so we need to see things from other people’s point of view and connect through many different mediums and many different kinds of storytellers.

Who inspires you?

We have a big presence at Glastonbury and this year the Dalai Lama came for lunch in a café in our field, and I managed to spend about an hour talking to him. I realised that he touches the hearts of millions of people around the world from many different cultures, and it was amazing to see how he is so humble, but was so engaging at such a personal level – it was just extraordinary to watch.

We live in a very fast moving, instant world, where we want instant solutions to everything, and he has a very long view. I found talking to him quite interesting and inspirational. Emotionally it was quite touching and a huge privilege to be able to spend that much time with him.

If you had unlimited resources what would you change first?

I’d probably plant a trillion trees. A lot of what we talk about is to stop doing things, in terms of banning things or stopping things, but the things that give life are best symbolised by the tree. What we need to do is think much more about the re-greening of the planet in terms of what gives life. If you’re looking for one thing that symbolises that it would be the tree. It would help in so many positive ways in terms of restoring what we’ve lost.

How do you think marketing can change the world?

A lot of people probably look at marketing in quite a negative way in that they think it's all about spin, polishing things and obfuscating. I suppose that's where perhaps the complaint about politicians comes from. One of the reasons people say Jeremy Corbyn is doing so well is because politicians are so dehumanised, and that's partly because of the takeover of marketing. They're frightened of being themselves, saying what they think and having a normal conversation. They've lost confidence.

So why don't we flip that and look at it from the other way round? What if marketing was all about being authentic, all about truth, all about revealing, all about transparency, all about openness? If it was about really showing how companies are living up to their values, ethos and beliefs, I think then it could have a really powerful role to play. It’s my dream, in a way, that marketing could be used for good in a real sense. We face many, many challenges and it has enormous power. Billions and billions are spent on it around the world, and to take a small piece of that and use it creatively to help change the world would be fantastic.

This feature was first published in The Drum's relaunch issue on 2 September.