The <i>MT</i> interview: Tony Juniper

Thanks to vanishing ice-caps and inconvenient truths, Tony Juniper, the boss of Friends of the Earth, is suddenly the hottest corporate date in town. But he's no PR pushover. He wants to see reponsible change in company attitudes and can spot greenwash a mile off.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The director of Friends of the Earth sits in a tiny pod of an office, two floors up in a brick-built warehouse off London's Old Street. Outside, the affluent city creeps ever closer - the clanging and drilling are incessant as industrial buildings left and right are converted into trendy apartments and workspaces. Inside, we could have stepped back into the 1980s. The decor is worn, three pot plants tilt listlessly on the window sill, a poster is tacked to the wall nearby, stacks of hand-written notebooks fill the shelves. Beyond, lines of earnest young women work at old computers in an open-plan space. On the back of Tony Juniper's door, a grey suit and tie hang forlorn.

'The suit's been there for years,' says Juniper. 'It's for emergencies. Like a fire bucket, you never know when you are going to use it. Ha-ha-ha.'

Juniper loves to laugh - it's an attribute that has won him friends even when he's arguing over deadly serious issues like the planet's survival. The suit is also a signal of the circles he moves in. Captains of industry, heads of government, the odd royal - all pay court to environmental issues now, and Oxford-born Juniper is a frequent port of call. As director of Friends of the Earth, Britain's most influential environmental campaigning group, he has pushed his organisation into the headlines, into Downing Street, into boardrooms and into public consciousness with a jocular drive that has taken many by surprise.

Today, dressed in spotless Levi 501s and a well-ironed work-shirt, 46-year-old Juniper looks more like an ageing disc jockey than a right-on eco-warrior. His greying hair is well-groomed, the smile ever-present, the laughter constant as he keeps conversation chugging along. No wonder he is seen as an accomplished media performer - he oozes reasonable niceness.

And that's one reason why business leaders queue to see Juniper. The other is simply because Friends of the Earth (FoE) is now a known influencer of government policy. Look at recent legal changes on the duties of company directors to report on social and environment impact, which FoE lobbied hard for. Campaigns to promote recycling, to ban genetically modified food and to encourage energy efficiency have also hit their target. You ignore them at your peril.

'I could do meetings with bosses 24 hours a day and not have time for anything else,' acknowledges Juniper. 'We engage with some of them.' With others, he has given up.

And to rub it in, nearly every news story with an environmental bent now runs with a comment from FoE, often Juniper himself. Only Jonathan Porritt, who headed FoE between 1987 and '90, is more frequently heard on environmental issues - and he would be hard-pushed to recognise the clout his old organisation now gets. Rival charities joke that the eloquent and photogenic Juniper has staff watching the newswire all day long, so no opportunity is missed.

Actually, that may not be a joke. 'On stories we are covering, yeah, we do wait for announcements on the Press Association wire,' he says. 'If a minister is saying something, we want to respond. And I'm sure the minister would not be shy in letting us know that they are doing exactly the same thing in Westminster. We live in a 24/7 news environment. Spin? Perhaps we've learnt a bit from politicians, but increasingly they are asking us to come down and advise them.'

He smiles. Short, compact and good-looking, Juniper is an easy-going charmer, whose classlessness - his Dad worked on the line for British Leyland before becoming a manager - is an asset, and whose likeability helps hold together the 150 disparate and passionate individuals who work full-time for the organisation.

He joined FoE 17 years ago as its rainforest expert, after training as a zoologist and working for bird charities. He became its director in 2003, after two years as director designate. Colleagues describe him as an astute campaigner, less good at organising but smart in the way he delegates. He is good at charming cash from wealthy backers and in making the most of the group's limited funds - a £5 million campaign budget last year. And he runs FoE with a light touch. The organisation is rooted in its 200-plus local groups, which elect members to a controlling board and give directions to the top as to where it should be campaigning. It not the kind of place that welcomes gung-ho leadership.

'The thing about Friends of the Earth,' says Juniper, 'is that it's not a top-down organisation. It's a network, and on a global level - where it combines with organisations in 70 different countries - it is a network of networks. The local autonomous groups do the campaigning, and it's a partnership between us and them.'

He admits that at times internal conflict has been a distraction. 'There have been power struggles, disagreements about priorities and principles, but we have tried to build a more open relationship; everyone has got a role in shaping the way we are going to go, so we have a better chance of running campaigns that are properly supported with everyone's backing.'

In doing so, Juniper has helped transform FoE in the UK, 36 years old this year, from a fringe lobbyist to a very media-savvy campaigner, closer to government and big business.

'Media-savvy?' he grins. 'I'll take that as a compliment. Ha-ha-ha.' As for its links with big business, he's more wary. It will advise major corporates, but ask him if FoE is pro-capitalist now and he brushes it aside. 'I don't think that is a helpful question. The capitalist system is what we live in, it's not going to go away at any point in the near future. If we had a communist putsch we would be even more necessary! Ha-ha-ha.'

But many outsiders now see FoE as the cuddly face of the eco-protest movement, too happy to advise business and government about how to clean up their act and less focused on outcomes. Insiders at the organisation grind their teeth at that, pointing out that Friends of the Earth has actually toughened itself up since the late 1990s, when it started sitting round tables with BP and Shell, discussing what they could do.

'For some companies, we realised it was just dialoguing for dialoguing's sake,' sniffs Juniper's colleague Roger Higman, head of campaigns. 'But we are much more strict about it now.'

Juniper says there are, in fact, no formal or direct links between FoE and major corporates. It will, however, tell companies what it wants them to do - get out of fossil fuels and into renewables, for example - both in public and in behind-the-scenes meetings. 'Those that move and make important changes we welcome as leaders. We do, however, have some doubts as to what even big changes by one firm will mean in relation to questions like climate change. To that extent, we want the corporate leaders to be making the case for regulation and other change-driving measures to governments, so that entire sectors - and not just individual companies - can embrace more sustainable business.

'We don't expect to save the world through one or two companies going green, but we do believe that considerable influence can be gained from showing how leaders have made change and using that to inspire legislation that enjoys wide support.' And if it's just greenwash? 'There's a lot of greenwash around and we put effort into exposing that. Not only can greenwash give an undeserved positive impression of a company's performance; it can slow down or even prevent new green laws being put in place.'

And now that so much of what FoE previously warned against - damage to the environment and its consequences - has started to happen, the organisation is rethinking its message, and its method. 'It's like we've been banging our heads against a brick wall for years and suddenly we have broken through to the other side,' says Juniper. 'Now we have emerged into a place where there genuinely is opportunity for discussion across all society - governments, corporates, international agencies, the public - about the real ways in which we can solve these problems, and identify those things that do the reverse.'

Such as? 'Biofuels is a classic case in point. A lot of governments, including the US, say: "We have to go hell-for-leather for so-called green transport" - ethanol, biodiesel. The consequences of going down that track could be absolutely disastrous for biodiversity and land use and poverty reduction. Because if you start to use up more and more land to produce fuel, you are going to accelerate deforestation ... '

He talks in a rush, well-rehearsed, fluent, as if he feels he has to paint the whole canvas before finishing the job. In truth, he'll never know how much of the change in mood is down to campaigns by FoE or the different pressure exerted by rival groups like Greenpeace (more protest-oriented, more prepared to break the law, more eye-catching, yet also, ironically, more corporate, with helicopters and ships and global reach). What is clear is that people are now listening.

Juniper sums up campaigning strategy thus: 'There are four pieces to the equation - the public as consumers and voters, corporations that provide goods and services and innovate and invest, legislators who put in place rules and policies, and international agencies that broker deals between countries and harmonise all of that. I've learnt that no one element is the answer - you have to orchestrate all of it in the right way to get the outcomes. Any one of these could be a block to the other three.

'And on climate change we have been spectacularly successful. It has shifted the debate to the point where everyone agrees something must be done. But we've still got difficulty with individual measures, like fuel taxes for aircraft, road charges, taxes for gas-guzzlers, putting efficient stand-by switches on computers. The next change has to be about the solutions: how do we get all these actors lined up around solutions that are acceptable to everybody?'

Did FoE, which has always been more preoccupied with social justice than other eco-protest groups, change to win the argument, or did the world just catch up? He wrinkles his nose. The effects of global warming were too big to ignore, obviously, but he thinks FoE kept the arguments in play. Since becoming director, he says, he has pushed for a tighter focus on key issues. 'I think we were seen from outside as being concerned about a series of apparently unconnected issues: transport, organic farming, World Bank, energy policy - all a bit disparate. I was very keen to build a strategic platform that was much more integrated, so all these pieces could be referenced back to the big picture, which was about the whole thing that needed to change.

'So, for instance, we did a big piece around justice and development, trying to campaign in a way that dispels the myth that there is a choice between human welfare and environmental protection. That was prevalent even recently, with ministers saying environmental protection is going to harm prospects of poverty alleviation. It's rubbish - and it's still being said. So we needed something to deal with that in a very strategic way: the true picture whereby you can have millions of new jobs, the most vibrant economic development, poverty alleviation and the planet being protected into the bargain.

'The other thing we did was campaign on a scientific base that proved there were limits to what we can do to the planet before it malfunctions. That shows it is an economically foolish thing to do. Once you have got that in place and the principles are clear, it becomes much easier to identify which campaigns are the right ones. In that, climate change is now top of the list. Now we have become very strategic in pushing it forward, especially in corporate legislation.'

And internally, he has moved the organisation away from a structure 'built around hierarchies of responsibility and directors' to create a 'more fluid and flatter two-tier structure', with teams of experts in areas like media, direct marketing, grass-roots organisation and website development to work on particular projects.

'It's matrix management, familiar from the corporate world but new to us and built to our own purposes,' says Juniper. 'One aspect of it that I think is important is for us to push as much of our decision-making to the furthest position from the centre that we can. So there's lots of autonomy about how people deliver a job, and a light touch from the management team.'

Does he think other charities get cross at how much airtime Friends of the Earth now gets? He laughs. 'We're not deliberately drowning out the others. PR Week has its NGO Watch and we were the most reported group in the UK. That's a good indicator of the efficiency of how we use our resources, because we're quite a small NGO.'

Juniper has spent nearly all his working life in charities. He took a zoology degree at Bristol University, worked on conservation with schoolchildren in Oxfordshire, then on bird projects in Africa before joining Birdlife International - a co-ordinating group that links bird charities around the world - as its parrot specialist. It's all he ever wanted to do, after a childhood obsessing about plants and animals. 'I don't know where that came from,' he says, 'but it has stayed with me all my life.'

He pulls down a weighty reference book, A Guide to the Parrots of the World. He co-wrote it. 'It took me seven years.' It details hundreds of varieties. 'I have seen every one,' he says proudly, 'or at least material of all of them as museum specimens.' He has another book, How Many Light-bulbs Does It Take To Change A Planet?, to be published this month by Quercus.

It was his work at Birdlife International that got him interested in campaigning. 'It opened my eyes to the situation with the tropical rainforest. That gave me a good basis to pitch to Friends of the Earth to be its rainforest campaigner.' He joined in 1990. The organisation then was 'more chaotic, more hand-to-mouth, but it had energy and passion'. It was riding a first wave of public awareness about ozone depletion. But the issues dropped out of the media spotlight. 'They were rocky years: we had changes of leadership, the public disengaging from issues. We were always pretty good at campaigning, but we were not really focused on external delivery in any strategically determined way.'

Others who have worked there say Juniper has been clever, pushing for legislation to make corporates act better, and keeping FoE's local base onside while linking more with its international network. As well as heading FoE in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Juniper is also deputy chairman of Friends of the Earth International, which oversees affiliate organisations from around the world.

'Tony is a massive internationalist,' says Higman, 'and he has given us more of a southern-hemisphere perspective - that's what distinguishes us from other environmental groups. We have groups that have sprung up in Latin America and south-east Asia which are part of the struggles for land and jobs and water. Tony was our rainforest campaigner and he brings that way of thinking into the organisation.'

From the outside, however, it's simply FoE's increased profile that counts. 'Tony is a much better communicator externally than his predecessor, Charles Secrett,' says one who works at a rival charity. 'But you do worry that the superficial ubiquity of the organisation might now be a weakness. They comment on everything.'

And beneath the media-slick demeanour, Juniper is perhaps more stressed then he lets on. Ten years ago, he collapsed at the Kyoto talks on greenhouse gas emissions. 'I'd been running the campaigns on roadbuilding, including the Newbury by-pass, then been involved in all the talks up to Kyoto, and I was literally exhausted. I was put on a drip, given sleeping tablets. It struck me that this was not the best way to carry on.'

By 2000, he'd determined that he would leave - he wanted to work with birds again. But he was promised the leadership at FoE. Did he force the board's hand? 'I was quite honest, I just felt I needed a change, and I was on my way to the RSPB. But they said: why not have a change here?' He worked as director-in-waiting for two years. 'It wasn't without its challenges,' he grins.

And is a job at the RSPB still beckoning? He laughs. 'No.' Or a high-paid future in consultancy? 'Do you think I could?' he teases, in mock surprise. 'I sometimes wonder what I will do ...'

More money would certainly come in handy, he adds. He earns 'around £65,000 a year' as FoE's director. You imagine the pressure on his lifestyle must be intense, too - so many people watching, waiting for him to slip. He commutes to London by train from his family home in Cambridge, then rides a folding bicycle from Liverpool Street station. He recycles everything he can. He buys local food. He tries not to fly anywhere. His wife - an accountant - and teenage kids all comply. 'This summer we'll either go to northern Spain or Norway by ship.'

But hasn't flying brought the world together and made it a more peaceful place? 'I'll give you a little statistic: 80% of take-offs and landings are to and from European destinations. The train is a pretty good alternative.'

The only time he gets testy is when I raise last year's Economist cover story on how we are all getting conned by the green lobby - that world farming would need three times the land to go completely organic and that Fairtrade is unworkable. He puffs his cheeks in exasperation.

'The Economist years ago was saying that global warming was rubbish and all part of a plot to undermine democracy, but they have moved, as have the Telegraph and The Times, and they have had to accept that this is something they have to take much more seriously.

'And I really don't take it as a defeat that they are being sceptical. It's not original thinking, it's predictable. The Economist has taken these contrarian lines to environmental arguments for years. The only trouble is the time it is taking for the world to put in place solutions. We're putting in grave jeopardy the prospects of future generations having a sustainable and secure life.'

He rolls his eyes, then shrugs as if to say: 'Sorry, rant over.'

Does he think that governments, business and humanity will sort it all out? He stares down at the table, then smiles. 'Yeah, you can't be a pessimist doing this - it wouldn't work.'

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING JUNIPER

1. Staying positive in the face of the human propensity for making excuses and delaying action

2. Broadening support to get the big political changes necessary to sustain the earth's natural systems

3. Extending the environmental movement: global challenges require an international effort driven by public demand

4. Working with the best in the private sector, while keeping the heat on the laggards and remaining independent

JUNIPER IN A MINUTE

1960 Born 24 September, Oxford. Educated Oxford School, Bristol University and UCL

1984 Worker, South Oxfordshire Countryside Education Trust

1986 Co-founder Ecolidays, Bristol

1988 Fieldworker, National Commission for Wildlife Conservation, Saudi Arabia

1989 Fieldworker, marsh harrier project, Tunisia; parrot conservation officer, International Council for Bird Preservation 1990 Senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth, first for tropical rainforests, then for biodiversity; campaigns director; policy and campaigns director; director-designate

2003 Executive director, Friends of the Earth, and vice chair, FoE International.

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