Do Australians still care about litter and trees in an age of carbon pricing and renewable energy targets? According to the bosses of two community green groups they do, even if the challenges to maintain revenue and prevent public fatigue are becoming greater.
Clean Up Australia founder Ian Kiernan says an apolitical stance and “strong brand” are why his organisation has been able to attract more than 500,000 volunteers to participate in this year’s clean up event. Kiernan reckons the public are able to see through the politics of government policies such as the carbon price and mining tax (both of which he supports).
“They have the political taint and they only have the periphery of the election,” he told Crikey. “We’ve been there 25 years … we’ve got a pretty good product, a strong brand.”
Tourism has become a major driver of litter removal, according to Kiernan, with areas like the Kimberley and its plague of human waste (or, as he calls them, “brown and white butterflies”) a big problem. Other campaigns include the push for container deposit legislation, an end to bottled water and the removal of plastic bags.
Despite this, Clean Up Australia has run in to financial difficulty. It has had to lay off its staff, with Kiernan and CEO Terrie-Ann Johnson staying on voluntarily. Kiernan says the organisation has lost around $350,000 in corporate sponsorship in the past year, with major backers McDonald’s and Veolia scaling back support.
“We didn’t see it coming, we saw a commercial failure. And what do corporates do? Corporates have a hole so they say: ‘we’ll slash these bastards’,” he said. ”These are multinational companies driven from the United States or from Paris.”
Another lost revenue source was a deal with Sanyo which saw Clean Up Australia receive 5 cents from the sale of its rechargeable batteries. In April, parent company Panasonic announced plans to wind up the Sanyo brand.
“It’s a bit like having a bad debt in business,” he said. “But we’re on the way back. We’re in negotiations with some pretty high-quality players and all indications are it looks pretty good.”
Kiernan won’t elaborate on the names of the sponsors but says one is a publicly listed company. Two waste management businesses and a media company are also interested.
“We can pay all our bills, there’s no question of impecunity,” he said. “It’s just a bloody bump in the road, it happens.”
Another organisation facing recent scrutiny has been Planet Ark, the group behind the annual National Tree Day. Last week, 7.30 ran a story critical of its links to timber lobby group Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA) and maligned certification system the Australian Forestry Standard (AFS).
Groups attacking Planet Ark for being to close to the timber industry included the Greens and founders Pat Cash and Jon Dee.
CEO Paul Klymenko has many issues with the way the story was treated by the ABC, but says ultimately the best way to achieve change is by participating in the process. He thinks working with groups like the FWPA and improving the AFS will result in the growth of more sustainable forests.
“When we were set up in 1992 it would be the equivalent of saying you were going to work with the devil, if you were the pope, if you said you were going to work with business,” he told Crikey. ”Now, we’ve pioneered that model and other groups, such as WWF, have taken on that model because they’ve realised you can do more in collaboration than throwing rocks at people.”
The charity will receive $350,000 annually from the FWPA for two years, or around 13% of its yearly budget, which will be mostly set aside for its “Make It Wood” campaign. Planet Ark says it hopes to raise awareness about the role building with wood can play in negating climate change.
“Ultimately, it’s about having more forests and more responsibly managed forests and the economic driver of that,” Klymenko said.
Klymenko says the sell-out sledges from the group’s founders and other green groups are disappointing; they’re idealists who aren’t happy when other groups try to use the “carrot” rather than the “stick”, he says.
“You’ve got to look at the kind of green groups we’re under attack from, to be honest we’re under attack from what I call the NIMBY groups,” he said. “We’re not being attacked by any mass large-scale green group, because they can actually see the rationale.”
Dee also raised concern with Planet Ark selling its former Blue Mountains headquarters, saying it went under the hammer for less than the property was worth. Planet Ark has been operating at a loss for the past three years.
Klymenko rejects the notion of a firesale, telling Crikey it had been on the market for 18 months. He also says the sale resulted in a saving of $150,000 a year, allowing Planet Ark to achieve a $50,000 surplus this year.
Aside from the timber industry issue, Klymenko identified secure revenue and maintaining public support as ongoing challenges. The post-GFC environment has been tough for all green groups, he says.
“People can get fatigue about any subject, whether its AIDS or cigarette smoking, so it’s always keeping something fresh enough so you can keep it in people’s minds,” he said. “That’s always one of the greatest challenges.”