A Conversation with Lindsey Allen

Welcome to RAN’s New Executive Director Lindsey Allen

Today, the Board of Directors at Rainforest Action Network has announced the appointment of Lindsey Allen as the organization’s new Executive Director. In advance of the announcement, RAN’s Nell Greenberg sat down for a conversation with Lindsey. 

Lindsey has a lengthy track record of winning critical environmental campaigns against more than a dozen of the largest corporations in the country, including Disney, Nike, Kimberly-Clark and Timberland. Before stepping in as Executive Director, Lindsey directed RAN’s Forest Program for the last two years. During that time, she designed and led the campaign that won the largest victory in RAN’s 27-year history – last year's rainforest free paper agreement, signed by Disney, which is transforming everything about the way the entertainment giant and its 3,500 subsidiaries source and use paper. 

As RAN’s Board Chair Andre Carothers put it today: “Lindsey is known as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to winning environmental and human rights campaigns. One day she can be found negotiating a transformative policy solution from one of the largest logging and paper companies in the world, and the next she is driving a zodiac to block the path of an oil tanker. All she needs is a change of clothes. Perfect for the Rainforest Action Network. 

Nell: When did you start caring about the environment?

Lindsey: At a very young age. As a kid I used to watch the TV show Cheers with my parents. One day my dad brought home a magazine that had an interview with the Cheers actor Ted Danson. He was talking about the top ways people could save the environment. I took it as a checklist, and started going down the list. One of the first steps was to stop using toxic chemicals because of the runoff that leads to ocean pollution. Our family loved boats and spending time on the water, and having just become aware of the polluted state of our oceans this action felt really important.

I went straight into the garage and started to pull products down from my dad’s workbench to review their labels for toxic chemicals. If I found an ingredient that matched my “Worst Chemicals” list my sister and I would put a homemade sticker on the bottle that in green marker read, ‘WARNING TOXIC CHEMICALS.’ By the time we were done, pretty much everything in my dad’s workshop had a warning label. I remember the conversation when my dad came into the living room to ask very supportively what he should do about the stickers. I told him, “don’t buy those products next time.” You could say that was my very first campaign.

Nell: You’ve gone face-to-face with some of the country’s biggest companies. What gave you the confidence to think you could change such big problems and big corporations?

Lindsey: Part of my sense of fairness came from my mom. To this day, if there is anything she doesn’t like she will launch her own mini campaign. If someone at the bank charges her a fee that she doesn’t agree with, she’ll make sure they refund her through a combination of reasoning and will power. When she splurged to join a gym and they overcharged her and then refused to refund her, she won her money back in small claims court. So, although on a small scale, I understood early on that you could fight to fix things that are unjust. 

Nell: So why have you chosen to work at RAN of all the environmental groups?

Lindsey: The work we do to protect the environment and human rights is so important, but it’s also really hard. RAN is one of the few places I’ve found where nobody shies away from the hard parts of this work. I came to RAN to initially work on the agribusiness campaign, which at the time was going after Cargill. I came because I was impressed by the amount of arrogance and ambition it takes to go after the largest privately held company in the country. The rule in corporate campaigning is that you don’t go after a privately held company, because it’s so much harder to get information and access, and you can’t leverage shareholders. But RAN was taking on Cargill because it was the right target and because it really is enemy number one for destroying rainforests, controlling our food system, and undermining local food solutions. Big agribusiness traders like Cargill are a major problem and RAN is up for the challenge of creating a model for going after a privately held company like Cargill. And if we create the model for going after a privately held Cargill nothing stops us from going after a privately held Koch or any other other privately held company that thinks it can lurk in the corners without accountability or public scrutiny.

The other thing that makes RAN unique is around the model policies we strive to push companies to pass. Many environmental organizations strive to make sure they’re not excluding human or community rights as an important element in a policy. RAN’s approach is that we actively include it as one of our top criteria for a negotiation and if, for instance, a company doesn’t agree to human rights criteria like Free Prior and Informed Consent for Indigenous and affected communities we will walk away from the table and continue our campaign. There are not many organizations that are willing to stand by the interconnected importance of environmental and human rights to that degree. RAN has a holistic approach to solutions that does not allow environmental issues to be severed from community rights.      

Nell: You’ve said in the past that you believe we need to have an ecosystem approach to our work. What does that mean?

Lindsey: Ecosystems have interrelationships, between soil, water, animals, air, that have created the web of life over thousands and thousands of years. We are now at a level of arrogance as human society to assume we understand all of these intricacies and that we can make massive changes to how the planet functions with no ramifications. And industry is not punished for ruining ecological functions and affecting communities but incentivized to make these changes.

If we think about how ecosystems function, it means when we disrupt that web we can’t just have a band-aid solution but we need to have a holistic approach. This is how we’re going to rebalance our relationship with our planet. What it means practically is that we can’t just address an environmental issue in isolation but we need to think about communities and rights among other things.

Nell: You’ve said that your sense of hope comes from believing in people.

Lindsey: Our assumption, our job, is to pull people out of entrenched patterns and to get them to think about the world we live in and what it would take to make the world we want to see.

We have a new imperative because we know that there is a bullet train coming at us called climate change. And we have to question who’s driving the train because we’re all on it. It’s one thing to stand in front of the train, but the challenge of our time is to figure out how we get as many people as possible into the engine room to slow the train down.

That’s going to be people in corporations, people going about their every day business, it’s going to be anyone who wants to have a voice in doing something differently. It’s going to take all of us, and we all have to realize that we’re on the train and if we get into the engine room we can change the outcome. 

Nell: What do you think makes a great campaign, what are the key ingredients?

Lindsey: An appropriate corporate target that you’ve given a chance to change, and who has the power to make a big impact if they do. Corporate campaigning takes into account that corporations are structured with one dial for success: shareholder profits. When companies refuse to choose to make better decisions, we can use this dial by going to their customer base. If we ask consumers if they are going to allow this company to continue to accumulate profits for its shareholders while it’s responsible for forced labor or climate change or extinction, our assumption is that consumers are going to say no. And that’s what we’ve found to be the case.

The other ingredient is to use the organizing principle of meeting people where they are, giving people the tools they want to understand the role they play, and sharing the thinking behind why a given strategy could shift the balance of power to result in a positive outcome. Having a way to take action is critical. Then, with this network of people standing with us ready and willing to act, we can deliver the message to a company that this empowered network represents a real risk to their brand and to their profits. That’s exactly what RAN does.

Nell: You have extensive boating skills and have done some pretty hardcore ‘boat actions.’ You once spent several weeks on the Gulf Coast just after the BP oil spill, and even blocked a ship bound for drilling in the Arctic when you were there. Tell me about that?

Lindsey: Yeah. I was in Venice, Louisiana following the BP oil spill, taking members of the media out daily to see what BP security was working to keep a secret—oil washing ashore and decimating wildlife and the local shrimping industry. It’s hard to imagine now, but I witnessed a shrimping boat stranded in a thick oil slick with its nets out, dolphins and pelicans diving around in oil slicks, and thousands of boats idled. After witnessing this disaster unfolding for weeks, we found out that in a nearby port a massive oil support ship was preparing to leave for the first offshore Arctic drilling. To think that I could watch a ship next door leave to recreate this disaster in another community, and that I wouldn’t be able to tell my family that I did the best I could to stop it from happening again was too much to bear.

So one morning, while then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar happened to be in town, we boarded the ship in an effort to keep it from leaving the Gulf for the Arctic and to raise a public outcry. We took oil that had spilled into the gulf and we wrote the message “Arctic Next?” in oil on the side of the boat. We are talking about a ship that was surrounded by yellow oil containment buoys because oil from the BP spill was crashing into it even while it was docked in the harbor. And this ship was going to plunge through the spill area to head out to start offshore drilling in the critical ecosystem that is the Arctic where, if a spill like the one in the Gulf were to occur, conditions wouldn’t allow for most modern containment techniques – techniques which were already failing in the Gulf. It was very intense. The ship was stopped and we were arrested. Two weeks after we were released, President Obama put the offshore drilling moratorium in place. It was a really important moment to say enough is enough with these oil companies.

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