What are environmental NGOs’ principal sources of influence?

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of high-profile environmental organisations and movements across the West. The principal aim of these groups is to induce governments to take more decisive action on a range of environmental problems. Think, for example, of the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for Future, and Green New Deal Rising. This raises the question of how, exactly, non-government organisations (NGOs) can most effectively discover and wield influence.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue, there are three fundamental means by which environmental NGOs can exert influence. Firstly, NGOs can exert normative power by harnessing their reputations as a force for good. This is especially meaningful as a means of agenda-setting. Publics generally acknowledge that NGOs are deeply committed to resolving the issues they were established to address, and are thus willing to listen when NGOs bring new issues to the table. For example, NGOs proved crucial in bringing climate change to the public agenda in countries around the world from the 1980s onwards.

Secondly, NGOs can exert an influence by lobbying. This aspect of their behaviour is perhaps less appreciated than their normative role; NGOs do not just organise campaigns and demonstrations, but also gain access to negotiators and officials by harnessing their research and expertise on a given issue. For example, Greenpeace can offer the data that it independently collects on environmental issues around the world as a means of winning access to negotiators. Environmental NGOs may even draft treaty texts for state negotiating teams to emulate or build upon, a function that developing countries, which typically send smaller negotiating teams to international environmental summits than rich countries, may be especially inclined to exploit. Clearly, then, whereas normative power helps NGOs to set the public agenda, lobbying power helps NGOs to influence negotiations once environmental issues have already been brought to the table. Consequently, the number of NGOs present at international climate summits has risen sharply over the decades, from just 250 at Stockholm in 1972 to thousands at Paris in 2015.

Thirdly, NGOs have significant market power. By naming and shaming businesses for their environmental misdemeanours, NGOs can cause considerable damage to corporate brands. They can also potentially mobilise consumer boycotts of misbehaving corporations as a means of changing business behaviour. Greenpeace’s successful campaign to change practices in the tuna industry in the 1980s stands as perhaps the clearest example of NGOs’ market power. This form of influence is especially important beyond the agenda-setting and negotiations stages, in the implementation phase. Corporations’ fear of NGO naming and shaming or boycott strategies provides them with an additional incentive to cooperate with environmental laws, trends, and agreements.

These different strategies can sometimes clash. For example, normative power is, by and large, an outsider strategy – NGOs wield it by putting public pressure on governments to act, rather than by lobbying or offering financial inducement. They might organise demonstrations or petition campaigns to make governments feel that they have no choice but to act. For example, in September 2019, some 4 million people across 160 countries participated in Fridays for Future demonstrations. Lobbying, by contrast, is clearly an insider strategy, relying on the formation of strong relationships with key stakeholders to directly influence their decision making processes. These insider and outsider strategies can be difficult to reconcile, as stakeholders are hardly likely to welcome into the fold organisations that they perceive as having orchestrated public hostility towards them.

This helps to explain the growth of an ever more diverse network of environmental NGOs, which is merely a reflection of the myriad means by which they can exert influence. Radical movements such as Extinction Rebellion, for example, are resolutely outsiders rather than insiders. They eschew direct negotiations with state officials, instead trying to raise public consciousness of environmental crises by devising high-profile provocations. This, it is hoped, will indirectly shape government behaviour, as publics should begin to demand action once they have been made aware of the scale of the problem. Extinction Rebellion is far removed from insider NGOs, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature or the Centre for Environmental Law, which tend to focus their efforts on lobbying or advising state officials directly.

Overall, two principal conclusions can be drawn from this blog. Firstly, NGOs are not homogeneous, but can rather wield influence by a variety of means: normative power, lobbying, and market power. Secondly, these distinct sources of power give NGOs influence at different phases of the long process of resolving environmental problems. Normative NGOs are especially effective at raising public consciousness of environmental issues and thus bringing them to the public agenda. Once this has occurred, lobbying NGOs exert a direct influence by liaising with state officials and negotiators. Then, once environmental laws and agreements have been devised, NGOs can apply their market power to enhance their implementation, as corporations fear that they will be named and shamed if they continue to abuse the environment. Therefore, NGOs do not follow a single playbook to achieve their goals, but are instead influential in different ways, at different times, and to different extents.


Joss Harrison