The Kleercut Boycott: Outcome Undetermined

It's hard to boycott a consumer product when you can't determine who buys it.

It’s midday on Sproul Plaza and the usual array of club recruiters and rabble-rousers are competing for the attention of passers-by. For UC agenda-setters, Sproul is the ultimate playing field. Local food enthusiasts are pushing carrots. Bake sale fund-raisers are pimping cupcakes. And of course there’s the guy sitting in the tree. Today’s winners are a gang of thirty-odd students dressed up as trees and giant boxes of Kleenex, wrapping yellow crime scene tape around the front doors of the Cal student store. Heads turn, jaws drop, and occasionally people stop in their tracks to take in the spectacle.

But few people take time to hear the protesters’ rap. When they do, they learn that the activists are part of Greenpeace’s nationwide “Kleercut” campaign against Kimberly-Clark, a multinational corporation that owns well-known brands like Scott, Kleenex, Huggies, Kotex, and Depends. Greenpeace is asking consumers to boycott Kimberly-Clark products because their Kleenex brand is made from 100 percent virgin old-growth forest instead of recycled materials. Environmental advocates say that wiping our excretions with “virgin” tissue isn’t worth the environmental cost, but Kimberly-Clark spokesman Dave Dickson counters that consumers “have come to expect the quality of softness that virgin fiber provides” in their Kleenex brand.

Whether the Sproul boycott is having any effect has yet to be seen. Student Usbaldo Canizalez doubts that it will, despite the fact that the protest motivated him to stop and take pictures. “I look at something like this and I say, ‘It’s not working,'” said Canizalez, gesturing toward the costumed activists.

Students like him have come to expect protests on Sproul Plaza in the same way that people living in Seattle expect rain. And indeed, most students passing by don’t even seem to take any notice of the protesters — as if they are just part of the scenery. Canizalez guesses that the amorphous nature of environmental issues probably just adds to their disregard of the stunt.

People looking for an effective campus boycott often point to the anti-apartheid divestment campaign of the 1980s, when universities and other groups sought to curtail investments in companies that did business in South Africa. Many have argued that those nationwide efforts played a significant role in ending apartheid.

But since the fall of apartheid, UC has had more than its share of similar campaigns — some more effective than others. Last year’s “Clean Up Your Drink” campaign to boycott bottled water on UC Berkeley’s campus accomplished little more than introducing stainless steel water bottles to the student store. But in 2006, the Students Organizing for Justice in the Americas took Cal off-guard by staging a nude protest as part of its campaign to pressure UC not to buy logo apparel from manufacturers who paid their workers less than the legal minimum wage of their country. Proving once again that sex sells, that campaign convinced student stores throughout the entire UC system to purchase from a more “responsible” manufacturer.

But peeking behind the scenes of the latest campaign reveals how complicated such boycotts can be.

The changing nature of campus protests may stem in part from the changing nature of their targets. When third-year student Connie Chung brought the Kleercut campaign to UC Berkeley’s campus, her plan was simple: contact UC Berkeley’s purchasing director, tell him or her the problem with purchasing Kimberly-Clark products, suggest other brands with higher recycled content, and then kick back and watch the corporate cookie crumble.

Chung’s plan did not go quite as smoothly as she had hoped. Even before she could make her demands, she ran into a major wall. She couldn’t figure out whether UC Berkeley actually purchased products from the company. “You might see Kimberly-Clark dispensers in the restroom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that UC Berkeley is buying that brand of toilet paper,” Chung said.

In other words, there’s a lot more to running an effective campaign than dressing up as foliage. “Campuses can be very different, so the way that we run campaigns can be very different,” said Robin Averback of Greenpeace, who is currently working on the Kleercut campaign with more than twenty universities across the country.

Cal poses a real challenge because purchasing there is decentralized, as it is at many other large campuses. Some hundred or so university departments each make their own arrangements for small-budget purchases. Finding out who the purchasers are, and trying to explain why they should boycott Kimberly-Clark, is a tedious task. As for larger purchases, those go through distribution companies that buy wholesale and then resell at bulk rates to other buyers.

Lisa Bauer, UC Berkeley’s campus recycling and refuse manager, said Cal would probably be very open to demanding that its suppliers stop buying products from certain companies if the argument for doing so is strong enough. “We’re not sitting here hiding behind our hands, trying not to inform people about doing the right thing,” Bauer said.

Greenpeace boasts on its web site that a number of universities already have boycotted Kimberly-Clark products, including Harvard University, Skidmore College, American University, Rice University, University of Miami, and Wesleyan University. However, Dickson of Kimberly-Clark claims that many of those campuses still purchase his company’s products, but that purchasing is simply done indirectly. “Greenpeace says that these campuses have dropped Kimberly-Clark products, but the truth is that while a building or two may have dropped some of the products, most of the distributors have not,” he said. “So we’ve really only lost a minimal amount of product at those universities.”

That is not to say that the corporation hasn’t suffered from the campaign. Major companies from IKEA to Estee Lauder to the Aspen Ski Company have all cut contracts with Kimberly-Clark since the campaign began in 2004.

After conducting some research, Lila Mauro, Director of Business Services at Cal, said UC Berkeley doesn’t have any direct purchasing agreements with Kimberly-Clark, but that the university does buy from a company that buys from Kimberly-Clark. In other words: it’s complicated. In fact, Mauro said the university’s purchasing is so decentralized that the campus has a hard time implementing its own sustainability policies. “Philosophically, the university has an obligation to be working with vendors who have good corporate practices,” said Mauro. “But it’s more challenging to mandate when our relationships with the vendors are not direct.”

Due to such complications, Greenpeace activists at Cal decided to narrow the scope of their protest. Instead of targeting the whole campus, they’re now focused on banning Kimberly-Clark brands just from the student store, where Kleenex is very visibly on display. Which is why Kimberly-Clark may have suffered little monetary loss from such campus-wide boycotts.

Still, the larger repercussions of such protests can be striking. Dickson said Kimberly-Clark recently started selling Kleenex with 20 percent recycled fibers — which is 40 percent below the tissue industry average, but still a step in the recycled direction.


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