Todd Paglia | Speaking for the Trees

image credit: Sandi Heinrich

Todd Paglia started his advocacy career with Ralph Nader in 1995 by taking on some of the largest companies in the US on issues of corporate welfare and consumer protection. He also led in the transformation of the purchasing practices of the federal government, the world’s largest consumer of paper.  After more than a decade with ForestEthics, Todd has helped lead the organization by protecting millions of acres of endangered forests and consequently shifting 100’s of millions of dollars towards more sustainable purchasing.

Todd Paglia, Executive Director of ForestEthics, has been making forests part of his life since he was a kid growing up in Upstate New York. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after spending time as a lawyer–first for a firm in Washington, D.C., then for Ralph Nader in the 1990s–he decided to work for ForestEthics.

When I asked him how he made the decision to move from working as a lawyer to working for the environmental movement, he told me, “I spent enormous amounts of time in the forest as a kid. I also spent a lot of time hunting and fishing. I think for those reasons it was always kind of in me [to do environmental work], and I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to see more and more what our landscapes and forests are being used for, and I feel that maybe our highest and best use is for them to be left alone–for them to be used in traditionally and culturally important ways, but not used just for industry. I think those things came together with my work at ForestEthics.”

Todd has been the E.D. of ForestEthics for over a decade and has been instrumental in getting big companies to do unimaginable things, such as changing their stance on issues related to production and to their profit margin. Under his direction ForestEthics has helped protect 6.7 million acres of the Great Bear Rainforest and increased the use of recycled paper mills by large companies. When we spoke last month, a lot of what we covered, even when talking about big companies, was about awareness, which, given all of the challenges to the environment was unexpected. On reflection, however, it makes a lot of sense. Awareness is what brings about change.

XC: It’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to abuse the environment to the degree that it has been abused. I can’t imagine that the money people get from doing it is that exciting.

TP: And the funny thing is–this is a bigger question for us as a species and for us as a country–it’s not like those people are happy. I mean, I was a lawyer in a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. We made a lot of money. The people I worked with spent it foolishly; they were one of the more unhappy collections of people that I was around.

I had always wanted to end up doing environmentally oriented work. My first job was in a private law firm, but I’ve also always been really focused on doing things that I find to be enriching or satisfying in a deeper way. And honestly, making money wasn’t one of them and being around those kind of people wasn’t one of them. They showed me that you can make enormous amounts of money and be miserable, which made me think, “Okay, I’m going to be on a different path.” I always knew I would be, but they really helped me.

XC: People in the industries that you work “against” at ForestEthics seem like that’s what they’re all going after, money. How do you help them understand that the road they are taking, in terms of a disregard for the environment, is really pointless, without losing your own integrity, without getting your feathers all ruffled up.

TP: At ForestEthics we really try to live and to operate in a way that means we don’t have enemies. We have adversaries. We’re really trying to look at these folks as not fully awake as opposed to evil, and I think a lot of frontline campaigning groups see these people as evil. And it’s just not true. A lot of our campaigns are trying to wake people up. We’re trying to wake companies up to the reality [surrounding the environment] and motivating them to make a better choice. That’s really what we’re trying to do, and we’ve been able to do it in a lot of different places and with a lot of acres being protected.

The good thing about much of our work is that forests are resilient, forests do come back, forests can tolerate a certain amount of cutting, and in some forests there should never be any cutting. We kind of hold that dual approach that some places you shouldn’t ever go into, and some places you can take a certain amount without ruining all of it.

Also, the truth of the idea that these people are not evil and need to be woken up is just fact. It also makes the work a whole lot more pleasant. Maybe when I was younger fighting evil villains to the death may have seemed more appealing, but the world isn’t like that.

XC: How do you do that? How do you wake people up? Because it seems to me that 1) folks who are on that path are very interested in money and 2) people are very stuck in their ways. How do you convince people otherwise?

TP: In some cases it’s just educating them, because some of these people are not very different from you and me. They want to do the right thing if not then they want it made abundantly clear how to do things a little bit better, how to make significant improvements in some areas.

In some cases, it’s just getting them out into the woods and showing them the worst practices and showing them there are better companies and better suppliers they can buy from that match their values. We move a fair amount of people just like that. Then you have people that are busier, they’re overwhelmed, they’re flying all over the world, their jobs are overwhelming…sometimes it takes a little bit more education to get them to wake up. Sometimes that means a campaign, educating the employees, educating the shareholders, getting media attention. But even when we go to that point [getting media attention], we never operate behind closed doors in a way that makes these people feel like they are “other” and they are “evil.”

That’s what gets a lot of frontline campaign groups in trouble–it’s about a pose and a lifestyle. I mean, I honestly think that some campaign groups are working out their parent-child conflicts with large companies. They never really dealt with their parents, and now they’re going to beat up on companies as a way of acting out that same pattern. It creates more resistance in the companies.

Companies don’t want to agree with people who think they’re evil. Even if ForestEthics, for example, is doing the same stuff with protests and media, scandal reports, bringing all of this pressure on the company, when you get behind closed doors we treat those people as people.

They need to make different choices, but they’re not evil. They want to do the right thing; they just don’t know what it is yet. And that almost all the time ends up being true. Our entire society is telling them one thing: make money, make money, make money. Sometimes it takes a significant counter message like: You can make a little less money. You can pay a little bit more for paper. You can pay a little bit more for wood. You can do things a little bit differently. You may even be able to make up for it in other ways. You will get less tangible, but still important benefits.

One of the things we’ve been seeing for the last few years is that these companies really want to demonstrate to their employees that work is not just a pay check. Sometimes if they can then tell their employees they’re doing the right thing, they’re willing to spend significant amounts more on more ethically produced paper and wood  because that actually saves money in the long term. Employee turn over is one of the most expensive things that companies have to deal with, and if they can show employees there’s another reason to stay, you know, they reduce their turn over.

People can make better decisions. Sometimes it just requires a louder alarm bell to wake them up.

XC: It must be refreshing for the people on the other side of the table when you come in and treat them like human beings. Because activists have that reputation of being so passionate and overzealous about what they do, in some part of their brain they must anticipate that.

TP: Yeah. Usually it’s a refreshing experience especially after the protests and the media pressure. We’ve actually had companies post security guards outside of the boardroom thinking that violence would break out while they were in a meeting with us. It’s something that we can laugh about later ’cause it’s anything but that.

XC: I know ForestEthics has done a lot of work with Rockwood [Leadership Institute], and I’m curious about how you as an organization, and you as a person, find center so that you can actually go about your work without treating the people on the other side of the table as if they are, you know, your dad or your mom.

TP: Our work has really evolved around practice and mindfulness from a Rockwood approach. Without Rockwood we wouldn’t be where we are, so we’re really grateful to that organization. It opened our eyes to this whole world. We had a period of sending people to Rockwood. Leading ForestEthics, I felt like we were having what I call a sort of “rock concert” experience. People go to this thing, they have this great experience, and the day after they come back they’re back in their life and some of the same habits and challenges arise.

Then we had a period where we were trying to bring Rockwood trainers into ForestEthics, so we could experience the training as a full staff, and it would provide a little bit more staying power. I think that worked for a time. We’re kind of in our third iteration of this. We have a trainer who works with us on a variety of topics around leadership and mindfulness, and we have now incorporated that more fully into how we are as an organization. For example, every staff call we do starts with 15 minutes of meditation. So we’re bringing Rockwood practices into how we actually function as a way to get people to slow down, to put their screens away, to put their minds more at rest for the beginning of a staff call. We do that at the beginning of team management meetings, and we’re providing people with, not only, generalized training on meditation and other aspects of practice but also with very specific training on the practical application of these things to real world challenges.

This month we did an hour-long training that started with a meditation. The training was all around triggers and acting out of anger. Which you can imagine, even within the normal operations of an NGO that’s moving fast, within your staff people getting triggered maybe out of anger. When you’re talking about dealing with very big companies–which are easily defined as doing bad things–people can act out of anger in all kinds of ways. So for a month that’s our practice, revisiting that topic.

Next month we’re focusing on distraction. We’re in an unprecedented age of iPhones, iPads, screens, and video. How do people maintain focus on the things that are most important? The next month it’ll be something else. We’re really bringing it all the way into the organization. Who knows where we’ll be in 2014, but that’s what we’re rolling with right now.

XC: That’s brilliant. Everybody should do that.

TP: We were just invited to this conference in Montana. It was a conference for creative people who are doing branding, like Intel, Microsoft, actors, screenwriters, and ForestEthics. It was sort of an interesting combination of people. I think we were the only campaigning organization there. It takes a lot of creativity to go after a Fortune 500 company, do it in a creative and interesting way, and get them to do the right thing. And we were the ones bringing this idea forward as part of the creative process: What’s your practice in this time of incredible distraction and 100 emails an hour? How are you maintaining your focus?

Almost everyone at the conference had lots of thoughts on this. The really interesting thing was many of them knew they should be doing something with an element of practice, but they couldn’t really get themselves to do it.

Part of what we’re trying to do at ForestEthics is to say we know this works; it’s going to be part of your work. Theoretically, you could just count sheep when we do the 15 minutes of meditation, but we’re giving you every opportunity and every possible structural assistance and training on the job to do it, so you know if you can’t do it here you’re not going to be able to do it anywhere. I think most people in the organization are really diving into it. So it’s going well so far.

XC: What kind of changes have you seen because you’ve brought it into the organization so deeply?

TP: Just in the last six months we’ve seen a whole bunch of different anecdotal examples of bringing this practice into our organization having a big impact. We’ve had all sorts of very high stakes things happening at ForestEthics over the last six months.

We were attacked in Canada as an enemy of the state, which has been this really tumultuous and crazy situation. And we were able to weather it extremely well. We eventually had to walk away from our nonprofit status and become a no-longer-501c3 profit equivalent in Canada. Throughout it there were all these key moments where we had to make a big decision or call a press conference or do something, and between me and other senior leaders there were times that were a flurry of craziness, where we just shut off all of our computers, put away our phones, and just got still and meditated and thought, “What’s the best thing to do right now, given the risks?”

And there were these huge calls that we all made during that frantic timeframe. When I look back a couple of years, we wouldn’t have been in the same position and been able to really ground ourselves and make the right calls. Pretty much everything we did turned a huge challenge into a big growth opportunity for us. There are plenty of examples like that, where people are actually using the practice during a time of stress to ground themselves, come back to their center, and make the right call.

XC: How does that work for you on a personal level? How do you go inside and get the answers that you need?

TP: You know, it’s funny. I have kids, young boys, six and eight years old, and I have to say that even though I continue to fall short in various ways and continue to have to work on myself, as we all do, actually being a parent is where the rubber really hits the road for me as far as using these practices and really trying to be my better self. Because when you’re sick or tired, or even traveling, the ability to try, at least most of the time, to muster your best self with very rambunctious, high energy kids, at least for me, that stuff is more challenging. If you’re in a boardroom or giving a speech, you’re performing, presenting. It’s always easier to maintain your presence, maintain your cool even in a high stakes negotiation than it is the closer you get to home. People in your family are inside of your heart and can push your buttons and your guard is much lower. So to be honest, the biggest part of my practice is trying to use it to be a better parent and a better husband.

For me the evolution of my work has been about how do you bring being present into your entire day. I think in the beginning, going back several years, there’s a certain amount of, “If I just do this thing for 20 minutes or 30 minutes, then everything else will just become easier.” And there’s actually a certain truth to that, but as I’ve gotten more into it it’s like, “How present are you really being every minute?” That’s a whole other level that I’m trying to get to. I think all of us who are working on this stuff are getting there little by little. But it’s a lot different when you’re doing it at home.

XC: Yes, family definitely has a way of pushing buttons and of saying just the right thing at the right time.

TP: It’s an amazing area to really work on your practice, because if you can do it there then everything else looks a whole lot easier. Yeah, work on not being triggered and then spend some time around your parents.

XC: Because the Tar Sands thing is so up, and it seems to me that Wal-Mart and Safeway are pretty committed to using their Tar Sands fuel, can you talk about what you think it will take for them to begin to see the light?

TP: Well, it’s interesting. It’s going to take a long time. Part of what we’re seeing is that waking people up, getting them to make different choices around paper and wood is one thing. In pop-psychological terms that’s like dependency, and then there’s serious addiction–like real clinical addiction. What we’re feeling is that we actually need to go to a whole new level to persuade companies like that to do the right thing.

We’re in really serious talks right now with a couple of the biggest nonprofit groups in the world, who are looking at joining our campaign. What we have felt so far is that we’ve woken up a lot of companies on Tar Sands and gotten 18 of them to make a significant move. But to get 100 or 200 or 300 companies, which is what we need, to really start pushing the needle on this issue, we’re going to need to have a much bigger network, a much more powerful alarm bell. So that’s what we’re building. I think we’re going to get there with some major announcements by the end of the year.

XC: That’s faster than I thought you would say.

TP: Well, we’re not going to have those results with a Safeway or a Wal-Mart by the end of the year, but part of waking those guys up is having a bigger alarm clock. I think the alarm clock that we’re creating is going to be up and running by the end of the year. Then I think from that point forward you’re going to see a lot more action on this and a lot bigger commitments by much bigger companies. So that’s exciting.

I think that’s partly what, as a movement, we need to do more of. We need to be honest about what it’s going to take to get this change to happen, then taking a hard look at ourselves and say, “All right are we really able to do this?” And for ForestEthics we were like, “We’ve already made really good progress.” To move a Wal-Mart or a Safeway, we need even bigger friends to join us and now we have that happening.

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