The Challenge


The challenges our society faces are global and systemic, and our current change strategies are not tackling these deeper, systemic issues.

time35–40 mins



Case study discussion

The idea of changing our economic system and the underlying culture that supports it may seem like an impossible or overwhelming task. But the current system was not given by the laws of nature. Instead it was created and continues to be shaped by human beings. And as such we as human beings can change it again. In fact, only if we take on this task collectively, will we have a chance to create a fairer and much more equal society where current and future generations thrive in harmony with nature.

Yet often, when we campaign, we are scared of being too ambitious. We want to have measurable targets so that we can say “we won”. We think if we try something too ambitious, it will never work, and so we focus on SMART objectives (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time-based). And so, often, we limit ourselves to goals that keep us within our current modes of thinking and acting. And yet, as Einstein said:

Albert Einstein Head “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
— Albert Einstein

In this session we will start to explore how to go further and deeper in our thinking and in our vision.

We will start by looking at where we are now in current, common modes of campaigning.
Then we will look at the root causes of the issues we are trying to address and imagine a more ambitious vision.
Finally we will look at the types of tools and strategies that will help us start the journey.

To start off we will look at a recent campaign by a leading environmental NGO. The purpose is not to criticise this organisation per se, but to use this example, which is similar to many other campaigns run by civil society organisations, to look more deeply at the way problems and solutions are being presented. Many leaders within this organisation themselves recognise some of these limitations.

Introduce case study by showing the campaign slide, and, if possible, show the campaign video. (Facilitators may wish to replace this campaign case study with other examples which they may find more relevant, such as a campaign from their own organisation or local area.)

Note for trainer: The Detox campaign by Greenpeace is an evolving campaign which focuses on preventing pollution from the fashion industry. It has included direct action to raise awareness about business’ environmental impacts, as well as lobbying to work with companies to incite them to improve their standards. One of the central tactics of the campaign was a ‘comparison meter’ (branded as Detox Catwalk) which labelled companies as detox winners, greenwashers and losers.

resourceSlides with campaign description (Detox)

resourceCampaign video

resourceDetailed account of campaign, if required, if you intend to host a very detailed discussion

Invite participants to reflect on the questions below, either by speaking with their neighbour for 5 minutes (buzz groups) or, if they're already sitting in small groups, to discuss these questions in their groups.

Then invite some participants to share their reflections with the larger group (in the interests of time, you may want to take feedback from just a few people).

frage 2

What is your intuitive response to this campaign – how does it make you think and feel?


What does it make you want to do? 


What do you think this campaign’s main goals are? What specific practices, policies and actors is it trying to change?


To what extent is this campaign a good way to achieve these goals?


How could the campaign have tackled broader ecological, social and economic issues?

De-briefing from case study discussion

When we look deeper, as we have just done in our discussion, we see that this kind of campaign can be good at achieving short-term change, such as improving clothing companies’ environmental footprint, but it is not tackling wider issues such as the labour market structure that allows the production and distribution of cheaply-made clothes, the culture of shopping and replacing clothes frequently, etc.

When we take a step back from our campaigns and those we notice around us, we can become aware of underlying narratives and values which they might be helping to reinforce.

De-briefing from discussion:

  • Summarise some of the intuitive reactions to the campaign. For example, did it make people want to go out and buy more clothes from the ‘right’ brands? If so, what does this say about the potential psychological effects of the campaign (driving more consumerism, sending the message that detoxing the supply chain 'solves' the environmental and ethical problems, etc…).

  • Summarise key themes from discussion.

  • Refer to any other campaigns in media/local area which may share similar characteristics.

Link these points to the explanation in the guide Re.imagining Activism about why and how activism campaigns may not be addressing systemic change (see Key Concepts, pp. 1–20).


The Challenge (guide, pp. 1-20):

Mainstream campaigning often focuses on single issues: climate change, poverty, labour rights etc. But crises are increasingly intertwined. These systemic global crises require a deep rethinking of our economic, political and social systems and cannot be adequately addressed through a single issue lens. (p4 and 11)

Most campaigns are too pragmatic. They focus on quick wins, but they don’t deal with root causes and can create the illusion that they will solve the problems when they actually don’t. (p5-7)

Mainstream advocacy is at its best contributing to incremental change and its worst strengthening the current system: When CSOs became increasingly professionalised and credible and respected stakeholders for government and business they drifted into tactics and lost sight of the strategic perspective. (p8)

The modus operandi of much of today's activism is to identify and fight the enemy, but the personification of the enemy goes along with a reduction of complexity. The systemic problems of our times are not the particular fault of one group or another. If there is a main enemy it is the system. It is important that we learn that we all are part of the system and interact with it and that we need to learn how to deal with complexity. (p14-15)

CSOs underestimate the importance of the subconscious mind in people’s behaviour and decisions. Unintentionally, campaigns often activate (and reinforce) in their audiences the values and frames of self-interest and consumerism that are causing the problems in the first place. (p15-18)

Funding schemes are one of the reasons CSOs are pursuing narrowly focused symptoms oriented strategies. Over the last decade many grant makers, including private foundations and public funders, have further pushed their grantees to focus on clearer measurable goals, thereby suppressing innovative, more risky and systemic approaches. (p19-20)

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