Patagonia, the repair-what-we-sold-you adventure clothing retail company synonymous with ethical business—and practically a giant stamp of sustainability approval for anything it puts its name to—runs an invite-only conference every couple of years.
For the conference, Patagonia invites heavy hitters in environmental advocacy from whom they can learn. For example, keynote speakers have included Dr Jane Goodall (chimp documenter extraordinaire), Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), Bill McKibben (350), and Beth Kanter (leading not-for-profit social media strategist). You know, the kinds of heroes we’d love to be even a little bit like when we grow up.
I’d sell my soul to get into this conference, but I’m far from being one of the heavy hitters in the industry. So the just-released Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement is the closest I’m going to get to being in that room.
Given that this is where my career is heading—I’m this close to finishing a PhD looking at some of this stuff [imagine a thumb and index finger just millimetres apart]—I came to this book with both a keenly critical eye and breathless, fan-girl appreciation.
Edited by Nora Gallagher and Lisa Myers, Tools for Grassroots Activists collates various conference talks and insights gleaned over the conference’s history. My hope was to ferret out some ground-breaking information I could incorporate into my own practice.
And the book does deliver elements of that. Say, for example, tips on refining purpose, and targeting key groups with strategic marketing. But for the most part it offers the also-important elements of motivation and hope and stories about these particular activists’ efforts and learnings.
It outlines in their own words how they have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds throughout their careers, such as defeating the then apparently indestructible tobacco companies that had limitless cash resources to fund their campaigns.
It’s certainly great to hear these not-glossed-over parts (too often history rewrites battles as being efficiently linear rather than painstakingly messy and long-running). And I enjoyed this book and got plenty of shot-in-the-arm inspiration from it, I really did. But—and I fully recognise my expectations might be too high given I’ve spent the last three years avidly analysing this stuff—I was hoping for something a little more.
I understand that the book is a compilation of key lessons from the conference’s history, but it feels a little more cobbled together and a little less robust than expected, with entries varying wildly in structure and theme. Still, once you get your head around that, it’s fine. It meant I ended up dipping in and out of articles and skimming or even skipping the ones that it was apparent weren’t currently suited to me.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to me adoring this text was its design, of which I’m not at all a fan. Highly stylised and eclectic, and with a decidedly plain-Jane font selection, I don’t think it works both in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of gripping the reader and effectively guiding them through its contents.
Or at least I don’t think it works with the kind of paper on which it’s printed and the book format in which it’s packaged. It just looks a bit grassroots-newsletter amateur and ultimately lets itself down. It’s certainly not the well-designed book I’d expect of a company that understands the combination of form and function is what makes the difference between a successful organisation or approach that can wield good in the world and one that has good intentions but ultimately fails. Again, that could be personal preference and someone else could consider it smashing.
I realise this is a slightly mixed review, and in truth my feelings about this book are mixed. Was it worth publishing and will people derive some benefits from it? Yes, absolutely yes. But could it have been better? Yes. Or, as one of the book’s contributors notes: activists need to get better at how they communicate their messages. Patagonia normally leads by example and it’s doing so with its conferences. Its conference-related publication just needs to catch up.