02/12/2014 04:50 pm ET

Phil Radford Reflects On His Time Leading Greenpeace USA

Brendan Hoffman via Getty Images

WASHINGTON –- When Phil Radford took the helm of Greenpeace USA in April 2009, he promised to bring a renewed focus on the grassroots to the environmental group. Now, almost five years later, he's stepping down -- and looking back on the successes the group has had over his time as executive director.

Radford took over at arguably the pinnacle of political focus on climate change in Washington, D.C. President Barack Obama had been sworn in only months before, and the House of Representatives was, for the first time, seriously considering passing new legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But the bill failed to gain universal support among environmental groups -- including Greenpeace -- and never made it to a vote in the Senate. Radford says that the failure of the climate bill showed the need to develop a stronger environmental movement across the country that could force not only political change in Washington, but also force businesses across the country to change their practices.

The Huffington Post talked to Radford recently about his impending departure and the state of the environmental movement.

What is the biggest change since you started five years ago -- either at Greenpeace, or in the broader environmental movement?

There have been three big changes in the organization. One is that we've nearly doubled our net income. We grew 80 percent. Foundations and major donors went from about $3 million to $7 million, but our individual donors, our street canvassing alone, raises like $21 million a year of small donor money.

The second is that we really focused on moving corporations [toward more sustainable practices]. We were able to play a role in moving over 100 companies. Asia Pulp and Paper was a big one. To get there, we had to cut about 75 percent of their U.S. market -- Mattel, Kroger, Lego.

On the oceans, our strategy really shifted to a market strategy as well. We've gotten about 20 percent of all the endangered fish off of U.S. supermarket shelves. We've gone to companies like Whole Foods and Kroger and said, "We want you to get the most threatened fish off the shelves, we want you to have a good sustainability policy, and we want you to lobby with us for marine reserves." So what we've seen is Walmart and Safeway have made their generic brands of tuna sustainably caught, which is starting to change the whole fishing industry.

It's a similar story around climate, where we've gotten Facebook, Apple, a whole set of the biggest in the information technology sector to shift to clean energy and start pushing for policy change. Facebook and Apple really twisted Duke Energy's arm to get the public utility commission to allow solar in the state of North Carolina.

Week two of my job was deciding, once we saw the [House climate] bill, to withdraw our support. Part of it was set up to fail because there were some environmental groups partnering with corporations, and the environmental groups had no leverage. So you had this terribly watered down bill where Duke Energy could walk any day. It was so weak to start with, and things only get worse in Congress. So we stepped back and said you can't really win without grassroots power and corporations pushing for something, but how do we actually get good policy that's principled? And we realized we need to have so much leverage over these companies that they'll be asking for exactly what we'll be asking for. It became basically [a question of] how we give companies such a near-death experience that they're willing to transform how they work.

How did coming into role of executive director at such a critical point in the climate bill debate shape what you did on climate policy at Greenpeace going forward?

It shaped it a lot. My personal philosophy has been that once the solution, clean energy, is inexpensive enough, and once we make the political cost for not being on the right side high, that's when we win. And I think that for too many years environmental groups have put policy before power. They have thought about what is the ideal policy -- is it cap and trade, is it cap and dividend, carbon tax –- and it's really an academic activity, not rooted in reality. And so I came into the job with that perspective, and also the perspective that we weren't getting anywhere unless we had the grassroots forces to really create the political costs, or the political support, for people to move.

Do you think other environmental groups have changed in similar ways?

No, not really. I think Sierra Club under [Executive Director] Mike [Brune] has changed quite a bit. I think the culture of other environmental groups is so strong, and their specializations are so strong, that it's hard for them to change, like any organization. I think there should be more resources in grassroots work, more resources focused sector-by-sector on twisting companies' arms to take more principled stands with us.

Once we have the political and the grassroots power we need, then the great expertise in closing the deal and lobbying will be more useful … It's not that we don't need all the groups with their strength, it's that the proportion of resources needs to shift for us all to win more together, I think.

Will there be another big wave of environmental activism any time soon?

I think the big wave is that clean energy is increasingly cheaper than dirty energy. That's the wave. I think the second wave will be that Republicans have to deal with the fact that young people care about climate change, across party and across race. There's a generational wave coming and a voter wave. In California if you poll on climate change, Asian Pacific Islanders care the most, then Latinos, then African-Americans, then whites. So the wave that's coming is the new wave of voters, and the wave of clean energy winning. No one's going to be able to hold that back.

How do you think Greenpeace will change going forward?

And then I think one of the big changes we've seen in Greenpeace is our work more on underlying issues that affect all progressives. So, Ben Jealous from NAACP, Larry Cohen from Communication Workers of America, Mike Brune and I started this huge Democracy Initiative where we now have the National Education Association, the United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, most good government groups, most civil rights groups, some environmental groups, and we've all decided that our secondary issue after our primary one should be about giving people more of a voice over companies. We're working on campaign finance reform and voting rights together.

Those are not obviously environmental issues. Was it hard to convince your board or staff that you guys should spend time working on that?

It took time … Some people didn't fully understand it. Some people got it. Some people realized that the Koch brothers look at environmentalists and civil rights groups and everybody as a united threat to their agenda of getting rid of regulations, getting rid of voting rights and consolidating power for the corporate right. And so why don't we see ourselves as one threat to them?

What's next for you?

I'm still thinking about it. I gave the board eight months and promised them I would stay totally focused … I think whatever I do next it will still be on the drivers that affect climate change. It will be about how we get clean energy cheap and how we build the political pressure and cost to people not on the correct side.