Will the Citi Ever Weep?
The International Rivers Network's campaign against the Discover Card may represent a first, but it will probably pale in comparison with a forthcoming assault on Citigroup, the largest private financial institution in the United States. That campaign, still in the planning stages, is being crafted by San Francisco's Rainforest Action Network (RAN), best known for driving Home Depot so crazy with protests and letters that the company recently agreed to stop selling wood from old-growth forests.
Where IRN aims to stop a specific project, RAN plans to educate consumers about the wide-ranging impact of a single company. "It's a very unusual campaign," says Erick Brownstein, a RAN campaigner. "It's going to encourage people to see how their money is being used." Citigroupwhich now includes Travelers Life, Primerica Financial Services, and Salomon Smith Barneyhas $82 billion in revenues. That makes it one of the 50 or 60 biggest economies in the worldbigger than Austria.
Like Morgan Stanley, Citigroup has underwritten bonds that may indirectly benefit China's Three Gorges Dam. It raised money for Pacific Lumber, which threatened redwood forests. It finances Indonesian palm plantations, which destroy orangutan habitat. It's an adviser to the Chad-Cameroon oil pipelinerife with corruption, human rights abuses, and rainforest destruction, Brownstein says. It even runs the largest currency-speculation group in the world, and speculation has been blamed for destabilizing economies in places like Thailand and Brazil.
The list goes on and on. Brownstein imagines that the Citigroup demos and boycotts could snowball, tapping the collective energy of a wide range of activists. "Whether it's sweatshops or redwood forests in the Northwest or mining in South America, Citigroup is there," he says.
Citigroup's credit-card and branch-banking operations are comparatively benign, but they're where the consumers are. "Salomon Smith Barney would not have been as invested in their brand name," Brownstein says. "They care, but they don't have 12 storefronts in San Francisco, and they don't have the kind of presence on the college campuses," where RAN is a potent force. If Citibank sets up tables recruiting students to its Visa, Mastercard, or Diners Club cards, RAN allies will be right beside them, handing out critical leaflets.
Because Citigroup is global, it's not only Americans who can do something drastic with their plastic. Hoping to build on existing international networks, RAN has hired a full-time organizer for the April 16 protest against the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. And it already has links with antidebt activists in South Africathe onetime bastion of apartheid, which provoked an earlier generation of divestment campaigns.
The goal? Getting Citigroup to implement environmental and social criteria for its vast array of businesses. If Citigroup takes responsibility, the odds are that lesser institutions will be forced to follow suit. Corporations say they can't dictate what their clients do, but Brownstein insists they already do make some moral choices. "It's not like they're investing in child pornography," he says. Nothing is perfect, Brownstein argues, but some banks are probably better than others. "It's not like our job is to have all the answers," he says. "Our role is to create the pressure."