Guest blog – Every little helps? by Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a campaigner and organiser. He is Co-Director of the UK Youth Climate Coalition and is also undertaking a masters in Development Studies at Cambridge University. He regularly blogs at 


How much is the RSPB’s new partnership with Tesco really benefiting nature?

I must preface this blog by stating that I’ve been an RSPB member since about the age of five – I’m writing as a member of the public and an RSPB member. While I am at times critical, this is through a love of the organization and a firm belief that it can do even better.

The RSPB has gone into business with Tesco. No, you don’t need a pair of glasses from Tesco Opticians, you are reading this correctly. The Together for Trees project is very simple – it allows Tesco customers to donate their Clubcard points to the RSPB’s rainforest work. More information can be found on the joint website for the project. I find a lot of the language really positive and progressive, and it’s great to see Tesco’s logo next to images and words about the importance of forest conservation in other countries.

It’s also an exciting chance for the RSPB to influence Tesco. In 1970 Albert Hirschman wrote Exit, Voice and Loyalty. This book explained the importance of voice for influencing an organization or company from the inside. Hirschman argues powerfully that by being inside an organization you have the opportunity to have an internal voice and to improve it through dissent. The RSPB’s partnership with Tesco gives it the chance to have inside influence and to try to change the way Tesco works for the better.

Martin Harper, Conservation Director at RSPB, says “We’ve concluded that tackling a problem as big as the destruction of rainforests is too big for any NGO or Government to solve. Businesses have a huge role due to the impact their supply chains have. We think that it’s only by working with major retailers, like Tesco, that we’ll be able to make a real difference. This partnership isn’t just about raising funds and awareness through the 20 million shoppers that visit its stores each week – although they’re both vital – it’s also about working with Tesco to help reduce the impact its supply chains have on the environment.

“Ultimately there are two aims for Together For Trees; saving rainforests and encouraging other businesses and consumers to play their part. We’re determined to make this partnership a success and I for one am really excited about what I think we can achieve with Tesco to save rainforests.”

However, I would question the overall value of this partnership. Donating Clubcard points is a ‘transaction for nature’, but nature shouldn’t be something you buy over the counter. This makes nature seem like any other commodity. Commodification of nature is generally, in my view, a bad thing. Mark Infield recently wrote an outstanding guest blog for this site about what values (monetary and otherwise) we should and shouldn’t attach to nature. Second, it propagates the idea that you don’t need to leave the artificially lighted, lino-adorned world of supermarkets and high streets in order to connect with nature. Why go outdoors (even to your nearest park) when connecting with nature is something you can buy, wrapped up next to the Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and the chewing gum?

I would question the value of interacting with millions of people a week through the RSPB’s logo if those relationships aren’t meaningful or deep. If the relationships are fleeting and transactionary, I would be surprised if they lead to consumers changing their behavior in any long-term way, as Martin Harper seems to hope for. Quantity is so important only because the social and economic models we have value numbers, growth, quantity and not necessarily quality or depth of relationships – and this very obsession with growth is causing many of the environmental problems the RSPB is trying to solve (including deforestation!).

But perhaps most importantly of all it associates conservation with consumerism. Through the ‘warm glow’ effect of donating to charity, this scheme is essentially sending out the message that consumerism is good and helps to save nature.

In life, our behaviours and attitudes are largely guided by our values. There are certain values – consumerism, accumulation, status, self-image – which might be considered ‘negative’ and have caused a lot of the problems that NGOs exist to tackle (natural resource depletion, community breakdown, selfishness). Other values are more ‘positive’, like universalism, connection with nature, care for our neighbours and community, equality.

Values are activated and suppressed by the verbal and physical messages our brains receive. If a ‘positive’ value is triggered, this also activates other positive values near it and suppresses the negative ones. It’s often best to imagine this as a circle, with ‘positive’ values in one segment and ‘negative’ values on the opposite side. This might sound rather abstract but there’s really strong evidence of the importance of these psychological feedback effects. The Common Cause website has much better explanations of the theory and research behind this.

I would argue that the ‘over-the-counter and in-the-supermarket’ nature of this scheme reinforces consumerist values and thereby suppresses positive values – it puts a positive spin on consumerism. By reinforcing negative values for the sake of a short term win, NGOs have often done so at the expense of strengthening these values’ stranglehold on society in the long-term.  The RSPB’s choices today are making it harder to achieve tomorrow’s work.

So, while the RSPB might be able to raise valuable funds, it is reinforcing those values which make not only its own job harder, but also the work of so many other NGOs, who will face strengthened ‘value-negative’ barriers in wider society. And this lack of joined up thinking and action has been one of the NGO sector’s biggest weaknesses over past decades. The RSPB should think of itself as part of a much wider coalition working towards a better society, not as a lone ranger trying to address a specific issue.

I won’t run down all the sins Tesco might be accused of; but suffice to say that this scheme adds legitimacy to Tesco and its behavior – from battles with local communities to failing to pay a living wage to its bottom-of-the-ladder staff. The positive green-wash corporate partners get from these types of alliances often far outweighs what NGOs receive in return.

I imagine it’s difficult to undo this partnership (although if it is possible that would be a powerful statement), but what I would urge the RSPB to do is think about how it can meaningfully engage with Tesco’s customers and help them connect with nature. I’m not sure what form this should take, but I would say that having a ‘values-positive’ impact through this partnership goes a long way beyond Bags for Life with an RSPB logo. We need to show people, even in an urban setting, that they can see, hear and experience nature for themselves.

Long-lasting and meaningful connections with nature are what the RSPB does better than any other NGO I know, so it must simply deploy those finely tuned skills here. The RSPB needs to move this scheme beyond the idea that you can buy back nature over the counter and get people to invest real time and emotion in their relationship with the natural world.

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18 Replies to “Guest blog – Every little helps? by Matt Williams”

  1. A very interesting blog. I was surprised when I read about the partnership, and this highlights the benefits and negative aspects of such a partnership. There is very little info in my local Tesco about the scheme, so it would seem that local shoppers who are not members of the RSPB would not be aware of it anyway. Apart from the monetary side of it, I'm not sure what advantage it gives the RSPB if Tesco are not promoting the charity or its work in store.

  2. Matt. Excellent blog. The problem of how to change our current consumerist society without becoming part of it seems to be intractable. I take comfort from the fact that, historically, massive changes have been achieved before - though often through revolutions. Perhaps the RSPB's one million members should start one! And perhaps what we are now asking for is the biggest change yet - giving up a lifestyle that's easy and comfortable and mindless for something that may be harder and more challenging - even if it is ultimately more rewarding and sustainable.
    I actually touched on the need for more people to connect directly with nature in my own blog,, yesterday. Maybe we should have a National Blog for Nature Day!?

  3. Brilliant blog, hits the nail firmly on the head.

    Tesco will suck in and spit out the RSPB without a moment's hesitation for their own aims. I would prefer if the RSPB would come out with some very clearly defined goals and outcomes for this behind the scenes work Martin Harper has very carefully vaguely alluded to. I wish them well in that and hope they achieve something that can be called a success.

    As a self-confessed cynic I see its primary purpose as yet more of the all-too-common opportunity for 'consumers' to assuage their guilt approach to charity and conservation. So they're saving rainforests, eh? Any word on good old blighty's green and pleasant land? Are they planning on doing some fair-trade for British farmers?

  4. Matt makes some interesting points here.

    There is a very real reputational risk to an NGO when entering into partnerships with commercially aggressive companies like Tesco. Will any financial benefits and PR value gained from promoting the NGO's brand and specific campaign outweigh the potential harm of the association?

    The WWF has made a global business out of wooing and entering into partnerships with companies that might not seem particularly ethical: Sky/News International and Coca Cola to name just two recent partners. The WWF has also strayed into more dangerous waters - 'literally' (I use the term carefully, not in the Clegg sense): WWF Norway has entered into a partnership with Aker Biomarine, which exploits the Antarctic krill fishery, running counter to WWF's own pronouncements on the sustainability of krill fishing.

    Of course, as Matt points out, another aim beyond promotion of a cause and financial benefit for its work, is attempting to encourage partnership companies to act responsibly.

    And social responsibility is becoming an important theme for corporations. More customers are beginning to expect it and more shareholders are beginning to require it - the effects of not behaving responsibly ultimately may have a detrimental effect on shareholder value - see the recent cases of BP and News International.

    Recent anti-capitalist protests - and the brief but significant flash of the Occupy movement - have indicated that such a move towards a more responsible, steady-state economy is not only desirable, but thinkable and even possible - in the long term. But until our society shifts balance irrevocably - away from the consumerist, global corporate infinite-growth-dominated capitalist society, where we use more and more of our finite resources until they've gone - such short-term, profit-oriented dominance is bound to continue, and so are organisations such as Tesco.

    And while there's still no overwhelming pressure, from government (quite the reverse from Mr Osborne) or from the public, for total change in corporations' behaviour, I'm forced to admit that socially-responsible organisations - particularly NGOs like the RSPB and WWF - are morally obliged to encourage the less than scrupulous to see and act differently.

    With time, even Tesco has come round to seeing the value of such a partnership. Perhaps in more time - and with more persuasion from NGOs, the public and government - the Tescos of this world will see social and environmental responsibility as essential drivers of their business and their role in our communities.

    Of course, it's worth pointing out that the social research Matt quotes on the Common Cause link, relating to intrinsic and extrinsic social values, is being led by the WWF. Such research is leading the WWF (and presumably the RSPB) to regard the benefits to them, their causes and, in the long term, to our society - as outweighing the risks.

  5. I'd also like to mention Matt's reference to the 'commodification of nature' - turning help for conservation into yet another consumer product. While I agree with the point - also well made, as Matt says, by Mark Infield on this site - that applying material value to nature runs the risk of treating it as any other commodity to be used and depleted depending on economic need - I do not agree with Matt's conflation of this principle with an NGO's partnership with a corporation.

    Quite the opposite, I believe that raising awareness of conservation among consumers is an important benefit - although there's some doubt that this is actually happening in the RSPB/Tesco case right now - hopefully promotional activity will be more obvious in time. And while I agree that a much better way to communicate the importance of nature is to engage, educate and show - preferably outdoors (there are many urban as well as rural opportunities for this) - it is simply blinkered to believe that this should be the ONLY way to communicate conservation ideas and values to people.

    The research Matt quotes has highlighted the roles of people's extrinsic values (e.g. consumerism, selfishness, status-obsession) and intrinsic values (e.g. love, community, eco-friendly thinking). One set of values is more likely to dominate, as Matt says, if more of those values are triggered than the others - and this happens through upbringing, cultural exposure, job environment and so on.

    But the two sets of values co-exist in most, if not all of us. Even the most eco-friendly, principled and community-focused of us succumbs to the allure of an iPhone or a nice pair of shoes at some point. Whether we like it or not, we're all consumers - even though many of us agree that consumerism is a 'negative' thing, and driving much of the destruction of biodiversity around us.

    So while we all still consume, surely it follows that if during the exercise of a purchase you can trigger someone's intrinisic or 'positive' values a little more - actively counteract the consumerist value - and in so doing actually help raise funds for a conservation cause, then why not do it?

    Why pass up the opportunity to communicate both with Tesco and its consumers about values of nature conservation? And why should the RSPB not try to do this in-store?

    My own personal experience shows that you can promote the benefits of nature (and membership) to people while they shop!

  6. Thanks all for the feedback so far.

    Sue - National Blog for Nature Day - that sounds like a really interesting idea... drop me an email ( and maybe we can discuss further. I wonder if Mark Avery would be interested in this too?


  7. Matt a really interesting blog with lots of things I agree with or partly agree with but wish to take up the bits I do not agree with,unfortunately perhaps I read it as critical of Tesco,well they are at least doing something and large Oak trees grow from little acorns.Of course those workers do not have to work at Tesco it is voluntary and guess those wages look much worse to university graduates than they do to say farm workers and at least those workers are not costing tax payers more from being on benefits and of course many top people at Tesco started right at the bottom and the staff are excellent.
    Unfortunately it is not your fault of course but being in my estimation unfair to Tesco who I admire so much gives the Tesco hate merchants another chance to have a go at them,of course in this case Tesco is doing more than other supermarkets and surely should be applauded,our local Tesco has good publicity about the scheme on view and the tie up with RSPB should not be seen as a recruiting exercise for RSPB,they have their own publicity machine.

  8. It will clearly be difficult to turn round the juggernaut that is consumerism. However I tend to think that it is better to be on the juggernaut trying to make it turn round rather than trying to stop it by standing in front of it!

  9. I have an RSPB credit card. It's with the co op and every time I spend, a bit of money goes to the RSPB. How is this different to this initiative? Well I think primarily because it's one of the largest Supermarkets whose huge profits are thanks to squashing the competition, sucking the life out of town centres and small retailers, squeezing farmers etc etc. Not unlike other large Supermarkets. Yes they provide employment but how many loose their jobs when smaller retailers close down? Fortunately a long time managing shopping centers means I know what I'm talking about here.
    I don't like it and am not convinced by it - if Tesco were that concerned then a days profit would cover it. I am disappointed by the RSPB on this occasion they are giving credibility where it isn't deserved. A great bit of PR for Tesco.

    1. I have one too, Gert. I feel this is a much better initiative because the partnership between the RSPB and the Cooperative lined up much better philosophically, so to speak.

  10. Well I refuse to go in any co-op shop as about 5 years ago when Tesco coming into town in the near future I had no change for trolley so tobacco desk just inside door of co-op and asked for change for a fiver which was refused,told them not very clever seeing as Tesco setting up in town and refuse to go in co-op since.
    That would definitely not happen in well run Tesco shops.
    Tesco not responsible any more than other supermarkets for town centre ills.

  11. I'd really like to thank everyone for their comments so far and to respond to a few of the things which have been said, particularly those who have challenged or disagreed with the points I've made.

    Dennis - I understand your points, however I truly believe that there is a difference between Tesco and other retailers. If you look at their record in the living wage, battles with local communities (such as Sheringham in Norfolk) their relationships with producers in developing countries etc. then they don't come out well. I do realise my position may seem like an extreme one, where I condemn all corporate-charity partnerships out of hand. I don't think this is the case, but do believe that this model is completely wrong. I would argue that supermarkets such as Waitrose, Marks and Spencers and the Co-Op do much better. However, Waitrose, for example, have strong links with fossil fules companies and this is another case where we can't let greenwash fool us. I'd say there are degrees of 'badness' here and it's best to start by tackling the biggest culprits - for me Tesco is one of them.

    Rob - you're perfectly correct that the two sets of values co-exist in all of us. No one single person is 'intrinsic' or 'extrinsic' (although please note that I am not relying on Maslow here as some of his evidence has been show to be rather shaky and I prefer to rely on Schwartz et. al. and the Common Cause research). Every single person has all these values and holds some to a greater extent and some to a lesser extent. And this is the crux of my argument - that constructive values which are activated suppress the "destructive" (for want of a better word) values opposite to them. So opposing values might be held, but they definitely aren't active at the same time. I refer you to the Common Cause website for this but if you'd like specific references please do get in touch. What's more, this effect is long-lasting and repetition of the activation sustains it. This activation is as much through physical frames as through verbal ones and this is why I consider the physical setting of the supermarket to be important, as it's a physical frame that sends out all the wrong messages about nature. My own personal experience is that conversations with members of the public about nature are far more meaningful when you meet them in a natural setting than in a commercial one.

    This video is a particularly useful (if not a little glib) explanation of my point about values not being activated concurrently:

    Thanks all - really interesting discussion and please do tweet me if you'd like to engage with me further on this via email - @mattadamw


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