Photo: Herbert Zimmermann

‘We need nature. It doesn’t need us.’

Sustainable by nature

Former Aargau poli­ti­cian Susanne Hoch­uli has been presi­dent of Green­peace Switz­er­land since 2018. She high­lights Greenpeace’s prag­ma­tic side and where its inde­pen­dence is sacrosanct.

As chair of the board of trus­tees of Green­peace, are you subject to special scrutiny?

I don’t think so. I’m not parti­cu­larly in the public eye in this role. My work is more inward-facing – and I like it that way. We have our specia­lists, who repre­sent our cause to the outside world.

But don’t you feel pres­su­red to be more of a role model than the rest of us when it comes to envi­ron­men­tal matters?

When I served as a Green poli­ti­cian in what was a very middle-class canton, I was respon­si­ble for housing asylum seekers – I am used to people taking potshots (she laughs). But, of course, I feel duty-bound to do my bit for sustaina­bi­lity at home. I’m not a saint by any means. But I grew up on a working farm and my ex-part­ner and I turned it into an orga­nic small­hol­ding. I’m a member of the Green party. And I initia­ted the start-up ‘welt­weit-essen’. We use perma­cul­ture to produce orga­nic food.

How does that work?

It’s about our respon­si­bi­lity towards nature. You take, but you also need to give. It’s based on anci­ent wisdom. I get great satis­fac­tion out of taking care of nature. Our survi­val as a species depends on the health of our natu­ral resour­ces, the soil, the water, the air – and the climate too. But we don’t need to worry so much about the envi­ron­ment. It will outlive us. 

So, for you, it’s not so much about protec­ting the envi­ron­ment as about protec­ting humankind?

It depends on how you look at the world. When I look at nature, I’m always astoun­ded at its power to cope with change. The ques­tion is whether huma­nity will survive these chan­ges. Greenpeace’s vision is that life is able to happen in all of its diverse forms. I want a world where it’s not just about survi­ving. That sounds like a struggle. I want a world where what counts is social justice and a good, healthy life for ever­yone. So, as far as nature is concer­ned: we need nature. It doesn’t need us. If we look at the loss of soil ferti­lity each year due to over­use, any child can see that we are depri­ving oursel­ves of our own means of exis­tence – and that of other living crea­tures. Because what we are doing to nature will come back to bite us sooner or later. The health of ecosys­tems, humans and animals are inter­con­nec­ted. That’s why the CO2 Act is so important. That’s why I also support the two pesti­cide initiatives. 

We need to become more aware of the fact that we are harming ourselves.

How do we do that?

Take the coro­na­vi­rus pande­mic as an exam­ple. It’s a problem for us, but not for nature. The reach of its impact has to do with our life­style, the destruc­tion of habi­tats, globa­li­sa­tion, high levels of mobi­lity. I hope we will start to think about whom our beha­viour is harming. Because it’s mainly ourselves.

You used to be a poli­ti­cian. You know how govern­ment works. Are NGOs and volun­teers acting where govern­ments have failed?

In Switz­er­land, a lot of volun­t­ary work is being done in a huge number of areas. Is that to do with a fail­ure of poli­tics? Or isn’t it more a fail­ure of society? In a demo­cracy, poli­tics reflects society. So I’d say it’s a fail­ure of society as a whole. But it’s always very easy to blame poli­ti­ci­ans and keep out of the firing line.

What can a foun­da­tion do better than govern­ments or businesses?

Busi­nesses are prima­rily about maxi­mi­sing profit. NGOs are able to focus on actual issues. They advo­cate for them, are commit­ted to them. NGOs or foun­da­ti­ons are always able to draw society’s atten­tion to failings in a more truthful and unapo­lo­ge­tic way. They don’t have to dress anything up. They don’t have to toe the line.

How free are you as Green­peace Switz­er­land? How much do you have to toe the line where the inter­na­tio­nal orga­ni­sa­tion is concerned?

Of course, we’re all pulling in the same direc­tion. We support Green­peace Inter­na­tio­nal in the goals it is pursuing world­wide. As a natio­nal orga­ni­sa­tion, we approach them indi­vi­du­ally. If their focus is on protec­ting Antar­c­tica or the oceans, we try to find a Swiss angle. We examine how we can make the subject acces­si­ble for the Swiss public. 

Antar­c­tica and whaling make for spec­ta­cu­lar images.

Powerful images move people. Take the problem with plas­tic. Switz­er­land is a huge consu­mer of plas­tic. So we are also contri­bu­ting to the plas­tic pollu­tion in the planet’s oceans. We use plas­tic. We are respon­si­ble for the fact that it’s produ­ced. You can use spec­ta­cu­lar images to draw atten­tion to these issues. But Green­peace doesn’t just work with spec­ta­cu­lar images. We carry out scien­ti­fic work. This winter, we ran a field study that showed how synthe­tic chemi­cal pesti­ci­des drift and spread in the air. Green­peace also helps find solu­ti­ons. We try to help high­light how our society could do better. 

How closely are you able to work with business?

We commu­ni­cate with other stake­hol­ders. For exam­ple, we name alter­na­ti­ves to thro­wa­way pack­a­ging. At the same time, we always remain inde­pen­dent so that we retain the ability to publicly criti­cise companies. 

Photos: Herbert Zimmermann

You called for people to make use of restau­rants’ takea­way services. 

The pande­mic is an excep­tio­nal situa­tion. It has crea­ted despair and is forcing people into poverty. Our call was desi­gned to high­light the diffi­cult situa­tion the hospi­ta­lity indus­try is facing – and to suggest very prag­ma­tic solutions.

But takea­ways mean plastic?

A huge number of busi­nesses in the hospi­ta­lity indus­try swit­ched to doing takea­ways at short notice. Very few of them had time to orga­nise recy­clable takea­way pack­a­ging. But Green­peace wants to help solve the problem in the long term. Just poin­ting fingers at who is getting things wrong is of no use to anyone. 

Where do you draw the limit with business?

What we’d never do is accept money or services. Inde­pen­dence is key to our approach. We take dona­ti­ons from private indi­vi­du­als and from foun­da­ti­ons. We are, and intend to remain, finan­ci­ally inde­pen­dent – in the same way that we are poli­ti­cally independent. 


Holding a public office at local govern­ment level or above is not compa­ti­ble with a posi­tion at Green­peace. That includes execu­tive, legis­la­tive and judi­cial offices and stan­ding as a candi­date for those offices.

Green­peace is poli­ti­cally inde­pen­dent but gets invol­ved in poli­ti­cal issues. There are people at the moment who want to bar tax-exempt NGOs from invol­vement in poli­tics. Is that an issue in other count­ries too?

In certain count­ries it’s a huge issue. Some of our offices are under extreme pres­sure and are even being sear­ched. It’s diffi­cult to get the money we need for our work in those countries. 

And in Switzerland?

Until the Respon­si­ble Busi­ness Initia­tive, the pres­sure on NGOs in Switz­er­land wasn’t that high. But the refe­ren­dum campaign was toxic. We can never compete with the finan­cial and lobby­ing power of big busi­ness. There are more and more people who don’t want to put up with the power of these conglo­me­ra­tes any more. And that’s a good thing! The ties between big busi­ness and poli­ti­ci­ans are toxic for the climate, biodi­ver­sity and the common good. Green­peace works to expose, docu­ment, mobi­lise and bring exper­tise to protec­ting the envi­ron­ment and the climate. We aren’t afraid to point out uncom­for­ta­ble facts. I think it’s very dange­rous to say NGOs mustn’t be poli­ti­cally active. 

How so?

In a coun­try like Switz­er­land, change happens through poli­tics. We have constant refe­ren­dums. It’s vital that the voices of NGOs are heard here. Because other voices will defi­ni­tely be heard. 

Is it getting more diffi­cult to be heard? Sustaina­bi­lity is all the rage right now. More and more orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are taking a stance on the issue.

I don’t see why having lots of diffe­rent orga­ni­sa­ti­ons addres­sing the same topic should be a problem. Each orga­ni­sa­tion mana­ges to speak to diffe­rent people. The climate move­ment appeals to very young people and encou­ra­ges them to get invol­ved and think poli­ti­cally. Of course, you could say we’re losing poten­tial donors there. But I don’t see it as a competition. 

We’re all in the same boat?

Sustaina­bi­lity is a huge issue. We should be happy that we have fellow campai­gners who focus on diffe­rent aspects and who have diffe­rent access to govern­ment or busi­ness. That makes us stron­ger. We need to work together. 

But the issues have become more complex. Is it more diffi­cult for you to explain what makes Green­peace unique?

I don’t see that as a nega­tive thing. As a species, the deeper we delve into a complex subject, the more we reco­g­nise that we don’t yet have all the answers. Our role at Green­peace is to inves­ti­gate and inform. We need to improve under­stan­ding. And we’re doing that in our own unique, inde­pen­dent way. Because, of course, we rely on dona­ti­ons. We can only do this work if people place their trust in us.

Going forward, what do you feel are the biggest chal­lenges facing Greenpeace?

It’s not just Green­peace facing chal­lenges – as a species, we’re all in the same boat. We need to take care of our planet. It’s parti­cu­larly incum­bent on us in Switz­er­land because we have the resour­ces, the educa­tion and the oppor­tu­ni­ties to change. Where­ver they are around the world, people want the ability to live a good and just life.

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