Friends of the Earth – Who Are They & What Do They Do?

friends of the earth header with forest and river environment

If you take an interest in the natural world and care about the state of our environment, it’s likely you’ve heard of Friends of the Earth.

The name gives you a bit of a clue as to what their mission might be – they do positive things for the world we live in. But if you’re like me, that might be as far as you’ve gone in terms of details.

I wanted to find out a little more about Friends of the Earth, and hopefully you do too.  

Who are Friends of the Earth? How did they start? Where do they get their funding from? What do they do to protect the environment? Have they had any successful campaigns?

Let me answer all of these questions for you, plus some more you might not have thought of to give you a proper understanding of Friends of the Earth.  

What is Friends of the Earth?

Friends of the Earth is the world’s largest environmental organisation group. It is an international community dedicated to protecting the natural world and the wellbeing of people in it.

Friends of the Earth (FoTE) see their job as challenging the current model of economic and corporate expansion in order to promote more environmentally friendly, sustainable solutions that benefit society as a whole.

To do this they lead campaigns, provide information and education resources, as well as advocating for sustainable policies, on the most pressing environmental and social issues.

With over 2 million members across the world, Friends of the Earth have a large grassroots network reach, which unites 75* national members and around 5,000 local groups.

friends of the earth logo
Friends of the Earth logo

Where are Friends of the Earth based?

Friends of the Earth have a tiered structure with their international headquarters based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Based at the HQ in Amsterdam is the Friends of the Earth International Secretariat, which supports the global network and international campaigns. It’s from the HQ in Amsterdam where all major campaigns are agreed and organised, which is all informed by a general meeting every two years.

Overseeing everything is the democratically elected Friends of the Earth Executive Committee. This committee is made up of a Chairperson (currently Karin Nansen from Uruguay) and representatives from up to 7 other national member groups across the world.

Friends of the Earth International is a decentralised organisation and currently made up of 75* national member groups. The national groups are autonomous and free to decide their own campaigns and focusses based on their national interests.

There are Friends of the Earth member groups based in all continents, including:

  • 13 in Africa
  • 13 in Asia Pacific
  • 33 in Europe
  • 14 in Latin America and the Caribbean
  • 2 in North America

In the UK there two FoTE branches:

  1. Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland (based in London)
  2. Friends of the Earth Scotland (based in Edinburgh)

* The Friends of the Earth International website states 73 members, but I have counted 75 national members from the members list split into the regions above.  

Who started Friends of the Earth?

Friends of the Earth International was formed in 1971 and founded by four nations: England, France, Sweden and the USA.

Its roots go back slightly deeper than this to 1969 when David Broker, Donald Aitken and Gary Soucie got together in San Francisco. This was after Broker had resigned as executive director of the Sierra Club, a non-profit environmental organisation, and decided to start Friends of the Earth.

It became an international network when the US founders met with environmental activists from Sweden, England and France in the Swedish coastal region of Roslagen.  

What do Friends of the Earth do?

Friends of the Earth want to create a better environment for the next generation. They see a vision where we all live in a sustainable world based on societies living in harmony with nature.

To do this, Friends of the Earth must campaign on the most urgent environmental and social issues happening in today’s world.

Their overarching goals are to:

  • Halt and reverse environmental degradation and natural resource depletion
  • Enhance the earth’s ecological and cultural diversity
  • Secure empowerment for local communities, indigenous groups, women and individuals
  • Bring a transformation towards sustainability
  • Raise awareness, build alliances across the globe and inspire one another for a better future

Everything they do – from the campaigns they run, governmental lobbying, policy advocacy and the educational material they produce – all tie into these goals.

National member groups are free to decide their own focusses that are pressing to them but can also get involved in the main international campaigns decided at the top level if they are relevant to their cause.

bee on purple flowering plant
Friends of the Earth successfully campaigned to ban bee-harming pesticides in the UK

Local campaigners can work on local issues, such as the campaign to bring the buses of Grater Manchester back under public control, which is pertinent to where I live.

They can work on national campaigns, such as the new Plastic Pollution Bill, which is a current focus.

Groups and national members can also choose to work on international campaigns, such as the severe deforestation and illegal logging still rampant in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Environmentally conscious consumers and businesses often try to play their part to stop deforestation by buying certified FSC timber products. This is a good step much more needs to be done on an international level as Brazilian forests only account for 3.5% of FSC certified forests.

Tree cover in the Brazilian Amazon accounts for roughly 374 million hectares. Only 8 million hectares of this is FSC certified woodland. This is certainly a worthy cause for Friends of the Earth to pursue.

Is Friends of the Earth a charity?

The overseeing body, Friends of the Earth International, is a membership organisation.

Under this umbrella and leading a lot of the campaigns for the FoTE organisation is Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland (EWNI).

Friends of the Earth EWNI is structured in two ways:

  1. A not-for-profit limited company
  2. Charitable trust

This may seem a little strange at first but it is legitimate and there’s good reason for it.

In the UK, there’s legislation on how much a charity can campaign. For this reason, the Friends of the Earth Charitable Trust, a registered and regulated UK charity, raises funds which it then grants to Friends of the Earth Limited.

Friends of the Earth Limited can then use these grants to fund their campaigning work and environmental advocacy.  

Who funds Friends of the Earth?

Friends of the Earth is primarily funded from the Friends of the Earth charitable trust.

The charitable trust receives much of their funds from gifts, individual donation, governments, foundations and from legacies left in wills.  

The Friends of the Earth charity arm is governed by a board of four who work towards three main objectives, covering the conservation of the natural environment, the advancement of public education and the promotion of sustainable development.

All work funded by money from the trust must fall within these charitable goals, including the work of Friends of the Earth.

According to the 2019 annual report, Friends of the Earth had a total income of £11.2m. Over half of this came via a grant from the charitable trust.  

The charitable trust report for the year ending 30th June 2020 shows that £7.5m was granted to the Friends of the Earth.

Friends of the Earth campaigns – What have they achieved?

There’s no doubt that some Friends of the Earth campaigns have achieved significant things both environmentally and socially.

Amongst other international successes, Friends of the Earth international are said to have help reform the World Bank to address environmental and human rights issues, stopped 150 destructive dams and water projects, banned international whaling,

More recently in the UK, FoTE campaigning and advocacy work has helped to achieve success with:

  • New recycling bill so every household would have a doorstep recycling service – achieved with the 2003 Household Waste Recycling Act
  • Legal challenge to stop sand dredging at Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland
  • Created the campaign for the UK Climate Change Act 2008
  • Helped introduce renewable energy feed-in-tariffs to reward people for providing clean electricity to the grid
  • Part of a global alliance on divestment from fossil fuels
  • Persuaded the UK’s top ten garden centres to remove bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides from their plants, which was then backed by a permanent ban in 2018 of 3 neonic pesticides on all crops
  • Campaigned and battled legally to have beavers reintroduced to the River Otter in Devon
  • Years of campaign work resulted in a fracking ban
  • Joined the campaign to double UK’s forest tree cover
ancient woodland of ecclesall woods sheffield
Next up, to double tree cover in the UK

Currently, Friends of the Earth are working on a number of campaigns, including to double the tree cover in the UK where they have joined the likes of Rewilding Britain. There’s an interesting debate around this topic on whether the best way to achieve this is through planting trees or natural regeneration.

Also on the FoTE priority list is beating climate breakdown, empowering local communities, opposing the third runway at Heathrow and the continual fight on plastic pollution where FoTE are campaign for a new plastics law.  

You can find a list of the current issues and Friends of the Earth campaigns here.


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