History of Greenpeace Buttons: Material Objects as Vehicles of Advocacy

By Madeleine Seed


“And at the end of the meeting, as everyone was leaving, Irving Stowe waved his usual V sign and said, “Peace.”

The youngest member of the committee, a twenty-three-year-old Canadian named Bill Darnell, said: “[Let's m]ake it a green peace." - Excerpt from Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement by Robert Hunter

"[According to Bill,] "Nothing happened. I didn't think anyone had heard me … but [Irving Stowe] called me the next day and said, "I can't stop thinking about what you said, Bill. Ecology and peace, this puts it altogether." - Quote from an interview of Bill Darnell conducted by Barbara Stowe

What is Advocacy?

Advocacy is a tool used for generating public support for particular subjects that individuals or Non-Governmental Organizations, commonly referred to as NGOs, wish to highlight. Such actions or movements aid in the political empowerment of and continuation of such NGOs. Greenpeace’s advocacy campaigns tend to focus on the environmental problems caused by private companies; environmental policies of local, national, and international organizations; and government legislation related to the environment. Some of Greenpeace’s advocacy campaigns of the 2000s, such as "Stop Climate Change", "Stop Whaling", and "Eliminate Toxic Chemicals" have been extremely influential and highlight the strong presence the organization has in today’s culture, which reminds one to reflect back on the first groundbreaking campaign of 1971 to Amchitka.

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Photo credit: http://www.buttonmuseum.org/buttons/greenpeace


What is Greenpeace?

“At its heart, [the Greenpeace] movement sought to give political form to an awareness that predates Buddhism but is at the same time as new as the science of interdisciplinary ecology. It grew out of a flickering awareness that all our relationships are political, and that the crucial political relationships with which we must concern ourselves now have almost nothing to do with man’s relation to man, but with man’s relation to the earth itself. It is our relationship to our planetary environment which is the most important issue of all. All human structures inevitably rest upon it.” - Excerpt from the Introduction of Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement by Robert Hunter

Greenpeace today is known to be one of largest international non-governmental environmental organizations but it started with a small committee in Vancouver. Formerly known as the Don’t Make the Wave Committee, the group banded together, one February night in 1970, for an emergency meeting and began to plan how they were going to respond to the upcoming underground nuclear weapons tests that were to occur near the island of Amchitka, Alaska. The idea for what became the famous sailing expedition northwards, to bear witness to the nuclear test series, came from Maria Nonnast Bohlen, a Quaker activist and illustrator.

“If the Americans want to go ahead with the test … they’ll have to tow us out,” - Jim Bohlen


The Greenpeace Buttons

A few weeks later, they had a plan. They began raising funds to purchase a vessel by selling lapel buttons. Barbara Stowe, daughter of co-founders Irving and Dorothy Stowe, recalls that the early founders began selling lapel buttons at the corner of Georgia and Granville in downtown Vancouver, selling the buttons for 25 cents. The Don't Make a Wave Committee paid 15 cents to make each button and so they raised 10 cents for each one sold. Irving Stowe and Jim Bohlen put up $250 for the first batch of buttons. When it became clear that the funds raised form the buttons were not going to be enough to achieve the committee’s goals, a benefit concert was later hosted to raise the funds.


The first Greenpeace buttons were 1 ½ inches in diameter circular buttons with locking pin backings. Adding the safety clip was too costly and so the buttons were manufactured without the safety clip. As a result of this decision, volunteers’ fingertips were often bloody from being pricked on the sharp pins when the buttons were counted at the end of the day.


"[I]t was different from a lot of buttons of that time, with their day-glo colours, big black lettering and "NO!" and "STOP!" messages. I think the subtle colours and quiet font, choices made by a mature artist who loved the natural world, appealed on a different level. And the word captured the zeitgeist."Barbara Stowe
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 Photo credits: http://openmov.museumofvancouver.ca/object/history/h20012587


The final design had green text in the center which read “GREENPEACE”, on a yellow background with a green ecology symbol above and a green peace sign below. It was created by Paul Nonnast, an art student and Marie’s son. The ecology symbol included in the design was created by Ron Cobb in 1969 and was created by combining an e for "environment" and an o for "organism". It has been used as a symbol for Earth Day as well as other environmental causes.  The peace symbol was created by Gerald Holtom in 1958 and the design is meant to represent the letters "N" and "D" as they appear in the semaphore alphabet, used by sailors to communicate from a distance with flags. These letters together communicate the need for “nuclear disarmament”. Incorporating these symbols into the design aided in creating the message the group wished to promote as well as echo the core values of Greenpeace, values which live on to this day.


“The term “Greenpeace,” as a one-word expression, […] came about quite by accident.” – Jim Bohlen

When designing the buttons, they were having trouble keeping the words “green” and “peace” separate in the design. With the font they had chosen, the company printing the buttons couldn't fit both of the words on the same line. According to Barbara, when the printer called to ask what they should do, Jim said to "Put both words together". Thus the two words were simply merged and what was to be “Green Peace” became known as “Greenpeace.”
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Photo credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/weekinreview/23read.html


Symbolism in Material Objects

“For us it was a sign of hope that people can change things. And our action gave the entire ecology movement a new name: Green. That was better than ecology- a word hardly anyone understood.” – Jim Bohlen

Through the use of different vehicles of advocacy, like the buttons, Greenpeace actively engages in direct-action based tactics in its campaigns to address challenges like overfishing, commercial whaling, deforestation, genetic engineering, and climate change. The buttons and their design have become iconic in environmental activism and the ideology attached to them has become a huge influence on modern day culture and societal shifts towards more discussions about matters regarding environmental protection.

Objects like these buttons hold onto a significant amount of symbolic power in regard to the organization, their goals and the “green” movement as a whole. One example of the button’s symbolic power is that during the anti-sealing campaign of 1977, Bob Hunter was sent a mountain of crushed Greenpeace buttons from the organizations’ supporters in protest to his proposed deal with the Newfoundland fisherman's union. His proposal was widely perceived as a sellout of the seals by the supporters, while Hunter insists that most of the leadership had factored social and economic elements into their analysis of the seal hunt. These factors seemed to have been overlooked by these supporters and John Amagualuk adds that both supporters and some of the leadership during this time had formulated their opinions about the Inuit seal hunt with little knowledge of the Inuit way of life. Regardless of these misconceptions, the powerful symbolism behind the smashing of the buttons should be noted as these buttons are so closely tied to the origins and heart of the Greenpeace organization and movement. To alter or to destroy them, is to symbolically destroy or rebel against the organization in which it represents.


"From the moment we started selling this button, something unusual happened. Instead of avoiding us, like people usually did when we hawked buttons for causes or solicited signatures on petitions, people actually came up unbidden to buy them. I remember on the first day, this hippie came up and asked: "Greenpeace? What's that?" and before I could answer she'd turned to her boyfriend: 'I don't care", she said, "it's pretty. Buy me one.' I was stunned, because I didn't think of it as a pretty thing." – Barbara Stowe


With material objects, such as the buttons, there is also the dark and lurking dangers of materialism, commercialism and consumer culture which can taint the messages Greenpeace wishes to advocate. In Ben Metcalfe’s opinion, financial success is poison to a social change movement as it can tempt members to begin to lose sight of the broader goals of the movement and has the potential to mute voices advocating uncomfortable truths in fear of alienating potential donors. His bitter opinion on today’s Greenpeace is that it was "hijacked as a money-making machine," a machine he was briefly met with during his visit to Australia after the aftermath of Amchitka. There he found people "begging" him to sell them the "Greenpeace franchise" for Australia. According to Ben they would say, "How much do you want, Ben? We'll have the T-shirts, you'll have the mugs and the buttons. … All they could see were dollar bills."

The label button is not only a material object created for a particular function or purpose but is also a focal point for ideas and themes to be manifested and discussed. A physical vehicle for the intangible ideas and values of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, who ironically made one of the biggest waves in terms of environmental activism. From understanding the social and political movements that inspired key elements in its design, to the message of advocacy and societal change it wished to convey, to how it became the symbolic seed of an entire movement or organization, the original Greenpeace button is more than a trinket to be fritted away or forgotten with time. Though the purpose in which the button filled was a means to fund the original 1971 Amchitka trip, it also was the means to begin a new social and cultural movement, the “green” movement, and the beginning of one of the most influential organizations in realm of environmental activism.



Bohlen, Jim. Making Waves: The Origins and Future of Greenpeace. Montreal: Black Rose

Books, 2001.


Dale, Stephen. McLuhan’s Children: The Greenpeace Message and The Media. Toronto:

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“GREENPEACE.” Busy Beaver Button Museum. July 25, 2018.



Hunter, Robert. The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey. Vancouver: Arsenal

Pulp Press, 2004.


Hunter, Robert. Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement. New York:

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Ozdemir, B.P. "Social Media as a Tool for Online Advocacy Campaigns: Greenpeace Mediterranean's Anti Genetically Engineered Food Campaign in Turkey." Global Media Journal, Canadian ed. Vol. 5, no. 2 (2012): 23. 

Prisco, Jacopo. "Three lines and a circle: a brief history of the peace symbol." CNN, July 22, 2018. Accessed July 26, 2018. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/style-origins-peace-symbol/index.html


Stowe, Barbara. (Daughter of Co-founders Irwin and Dorothy Stowe), in discussion with the author. July 2018.


Stowe, Dorothy., Metcalfe, Dorothy., Bohlen, Jim., and Hunter, Bob. “A chat with the first Rainbow Warriors.” Interview by Michael Friedrich. Greenpeace International. 2016. https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/about/history/founders/first-rainbow-warriors/

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