“What we demand from others is also the way we need to live our own lives”

When Iris Menn is on the high seas with dolphins frolicking on each side of the ship, her heart beats faster. The managing director of Greenpeace Switzerland has been fighting on behalf of Mother Nature for many years – most recently from her office in Zurich.

Text: ceo magazine editorial staff | Photos: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Trust in society – September 2019

Don’t they ever need a break? The tireless devotion of these champions of the environment can be felt in Greenpeace’s headquarters, even there where in other offices a coffee machine and couches invite you to chat and relax.

Granted, coffee is actually available in the kitchenette, and on the pinboard hangs the typical array of birth announcements, for-sale notices and handwritten letters. But instead of comfortable seating, a 3-metre-long bistro table has been set up that can also be used for meetings – or, more precisely – standing sessions. And next to the post office on the wall are sticky notes with keywords such as “Climate”, “Energy” and “Fundraising” as well as a poster with a kind of ladder game. “This is where we develop ideas for our new organisational system,” says Iris Menn. “The overarching concept is ‘holocracy instead of hierarchy’. For our team, this means more self-organisation and more co-decision.”

“A starved polar bear or an oil catastrophe in the Arctic – that still has an impact, but unfortunately not as long as it used to.”

Last summer, the 49-year-old moved from Frankfurt am Main to the outskirts of Zurich and since then has held the post of managing director of Greenpeace Switzerland. Compared to the internal organisational tweaks, the boss’s main mission is of course a much bigger deal. “Our current focus is on the climate,” she says. In this regard, the team’s efforts are centred firstly on the Swiss banks, which continue to facilitate investments in fossil fuels; secondly on agriculture due to its overproduction of meat; and thirdly on the new CO2 law, which is finally poised for introduction.

Is Greenpeace already benefiting from the Green wave that has lately swept onto the political stage? “These things always have a delayed effect,” admits Iris Menn. So far, no significant increase in membership has been observed. Nevertheless, Greenpeace has closed ranks with today’s young demonstrators. “Almost every day they sit in our office; we can support them logistically and materially,” Menn is pleased to say. This extends from helping them to paint the posters and banners, to offering concrete tips on how to steer masses of people so that things don’t get out of hand or degenerate into violence. “Greenpeace has almost 50 years of experience in these activities, and we sense the trust people have in our competence.”

Iris Menn
Born in Hesse, Iris Menn studied in Marburg, Braunschweig and Hamburg and holds a doctorate in marine biology. In 2002, she joined Greenpeace, where she worked as a campaign and team leader for 11 years and participated in many initiatives. Subsequently, as Director of International Programmes and Political Work for the Christoffel Blind Mission (CBM), an international development assistance organisation, she collaborated in the strategic and oper­ational management of projects, amongst other places in Africa. Iris Menn has been managing director of Greenpeace Switzerland since July 2018. She lives in Zurich.

“Greenpeace has almost 50 years of experience in these activ­ities, and we sense the trust people have in our competence.”

Menn knows what she’s talking about. Apart from a four-year stint in the world of development assistance, this holder of a doctorate in marine biology has devoted her professional life to the protection of the environment, quite a few of those years as a Greenpeace campaign leader and, “natur­ally”, as an activist.

She really gets going when the discussion turns to actual campaigns: “I’ve been on many a ship, and hundreds of images are etched in my brain.” For example, that of several enormously long fishing nets as they were pulled to the surface, crammed with fish, eyes turned outwards in panic – or in which hung corals that had grown for 150 years only now to meet an abrupt end. Even today, in times of Internet visual overload, Iris Menn continues to believe in the power of such emotional images. “A starved polar bear or an oil catastrophe in the Antarctic –­ that still has an impact, but unfortunately not as long as it used to.” The half-life of these “mind bombs” that Greenpeace has used to denounce environmental wrongdoings ever since the 1970s and which repeatedly sensitised the global populace to green issues, is waning noticeably.

Nevertheless, Iris Menn remains the optimist, as she resolutely points out. Of course, there are other sources, but she draws the lion’s share of her strength from nature, where she spends as much time as possible swimming, hiking or cycling. “In spite of all the deplorable things going on in the world, there’s also the other side of life: for example, when you stand at the bow of a ship and 50 dolphins criss-cross right in front of your nose or leap joyfully port and starboard, then you know precisely: “This is right what I do.”

Ever since her youngest years, Menn has been committed to nature. Raised in a village in Hesse, she spent most of her childhood outdoors. At the tender age of 13 –­ a time when the Green Party in Germany had just gained seats in the Bundestag – she donated her first pocket money to Greenpeace. Their actions greatly impressed her. The early campaigns of this NGO, founded in 1971, were directed against nuclear weapons testing and whaling. Later, topics such as global warming, deforestation, atomic energy and genetic engineering were added to its causes célèbres.

“You have to deal with the matter; there’s no way to avoid it.”

Iris Menn’s sense of responsibility, an urge to get involved, grew rapidly. “I bought a T-shirt from the ‘Nuclear Free Seas’ campaign. It didn’t make me exactly hip at school, but to my way of thinking it was also a kind of youthful rebellion.” In our interview, the otherwise calm, serious tone with which Iris Menn talked about Greenpeace’s visions and goals gave way to a smile about this particular recollection. As a young biology student at the rather left-leaning University of Marburg, she and her comrades allegedly sat “day and night” in front of the local armoury and protested against the Vietnam War. She chuckles briefly. Apparently, notwithstanding the seriousness of the matter, it must have been a hell of a lot of fun. Menn spent many subsequent years as a Greenpeace activist, often on the high seas. She organised and risked her neck in actions that at times were reckless, but always non-violent – an integral element of Greenpeace’s credo and mission.

With this derring-do behind her, Iris Menn has been spending much more of her time this past year in the open-plan office of the Swiss Greenpeace headquarters situated in the building of the Kalkbreite Cooperative. Nobody has a fixed workstation here, not even the boss. Office paraphernalia are stored in boxes equipped with carrying straps and placed at the entryway when work is done. There’s no room in them for a lot of paper. But then again, what for?

This political non-profit organisation was founded in 1971 by peace activists in Vancouver and today is headquartered in Amsterdam. Its aim is to actively safeguard nature, yet in a non-violent way. The organisation has close to three million supporting members and offices in some 55 countries worldwide. Greenpeace Switzerland was founded in 1984 as a non-profit foundation and is a member of Greenpeace International. In Switzerland alone, the organisation has around 145,000 members.


Networking and information gathering – two of the most important ingredients of a campaign – are anyway conducted on the Internet. This is what Iris Menn admires about the new generation of Green troopers. “They’re crazy fast once they’ve come to a decision; they play the keyboard like Mozart, search for information on the Web and organise themselves deftly. That wasn’t feasible in the older days.”

What’s stayed the same, though: the claim to one’s own credibility. It’s the cornerstone of the trust that members have in Greenpeace. “Of course, people keep a very sharp eye on us – and rightly so. What we demand from others is also the way we need to live our own lives. And if we make mistakes, we have to fess up to them.”

Finding trustworthy “green” companies has become quite a complex undertaking these days. Many corporations “greenwash” themselves and wear the “sustainability” pin on their lapels, even though they fail to meet the standards. It’s also easy to lose purview over the purported quality seals. So what does Iris Menn advise consumers to do? “You have to deal with the matter; there’s no way to avoid it,” she admits. “But you should set priorities and not necessarily want every criterion fulfilled by everything, only to end up doing without everything.” Even simple things like choosing food circumspectly can achieve a lot.

“If you buy bio, local and seasonal products – hopefully unpacked – then you’ve already made an important step in the right direction.”

So does she actually have trust in mankind that we can still get climate change under control? “Yes, but we need prohibitions and legal regulations to alter the course of things,” Iris Menn is convinced: “We can’t
do this on a voluntary basis alone, like many politicians and companies still believe.”

The task is Herculean, and time is of the essence – and there’s precious little of that for coffee breaks.


Iris Menn – up close and personal

Who do you trust?
I’m basically a trusting person. For me, trust is something I bestow upon others as well as in myself. The ability to trust someone else is simultaneously a sign of courage, because you can always end up being disappointed.

How do you recharge your batteries?
I often spend time at what was once a monastery but today is a centre for meditation and mindfulness, replete with a beautiful Zen garden. There, I feel imbued with strength and peace. I also meditate daily for ten to twenty minutes.

What message would you like to pass on to our readers?
Have trust in yourself and others that, together, we can straighten out our planet and make it a green and peaceful world.