Why do international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) ‘name and shame’ the countries that they do? Do they target states that provide domestic groups with political opportunities to collaborate with INGOs, or do they target states that repress domestic activism? Focusing on the case of the environment, we test the empirical validity of these competing hypotheses. We find that environmental INGOs target countries as a substitute for national political institutions that encourage domestic activism or a lack of environmental institutions. This is in contrast to a ‘strategic complementarity’ approach, where INGOs would target ‘easy’ countries in which domestic institutions would bolster the effectiveness of international shaming. Using a novel data set of environmental INGO shaming by over 2,000 organizations, we find support for the strategic substitution approach: INGOs shame autocratic regimes and those countries that lack environmental ministries. This article offers insight into the strategies that INGOs use to shape state behavior.