As businesses become increasingly outspoken in big debates, Frances Buckingham outlines the key elements of effective corporate activism.
We have long known that multinationals are powerful agents of global change. Their potential to motivate, persuade and mobilise is enormous. Whilst it is unlikely that we will see activists from big business scaling the glass walls of Europe’s tallest building any time soon, we are beginning to see companies becoming increasingly outspoken and using their influence to more actively shape the debate to engage and mobilise other actors towards a more sustainable economy.
One of the earliest examples of a company taking a public position on an issue was in 2005 when Starbucks began taking out full-page advertisements in The New York Times to explain the effects of climate change. Most recently it launched the ‘Come Together’petition to mobilise citizen action to end the 2013 US government shutdown.
Patagonia, Intel and Chipotle are also in different ways finding their voice and taking a stance on critical societal issues. Should businesses really be trying to adopt the tactics of their traditional adversaries, the campaigning organisations? Does such ‘business activism’ differ from the messaging that comes through branded sustainability platforms and traditional green marketing and social advertising campaigns? I think it does and here are three reasons why.
1. Link to Values, Not Products
Product brands have for some time offered powerful platforms through which to engage citizens and reshape norms and behaviours to ultimately drive greater demand for sustainable products and services. But what we are now seeing is companies stepping the way from using their influence to effect more sustainable product or service choice and thinking about the wider political and economic change that needs to happen.
Patagonia has a long history of ‘environmental activism’and whilst its 2011 Black Friday ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’advertising campaign did increase sales, the follow-on Responsible Economy initiative is focused on decreasing them. The campaign addresses the ‘elephant in the room’of growth-based capitalism and involves determining new measures of success that do not depend on selling ever-increasing numbers of goods and services. Underpinning the campaign may be the fact that Patagonia is a company selling high-quality products that last a long time, can be repaired and eventually returned to the store, but this is not the core focus or driver of the communication.
2. Seek to Influence Business
For many, the next wave of sustainability is the need for business to ‘lobby for good’. Most of the attention has been focused on advocacy – that is, working to secure the public policy needed to support the transition to a more sustainable economy. Even more leading-edge is for businesses to lobby and put pressure on their peers. Whilst companies are not yet so bold as to name and shame specific companies not moving fast enough on sustainability, some are starting to point out what they consider to be unsustainable practices.
Chipotle has recently tapped into the creativity of its media agencies to produce an animated short film and an online video game that takes on industrial farming and ‘big food’. It has also produced a four-part online comedy series in the US that takes a satirical look at industrial-scale farming. Whilst these communications may be targeted to its customers and the public, educating them about where their food comes from, they also work to point the finger at much of the fast-food and agricultural sector and the need to rethink how food is grown and produced. And it has certainly stirred things up, with agricultural producers reacting angrily. Critics also observe that it doesn’t address the issue of meat consumption – the food sector’s own elephant in the room – and there is little doubt that preaching about the wrongs of industrial agriculture is ultimately also about increasing market share for Chipotle.
3. Address Causes, Not Symptoms
The final, and possibly the most critical element of some of these corporate ‘campaigns’is that they are seeking to address not just the symptoms but the root cause or the very core of a problem. There is an important distinction to make between approaches that are mainly about integrating sustainability into brands and marketing to encourage behaviour change and those that really seek to address the fundamental political, economic and cultural barriers that stand in the way of a more sustainable economy.
Intel, in its efforts to ‘evangelise’on the need for more action to secure conflict-free minerals, is clear that while manufacturing a conflict-free microprocessor is a good first step, it is also important to make sure that the causes of conflict are also addressed. For this, a ‘systemic’approach is needed, with strong messages needing to be sent by business to governments and UN organisations to get “the peace process organised”.
But what of the potential downsides or risks of companies engaging in activities and tactics that have historically been used against them by NGOs and campaigning organisations?
The most obvious problem is the authenticity and credibility of such campaigns. When an NGO engages the public on an issue it is starting from a position of trust, business does not have the luxury of this foundation. The Edelman Trust Barometer consistently finds NGOs to be the most trusted institutions in the world. In 2012 NGOs were more trusted than business in 16 of the 25 countries surveyed. For a company to be put its head above the parapet and take a strong stance on an issue, they have to be prepared for critics to exploit every potential weakness or inconsistency in the campaign, or the company’s sustainability strategy. It is therefore absolutely critical that a company continually works to ensure it actions matches its words.
Chris Rose longtime campaign and author of ‘How to Win Campaigns’ also talks of campaigning as a “high-risk venture”. Effective campaigns need to be fairly black and white in how they deal with issues, businesses tend to be risk averse and deal in shades of grey. Approaches to date have been focused on exploring critical questions about the future economic and political landscape without knowing many of the answers. Yet some of the most effective campaigns are based on proposing a problem that is compelling and a solution that is feasible. It is not enough to just be concerned, or to try and spread that concern to others, which is what it seems business is currently trying to do.
However, there is a lot to be said for companies using their clout and influence to shape debate and stimulate action. And if anyone is well positioned to challenge our flawed capitalist system it is those organisations that sit at the very heart of it. Whilst their tactics and approaches are unlikely to match those of the NGO activists any time soon, the values of business activism lies in how it demonstrates a company’s conviction and lifts its approach to sustainability far above just a box-ticking exercise.
Frances is a freelance sustainability professional and editor of SustainAbility’s quarterly Radar magazine.