The lines are blurring between companies and campaigners. From CEO activism to corporate campaigns leading businesses become increasingly outspoken on critical environmental and social issues.
Much has been written about the growing number of partnerships between business and NGOs.
Now we are seeing the private sector not just collaborating with NGOs but stepping into the space traditionally occupied by activist groups and raising their voice on key environmental and social issues.
In a previous issue of Radar we first examined the rise of ‘unusual activists’ and how advocacy is becoming part of corporate sustainability strategies. Since then we have seen the further blurring of boundaries between activism and business. What characterises many of these initiatives is that they are not in partnership with NGOs, but business standing alone calling for change.
As Mike Barry of Marks & Spencer’s states in Marketing Week: “Brands have to have a political voice, but that is political with a small ‘p’, not talking about political parties but issues that concern your customers.”
Businesses are increasingly using their influence to more actively shape the debate and to persuade others to take action on issues that they believe are critical. Whether it is gender stereotypes, inactive lifestyles, inequality – brands are finding their voice on some of our most important issues.
Research covered in the New York Times looks into the emerging phenomenon of ‘CEO Activism’ in which corporate executives speak out about social and environmental issues often not related to their core business. In the US there are a number of examples where CEOs such as Tim Cook, Apple and Howard Schulz, Starbucks have weighed in on race relations and gender inequality. The study has found that CEO activism can sway public opinion and increases interest in the company’s products.
That said, for companies to be credible activists commercialism needs to be put to one side. A study by Weber Shandwick (The Dawn of CEO Activism) concludes that whilst CEO activism is growing, it is still early days and companies need to, “proceed with a healthy dose of caution, especially if engagement is not carefully considered and planned”. The Weber Shandwick report also found that CEOs are seen as most credible when speaking out on issues that are most material to the business.
We saw a number of companies step up and become advocates for strong climate policy ahead of the COP21 talks in Paris last year. In 2014 a small number of progressive business leaders from IKEA, Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s and NRG joined the People’s Climate March to show their support for a movement demanding greater environmental and social justice. The outgoing editor of The Guardian launched the #KeepitintheGround campaign giving the newspaper a strong voice, beyond its editorial, on climate change. Persil’s #DirtisGood campaign takes on the growing social problem of kids spending too much time indoors. REI decided to close it stores to encourage its staff to get outside.
It is still early days; yes, there will be mistakes, there will be failures (Starbuck’s Race Together, already a case study) and companies’ initial efforts may be met with cynicism. But any company that is integrating sustainability into its business and is transparent, accountable and thinking about the long-term viability of its business model in a low-carbon circular economy, should absolutely be campaigning for a better world.
We need as many voices as possible calling for change. Business reaches deep into parts of society that many other organisations don’t. We want to see more companies raising their voice on the issues that their customers, employees and communities care about. Standing alone or in partnership with NGOs and others let’s hear a collective roar for change.
Beauty Counter #100 Lashes
Raising awareness of chemicals in beauty products & working towards tighter regulation.
Beautycounter (a certified B Corp) is aiming to get safer products into the hands of its customers. Its #100lashes campaign focuses on a mascara that took over four years to develop because of the company’s rigorous ingredient selection process.
It is bold in the use of #100lashes with its reference to torture, making the provocative point that women don’t want to be harmed either through make up or in any other way.
The brand is also organising a mass movement campaign to draw attention to policymakers and the media of the use of potentially unsafe chemicals in beauty products. It is advocating for cosmetic reform and tighter regulation of chemicals used in beauty products in the US.
Patagonia Provisions Unbroken Ground
Helping customers understand that the food choices they make do matter and can make a difference.
Patagonia is one of only a handful of companies that have roots in environmental activism.
The outdoor wear company was set-up by Yvon Chouinard who would more happily describe himself as an activist than a businessman. From Vote the Environment, to its Don’t Buy this Jacket and Responsible Economy campaigns to funding Dam Nation, the company has a long history of speaking up on sustainability issues.
Its relatively new food business, Patagonia Provisions, has now released a short film that tells the story of the farmers, growers and fisherman that are leading the way with restorative and regenerative agricultural practices. With a tag line ‘Revolutions Start from the Bottom’ the film is being screened in its shops across the US to continue its work of “inspiring solutions to the environmental crisis”.
Chipotle, prior to its food safety issues, with films such as the Scarecrow also positioned itself as an advocate for more sustainable agriculture.
Ariel India #SharetheLoad
Challenging gender stereotypes through its product advertising.
Pure advertising, but with a strong social message at its heart, Ariel India takes on gender roles in its film.
The starting point for the campaign was a survey by AC Nielson that revealed that 76% of Indian men feel that laundry is a woman’s job. The campaign started in 2015 with the company releasing laundry packaging labelled ‘His’ and ‘Hers’ and working with clothing brands to take the message to care labels. Its first video featured a conversation between two women and asked the question: “Is laundry only a woman’s job?”
The campaign really took off this year when it released an advertisement with a father’s apology to his daughter for setting the wrong example and for not challenging traditional roles in the household.
This article was previously published in SustainAbility’s Radar magazine