Can Corporates Credibly Campaign for Social Change?

Patagonia’s latest campaign “Vote Our Planet” is seeking to mobilise voters to choose candidates in local elections who support strong environmental policies. Patagonia – the US outdoor apparel company – is a company founded by an environmental activist and has a long history of campaigning. But it is not the first.

Krznaric (2007: 33) identifies Quakers from the business community as having played an important part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade and slavery in Britain and it is seen as the first great social change movement where business was a primary actor (and interestingly campaigning against other companies).

Recently we have seen a number of companies stand behind various social and environmental issues. Research published in the Harvard Business Review (Chatterji & Toffel, 2016) finds that CEOs taking public positions on issues such LGBT rights, race relations, gender equality and climate change can influence attitudes and decision-making.

But the rise of business campaigners also raises questions. In a class discussion of Dove’s ten-year campaign for Real Beauty concerns were raised as to whether corporates can credibly push for social change. This campaign has been not been without criticism since its launch in 2004.

Can corporates be campaigners for progressive change is a question I have been considering for some time , leaning to my opinion that yes, they can and should campaign. There are many caveats (the majority, if not all of businesses need to do far more to address the long-term environmental sustainability and social inclusivity of their business models) but if they can use their influence responsibly to shape the debate and persuade others to take action that ultimate accelerates the transition to a zero-carbon, socially inclusive world, they should.

Can current definitions of campaigning allow for different actors beyond those traditionally seen as activists?

So I was interested to explore whether current definitions of campaigning allow for different actors beyond those that are traditionally seen as activists.

Hilder, P. et al (2007) define campaigns as involving people “who are outside formal structures of power and authority trying to influence the decisions of those who are more powerful – either individuals, those in government, global bodies or big companies”.

This narrow definition positions campaigning as being determined by influence of power, with somewhat traditional views of those in (government, business) and those outside (civil society, interest groups). They are specific in referencing civil society as the main actors responsible for bringing about change and raise concerns about how governments and business (“the powerful”) can use campaigning to serve their own purposes against the public benefit (Hilder, P. et al 2007: 59).

This narrow definition positions campaigning as being determined by influence of power, with somewhat traditional views of those in (government, business) and those outside (civil society, interest groups).

The paper critiques the Dove Real Beauty campaign, questioning its legitimacy as the ultimate goal remains in their view: “profit maximisation – not the maximisation of progress” (Hilder, P. et al 2007: 26). Could the same be said of Patagonia’s initiative to get voters to prioritise the environment at the ballot box?

Others definitions are less prescriptive in terms of actors. Baringhorst (2009: 10) defines campaigning as a “series of communicative activities undertaken to achieve predefined goals and objectives regarding a defined target audience in a set time period with a given amount of resources”.

While business is not mentioned as an ‘actor’ by Baringhorst (2009) they do not explicitly exclude companies in the same way that Hilder, P. et al (2007) do.

The Patagonia campaign has the twin goals of mobilising people to register to vote and educating them about national and regional environmental issues. It has a series of communicative activities running up to the election including utilising mainstream (New York Times) and new (Tumblr) media to inform about threats facing the air, water and soil and releasing videos about the local communities that have suffered the effects of poor environmental policy. It has committed ‘a given amount of resources’ and is working within the election period.

The actor maybe a business, but by Baringhorst’s (2009) definition alone its legitimacy as a campaigner seems valid.

These are just two definitions that can help start to unpick the evolving field of corporate campaigning. As we continue to explore the core theories and concepts that underpin social change campaigns I hope to bring some more critical thinking to this issue over the course of my study.

This blog is part of a series for my Media, Campaigning and Social Change MA at the University of Westminster.


References

Krznaric, R. (2007) How Change Happens, Oxfam GB

Chatterji, A. Toffel, M.W. (2016) Do CEO Activists Make a Difference? Evidence from a Field Experiment. Harvard Business School Technology & Operations Mgt. Unit Working Paper No. 16-100 Available from: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2742209

Hilder, P. et al (2007) Contentious Citizens – Civil Society’s Role in Campaigning for Social Change, The Young Foundation.

Baringhorst, S. (2009) Introduction: Political Campaigning in Changing Media Cultures – Typological and Historical Approaches in Baringhorst, S. Kneip, V. and Niesyto, J. (eds) Political Campaigning on the Web. Transcript.

Image source: Patagonia

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4 thoughts on “Can Corporates Credibly Campaign for Social Change?

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  1. This is a super interesting topic and I assume that there will be an increase in debates on this in the near future, because more and more companies are starting to stand up for the “good society” by addressing issues related to their business. I strongly tend to see a chance in corporate campaigning to create social change. So, my personal answer for your blog question is “Yes” – companies can credibly campaign for social change. I could talk about this for ages, because I follow Patagonia and their campaigns for quite a while. However, here I will just touch on a few aspects to back up my “Yes”.
    Within the last decade, our society was mainly shaped by capitalistic ideologies and economic values. On one hand, this trend has given a lot of power to the corporate world within society and at the same time, influenced people by starting an evolution from being a citizen to becoming a consumer. (Most people are more concerned which product or technological gadget to buy next, rather then with politics and governmental actions.) These parallel developments led to a close relationship between consumer and company and furthermore, to a strong interdependence. On the other hand, capitalism and its biggest players, businesses and consumers, both co-created a lot of problems like climate change, poverty, modern slavery and unemployment, just to mention a few. Naomie Klein, the Canadian activist and eco-author, even argues in her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’ that we can only fight climate change if we tackle capitalism. So, because those consumer and company are part of the problem, they have to be part of the solution.
    Campaigns for social change run by companies can create this interplay in which consumer and the company can challenge each other alike to find the solutions we need.
    Companies on one side, can use their influence and power to call on their customers for social change through a campaign like “Vote Our Planet”. The customer on the other side, can take the chance when a company opens up by running a campaign and therefore, gets more vulnerable, to see what this company is really about. What are their values? Do their everyday business actions match in a way with their call for social change? Is the company really committed to make the social change happen? At the end, people can form an opinion on this company and the cause they address and maybe stand up for that cause by answering the call of action or by buying their products.
    I know that Patagonia is a prime example that companies can credibly campaign for social change and there are companies, like Dove, whose company values do not match with the values they address in their social change campaign and therefore, kind of abuse campaigning to maximize profit. But, if we as consumers can filter those campaigns that are “true” and if we realize the potential and power behind real corporate campaigning for social change, we can use our responsibility as a consumers and take part in creating social change, the capitalist way.

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  2. Thanks for your comment! I particularly liked your point about how campaigning can open a company to further scrutiny by its customers and other stakeholders – which then becomes a secondary benefit of campaigning for social change.

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  3. Very interesting read – I do agree, that corporates can act as campaigners for social change. In my opinion, the first step in the right direction is full transparency and rebuilding their credibility and regaining the trust of costumers.

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  4. Corporate campaigns for social change can be a “double edged sword” for lack of a better choice of words. Patagonia presents a strong pro for such corporate action which focuses on information over advocacy. The various Koch organizations and their supporters strictly advocate to change public policy for their own benefit. Bill and Melinda Gates and others promote change to education to improve education through charter schools and other changes. While their efforts are not seen as selfish or self-promoting, these efforts are based on their perceived corrective action. In other words they invest in trying to change public policy without the public input. I certainly prefer their money going in this direction rather than the efforts by Koch et al but personally do not see charter schools as a solution meriting such financial support.

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