The Activist Companies

I spoke to Christopher Davies, International Director of Corporate Responsibility and Campaigns at The Body Shop International and Chris Gale, European Social Mission Strategy and Policy Manager, Ben & Jerry’s, two companies with a long history of social activism, to learn how business can leverage their capabilities and influence to mobilise supporters towards action in support of social change.

Companies have a long history of putting their weight behind contentious social issues. Quakers from the business community played an important part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade and slavery in Britain. This is considered the first social change movement where business was a primary actor, challenging social norms and the way that business was done.

Over the last couple of years we have seen a number of companies voicing support for same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination legislation and refugees. In the UK the clothing company Jigsaw launched a high profile ad campaign that celebrates immigration and challenges the negative and divisive anti-migrant narrative that has prevailed in the UK.

Companies are responding to the polarisation of society, particularly in the US and Europe, but increasing business involvement in social change also reflects the changing nature of corporate leadership. That is a growing awareness, by companies, of the need to positively shape and influence the world that they operate in, not just through products and services, but by leveraging unique competencies to help support progressive policy, influence decision-making, shape social norms and challenge the most unjust aspects of society. The latest Weber Shandwick research on CEO Activism finds that more than half of millenials say business leaders have a greater responsibility today to take a stance on thorny issues then they used to.

Be All In

“You have to be in it fully. The people who work for you, support you have to be mobilised behind it. It needs to be driven by the values of the company.”
Chris Gale, Ben & Jerry’s

If a company is to actively seek to change society then there should be no doubt in its corporate culture about what it believes in and what it stands for. Leading companies have long known that, as with any aspect of corporate sustainability, if senior leadership are not actively championing the cause or action then the chances of success are considerably reduced. Similarly, success is more likely if the campaign reflects what matters to the company’s employees. Be led by what your employees care and are passionate about.

For these companies it is also not just about having a voice. Awareness raising is important but it is necessary to identify a problem and mobilise supporters towards a solution.

It Takes Resource

“We train the staff to be able to engage in the debate and promote petition collection in and out of the store. It empowers them to integrate campaign messaging into their day to day activity.”
Christopher Davis, The Body Shop

Both Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop ensure that the commitment to a cause runs deep through the organisations by investing the time and resource to train staff on the issue. The concerns at the heart of many campaigns for social change can be complex. Both companies emphasize the importance of making sure the campaign and social issue are understood by staff and they are able to engage in the debate whether that is in stores, on care lines or through social media channels.

Issue Selection

“There was a long process internally focused on what we had done in the past, identifying where we have credibility and what we want to change. The big themes about racial justice in the US, around marginalisation and ‘social inclusion’ in Europe felt like a natural space for us as a business to operate in and one in which employees felt like they wanted to get involved and were committed to.”
Chris Gale, Ben & Jerry’s

The issue has to make sense for the company, its culture and where it has most credibility. The starting point for both companies when selecting issues has been a fairly lengthy process to gather internal and external intelligence. The Body Shop describes an exercise where its campaigns team spends time with NGOs, thought leaders and academia, and most importantly its franchisee network, to see what is bubbling up. Whether it is an emerging issue that other people are not talking about is also an important consideration.

Ben & Jerry’s had a similar process where it examined its people’s priorities, what had been done in the past and where it has credibility. It also emphasizes the importance of choosing issues based on social impact first. Whilst it sees its products as an important channel for raising awareness, it believes that if you concentrate too much on how your brands’ supporters are engaging on the issue, you will struggle to drive social impact.

Knowing that there is a chance of creating a solution to the problem is also important when selecting issues. Understanding the route that you need to take and the doors that you need to open to address the problem are important considerations to ensure the best chance of success.


Leverage Business Strengths

“Our theory of change is that we can speak to that anxious middle a little bit more than most NGOs can. Everything we try and do is to bring a new audience into an issue and then offload them in effect to the NGO or the movement that we are working with.”
Chris Gale, Ben & Jerry’s

Business has the influence and reach that some NGOs can only dream of: hundreds of thousands of employees and customers across multiple regions in many countries.

For customer facing companies, the interaction with people either in store or through social media channels is an enormous asset. Christopher Davis sees the personal engagement that happens in The Body Shop stores as a powerful tool for awareness and mobilisation in an increasingly digital age. He describes how direct interaction with people allows a much more powerful call to action with politicians.

Brands can open doors to new audiences. A different way of speaking about issues is also useful. Bringing another tone of voice, talking about complex contentious social or environmental issues in a non-technical and accessible way and packaging up the issue in a way that helps people understand it can be solved is a way that corporates can complement the capabilities of NGOs.

However it is important to recognise the limitations of what brands can do. Both companies work with NGO partners and Ben & Jerry’s stress the importance of having a partner organisation to link supporters to that is going to give them depth on the issue going forward.



“We operate in countries around the world with differing political systems. We need to make sure when we are calling for change we are being sensitive to our people in those countries and not putting them under unfair pressures whilst remaining true to our campaign objectives.”
Christopher Davis, The Body Shop

Both companies are strong on the need to localise global campaigns. This ensures that they are sensitive to different political and social systems, especially recognising that some markets might not be able to deliver on the campaign aims.

In Europe Ben & Jerry’s has Social Mission Managers in each of its five biggest countries to build relationships with the local social sector and to develop campaigns that are driven from the needs of the country.

Not Without Risk

“There is nothing stopping other companies doing it, apart from courageous leadership.”
Christopher Davis, The Body Shop

Campaigning is not without its risks, but you have to be willing to be a bit controversial if you are going to drive social change. A company will likely not be completely at ease with an issue of racial justice or refugee and asylum rights and has to accept that there will always be people who disagree with your perspective. But the risks of the alternatives – a divided society or regressive social norms – are great. Good businesses thrive in healthy societies and companies increasingly need to use their power to more actively campaign to change the most unjust and unsustainable parts.

This article was first published in SustainAbility’s Radar magazine.

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