Is “Corporate Activism” a good or a bad term? How are purpose-driven businesses engaged in activism today and what are the opportunities of tomorrow?
In a virtual panel discussion held in September 2020, Afra Gloria Müller from the Olympia12062020 team, Clara Bütow from soulbottles, Hervé Dupied from Patagonia and myself representing Moyee Coffee that time unpacked the concept “Corporate Activism”.
Please note that for this summary the panelists’ statements have been mapped according to four main questions and do not represent the actual flow of the discussion.
The four guiding questions are:
- “Corporate Activism” – Is it a good or bad term & how can we differentiate between CSR/PR/Marketing and (Brand) Activism?
- What are examples of Corporate Activism you can tell us about?
- Where is a place to start for purpose-driven SMEs, startups and NGOs to engage with larger global brands and suppliers?
- What are the opportunities for purpose-driven companies for the future and what can we propose to reimagining business for good?
“Corporate Activism” – Is it a good or bad term & how can we differentiate between PR/Marketing and Activism?
- Marketing and Activism can learn from each other: “I’m not sure if we should even differentiate [between CSR/PR and activism] that much. Marketing and activism can learn from each other.” – Afra
- Corporate Activism as a responsibility: “Lobbyism is present in shaping our society and politics worldwide, so corporate activism can be seen as a responsibility of a company to use this power it has in the economy to shift it towards a more just and sustainable one.” – Clara
- Corporates are led by people who are citizens, not just employees: “A corporate is just people creating a relationship with one another and getting behind an idea.” – Hervé
- It’s about consistency: “It’s about consistency and about being self-critical. For example, we have never called ourselves “sustainable”. That word doesn’t mean a lot to us. We’ve always called ourselves “responsible” while acknowledging the impact we have on the environment. And it’s already a great sign when you can acknowledge what you are not good at and work on it consistently.” – Hervé
- The concept of “CSR” is outdated: For me, CSR is linked to the older model, taking a part of the profit and investing it into some good projects that don’t have to be related to the core business. This is where a shift happens when we talk about “corporate shared value creation”. These are things that loop back into your core business model. For example, improving the labor conditions means better health and mental health of your workers and that means better output and happier people.” – Clara
What are examples of Corporate Activism you can tell us about?
- Enforcing internal transformation: “Back in the mid-nineties, Patagonia decided to go 100% organic cotton within a couple of years only. That’s an activist move. That has put the overall company in a big shake because we had to transform very very quickly.” – Hervé
- Highlighting the work of grassroots movements: “All the environmental campaigns run at Patagonia mostly highlight the work of environmental NGOs that have been on the ground for many years or even decades.” – Hervé
- Sending the company climate striking: “At Soulbottles we convinced our team that no one should work on [Global Climate Strike] day, that we’re closing down the office and no one was allowed to work, not even from home. We also shut down our online store, our logistics, so instead of ordering something online you get a message “today is Global Climate Strike, please go take the streets and spread the word, let’s all fight for climate justice.” – Clara
- Participate and engage in a network: “Together with volunteers and the soulbottles team we organized a striking block for all the companies [of Entrepreneurs For Future]. We rented a car, we decorated it with banners, we were doing night shifts to do all the banners, we booked speakers, DJs, logistics and security staff, just to make this happen because we thought it’s so important.” – Clara
- Writing an open letter: “One thing we did in the past was to write an open letter to the German minister of development, Gerd Müller, who is a longtime advocate of scrapping the coffee tax on FairTrade coffee. In this letter we pointed out that a certification alone is not the solution to the underlying problems we face in the coffee value chain.” – Karry
- Fighting root causes: “We participate in different actions, for example fighting against the Trump administration and partnering up with different outdoor brands to call out the administration when they are trying to reduce the size of national parks or trying to remove protected areas. We are helping to fund grassroots groups that are focused on the root causes of the environmental crisis. A simple example: we are not funding groups that are focusing on removing plastics from the ocean – even though it is very much necessary – but we help groups that are very much looking at being sure that plastic is not produced anymore.” – Herve
Where is a place to start for purpose-driven SMEs, startups and NGOs to engage with larger global brands and suppliers?
- Be inclusive: “Moyee is not only a coffee company but also a tech company, developing a blockchain to facilitate shared value chains. And we are doing that not to create a competitive advantage over competitors but to build something that is also going to be available to other coffee brands. We really want to engage them to participate and adopt the technology to follow on this approach, having in mind that we need to have [larger, global brands] on board to get where we want to get to” – Karry
- Collaborate: “We moved away from the perfectionism that we can often see in sustainable business where “everything needs to be perfect” towards looking at the mid-term perspective, what can we change if we start a collaboration? Last year we decided to launch a steel bottle and we saw we could not produce this bottle in Germany. We needed to go to Asia. So we looked at the suppliers and decided to engage with a company that was smaller scale and not certified but we saw that they were willing to change. Through our involvement we could change the entire organisation for the better, in collaboration and partnership. So rather than having this approach of everything needs to be perfect and certified from the beginning, we said we have to start somewhere and then, step-by-step, we will make improvements.” – Clara
- Take it step-by-step: “It’s important to be willing to enter a discussion and not do this all top-down and say “let’s sit down at a table, let’s discuss this together, what are our options? With our packaging, in the beginning, we didn’t have so much influence on how the packaging could be but since we grew and did a lot of research, we found new materials and convinced our packager to go from 100% fresh fiber to 95% recycled fiber. Of course, this was a step-by-step improvement but in the end, not only our packaging changed but also for all the other companies they supplied to changed.” – Clara
What are the opportunities for purpose-driven companies for the future and what can we propose to reimagining business for good?
- Impact investing: “I think impact investment is a growing field, we see it all around the world and it can only go along if we change the meaning of what it means to do business. I studied business not too long ago and I found it really shocking how in every business class it’s taught that the meaning of any sort of business is to maximise shareholder value and I think it’s this narrative that we really need to shift if we also want to make it attractive to investors.” – Clara
- Impact investors: “You can also ask what kind of investors do you want for your company. Because what can be very beneficial for your company and your investors is knowing that employees working for purpose companies are really engaged and motivated which also lowers the risk for the investors.” – Afra
- Create more networks and platforms: “We need a network of all networks. There needs to be more collaboration and communication, between different companies, sectors, communities. I think we can only tackle it as a huge global network. And how can we reach that? Covid has shown that this is quite possible, we have seen how companies and organisations have been working together with the government (example: an online hackathon with over 40.000 participants, initiated by Berlin organisations and supported by the German government).” – Afra
- Found a Purpose GmbH: “The core question is what really drives business? Is it profit, is it purpose, is it really the willingness to change something and solve a real problem? And this becomes much easier when we solve the ownership problem that is so deeply rooted in the traditional economic system of having shareholder value be the main driver of any business activity. With a purpose company you give the ownership of a company to the employees. soulbottles for example is owned by a GbR that belongs to the employees and we are legally bound to reinvest all our profit into the purpose of our business. This is how ownership can play a role in helping companies become more activist.” – Clara
A final remark by Hervé about how the current Covid-19 crisis can inspire activism:
“What does “sustainability” mean? It’s been marketed the wrong way by corporations and I hope activism will not be the same kind of word. I do think what people have found out is that in the end we’re pretty bad consumers and that we’re pretty good human beings to take care of one another in times of crisis. We’ve heard many beautiful stories showing resilience and mutual aid. And if there’s something activism should look at, it is the power of our collective imagination and the power of mutual aid within the groups and cultivating true, good, human relationships is maybe the biggest key to the future.”