How are corporations responding to the global visibility of social media?

Sensemaking / How are corporations responding to the global visibility of social media?

Targeted campaigns name and shame – but the change they are looking for, and sometimes delivering, goes beyond quick wins, says Miriel Ko.

By Miriel Ko / 16 Apr 2015

Non-profit and citizen-led campaigns are harnessing the global visibility of social media to put unprecedented pressure on corporations and brands, often demanding a near-immediate response. With influence over consumer behaviour, resource use and human rights, multi-national corporations and high-profile brands could help to lever significant change – but do high visibility campaigns incite brands to rise to the challenge, potentially risking further criticism on the way, or to keep a low profile?

In July 2014, Greenpeace launched a global campaign, ‘Stop playing with the Arctic’, calling on Lego to end its co-promotion with Shell . While Lego had a long-standing reputation for being a sustainable and child-friendly brand, Shell had been a long-standing target by Greenpeace due to its exploitation of Arctic oil reserves and its potential contribution to the melting sea ice. After immense pressure and widespread attention from the public, Lego decided not to renew its current contract with Shell, which dates from 2011 and builds on a 50-year relationship.

Also in the last year, Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign saw General Mills and Kellogg commit to measuring, publishing and reducing emissions across their entire supply chains in an effort to help mitigate climate change and world hunger. The year before, Oxfam pressured the biggest food and drink companies in the world, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, to commit to zero tolerance of land grabs throughout their supply chain.

Companies with well-known brands have an incentive to respond constructively to criticism from NGOs that other providers with a lower profile may not – runs the argument in ‘Big Business, Big Responsibilities’, a book co-authored by three directors from BAA, Business for Social Responsibility and SABMiller. For Lego, Greenpeace’s campaign exerted pressure to protect its reputation in the short-term – and may cause it to be more selective in its choice of partnership in future.

But what incentive for change and engagement does such a ‘divorce’ leave Shell? What leverage could Lego possibly exert over the oil and gas supplier now? Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, Lego’s Group Chief Executive, did not endorse the tactics used in the Greenpeace campaign: "The Greenpeace campaign uses the Lego brand to target Shell”, he said in a statement. "We firmly believe Greenpeace ought to have a direct conversation with Shell."

There is no question that NGO campaigns have led to reform. During the 1990s, Nike changed drastically after Oxfam’s NikeWatch and the Clean Clothes Campaign highlighted poor working conditions and child labour in its factories in Pakistan and Cambodia, and the public began boycotting their products. Nike presented its first corporate responsibility report to shareholders in 2001. Since then, the company has not only improved their labour conditions but built environmental criteria into the design of their products. In 2005, they also became the first company in its industry to publish all the names of the factories in its supply chain .

However while intense pressure from campaigns has resulted in some successful outcomes and incentive for high-profile brands, achieving the goal of long-term sustainability for brands will take more players – beyond the company in the firing line.

KoAnn Skrzyniarz, Founder of the global conference Sustainable Brands, argues for greater understanding of their operating context: “While shifting stakeholder demand is one of the best ways to encourage and even enable brands to change … quite often brands would love to do things more sustainably but are caught in a system that penalizes them from doing so.” Often, the obstacle is cost, she says – whether through the “unwillingness of customers to pay for the true cost of more sustainable products and services, or through investor insistence on quarterly growth as the primary measure of successful management.” 

Even businesses that do not specialize in highly visible branded goods are feeling the pressure of marrying commercial targets with sustainability. Forum for the Future responded in August 2014 with a platform inviting participating brands to pool resources to identify the return on investment ‘cases’ that are most relevant to their brand, jointly building the case for embracing sustainability that might turn a CFO’s head. Founding members included The Marketing Society, Boots, BSkyB, Tui Travel, Jaguar Land Rover and The Rainforest Alliance.

While making the case internally is important, the change one brand can achieve within a fixed context is always going to be limited. As Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, argues again and again, the reality is that transformative, system-level change will never come from just one group of stakeholders or one business case:

“Long lasting systemic change comes from a set of interventions, working together, to tackle a complex challenge”, she says. “There’s usually a heady mixture of market mechanisms, behaviour change, policy instruments and collaboration which, when it all comes together, achieves significant change.”

In this way, campaigning NGOs must be seen as part of an ecosystem of actors who have the potential to create change. By shining a spotlight on an issue, they can often create the willingness to act.

For Uren, there’s also a reason why campaigning NGOs are getting more cut throat, persuading even more businesses to act: “They have a much better understanding of their role in a system, and have their own change models.” In these new models, NGOs behave less as isolated critics, and more as enablers of change, working in partnership with business. “Directly lobbying governments to change legislation is hard to do as an NGO”, Uren explains: “Creating a burning platform which prompts powerful business interests to lobby for change is slightly easier.”

The more NGOs think in this way, the more it will become apparent that the target is rarely the brand or business itself, but the system to which its current operations are married. As in the case of Shell and Lego, the target was oil and gas, not the manufacturer of the building blocks of many people’s childhoods.

Miriel Ko is an environment and sustainability consultant and researcher.

Image Credit: Alex Naanou / Flickr


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