This piece was originally published in the autumn issue of Radar Magazine – Issue 05: Unusual Activists.
38 Degrees is one of the UK’s biggest campaigning communities, with over
2.5 million members. Members link up online and offline to discuss and vote on which issues the organisation campaigns on together. Zoë Arden talked to Maddy Carroll, Director of Campaigns at 38 Degrees, about the rise of ‘people-powered’ movements.
Zoë Arden: Can you tell me about how the organisation started?
Maddy Carroll: 38 Degrees started in 2009 when the political establishment kept talking about widespread apathy amongst the British public. But the public wasn’t losing interest in politics, they were losing faith in politicians; they still cared very much about the issues. 38 Degrees came out of a model of campaigning that started in America with an organisation called MoveOn bringing large numbers of people together to campaign on issues they care about.
The ‘Stop Forest Sell-Off Campaign’ that started in 2010 was a very big moment for 38 Degrees. It was a campaign that really went to the heart of so many people in the country – preventing the sale of national forests to private companies.
It was an interesting alliance — campaigning alongside established organisations like the National Trust?
It brought together so many people from across the country who wouldn’t usually see themselves as ‘campaigners’ but they knew that the public forest was something that they really cared about and wanted to protect. It broke down this image that to campaign you have to be a student, you have to dedicate your whole life to something, or you have to be in London and go out and chain yourselves to railings.
The thing that ties every 38 Degrees member together is a set of values and beliefs that things can be better and the belief that politicians and those in power – be they elected officials or big businesses or corporations – should be held accountable for their actions.
What would you say your most successful business-related campaigns have been?
Going back a few years 38 Degrees members campaigned against tax breaks for 2012 Olympic sponsors. Tax avoidance is one of the key issues that 38 Degrees members really care about. These organisations’ sponsorship of the Olympics for reputational gain was being tarnished with this idea of them receiving tax breaks. I think it was twelve companies altogether that we targeted and one after the other they all announced that they wouldn’t take the tax break. So that was a great one.
We also recently targeted eBay who were stocking neonicotinoids – the pesticides banned in the EU that are responsible for the decline of bee populations. 38 Degrees members have campaigned to protect our bees for a long time.
eBay’s own policy was not to stock these products but its processes weren’t working. So we launched a campaign which involved our members getting in touch with eBay via email and Twitter. Within a few hours eBay had taken the listings down. Brands can be very quick to respond when they feel public pressure.
More recently, we targeted Matalan as it was the only big UK clothing manufacturer to have used the Rana Plaza building that hadn’t paid into the official compensation fund. Fair labour campaigners who had been working on this issue had tried to get Matalan to pay up. The steering committee that worked with the fund had tried to get the company to pay. Even the government had tried to get Matalan to pay.
Did Matalan say why it was not going to contribute to the compensation plan?
It said it had its own charity initiative which I’m sure is making a difference on the ground, but charity isn’t the same as official compensation. 38 Degrees members emailed, tweeted, Facebooked, phoned and petitioned Matalan. We got a meeting at the headquarters with a large panel of their directors which a large number of 38 Degrees members attended.
At the meeting the directors announced that they had decided to donate to the fund, but wouldn’t tell us how much. A week later we found out that that Matalan had only donated £60,000, simply not enough. Once 38 Degrees members found out, over 50,000 emailed company bosses to say how disappointing the donation was. 70% of 38 Degrees members who took part in the campaign were Matalan customers, so the business was in no doubt that it had not done what the public, and more importantly its customers, expected.
How do you want business to engage with you?
We want businesses to engage with 38 Degrees members. They should respond quickly. They should be open. They should listen. They should offer meetings face to face. Don’t just shut down. There are some companies we’ve campaigned against who just go into shutdown mode. They don’t answer their phones and just sit there quietly and wait for it all to go away. That’s what the retailer Sports Direct did on its zero hours contract issue. Others, such as Matalan, openly engage. My advice to business would be to do some planning about what you would do if you had a people-powered, very public campaign against you.
Lots of your members got involved in the Climate March last November but climate doesn’t seem to be such a high priority for your members. Why do you think that is?
I think climate campaigning is difficult because it’s about unfathomable targets to be hit far off in the future. It’s intangible and difficult to understand the urgency. The march was aimed at showing world leaders that people cared. But then those leaders and their negotiators are going to disappear into international talks behind closed doors which is impenetrable to most people. Members campaigning to stop big businesses, corporate greed, or investment in a big coal project that’s going to trash a world heritage site works much more for our kind of organisation. Big climate negotiations are tough to engage with if you’re not a policy wonk.
How do you join your online and real world campaigning together? It sounds like it’s becoming a really interesting blend.
People often see 38 Degrees as an online campaigning organization but we’re not. We use technology as a tool to win campaigns. There is not a dichotomy between offline and online – they are meshed together.
What keeps you awake at night?
Although it’s not what keeps me awake at night, what gets me up in the morning is our members. Our members are so wonderful and there is this real weight of responsibility. Often members will tell me how being part of 38 Degrees makes them feel like they can have an impact. They can still do stuff even though they work full time, they’re a full-time caregiver, they are disabled, or they can’t leave the house. Being a member of 38 Degrees makes them feel plugged in to something and part of a movement. That’s a big responsibility that we all feel in the office.