Two decades ago, business and NGOs sat poles apart, wary of each other’s intent and aims. Twenty years on — and with the realization of the need for collective action on environmental and social issues that play out across geographical, political, market and ecosystem boundaries — we see a shifting landscape. But has this move towards a focus on partnerships and collaboration overshadowed the critical tool of activism that is so important for helping companies move in the direction that is needed?
SustainAbility has for many years observed and researched the relationships between NGOs, business and markets. We have seen the rapid transition from an era when suspicion between civil society and business ran deep to the current reality, where much hope and expectation rests on the private sector working closely with traditional activists and governments to co-create solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.
A GlobeScan/SustainAbility Survey on Activism released at the start of the year found that the majority of sustainability experts are convinced that NGOs can be more effective on sustainable development by collaborating with — rather than by confronting — business. They also said that companies should increasingly engage with NGOs to determine how they can best advance the agenda together.
Much-needed environmental, social and economic advancements have in recent years come through business, government and civil society working together to develop solutions, to collectively change understanding and mindsets, as well as to develop a new set of frameworks that support sustainable development. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart observes, in one of the interviews conducted for our video interview series The Regeneration Roadmap: “Many of the big successes — sustainable fisheries, Forest Stewardship Council, Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights, the Kimberly Process — they are all products of these alliances.”
In our own strategic advice to companies on how to engage with stakeholders we have been actively pushing for a shift from stakeholder dialogue to collaboration. And indeed, we now see business and NGOs cooperating, working together and co-creating in a way that would have been unheard of two decades ago.
But are we doing the companies we work with a disservice by actively neutralizing, albeit with good intent, the organizations that put the pressure on them to change? By pushing for collaboration and partnerships and encouraging activists into the boardroom, are we also inadvertently removing the source of signals that companies need to alert them to likely political and customer change ahead?
Too often, as soon as NGOs are in the boardroom, they cease to perform the traditional activism role that has played such an important part in progressing sustainable development. But effective activism is more critical than ever, especially where we are striving to address sustainability in ways that that markets are still inclined to ignore or externalize. Here are four reasons why business should embrace more aggressive activist campaigns in the years to come:
- NGOs are trusted and seen as effective. In the GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey, four in five global sustainability experts agreed that society needs activism to achieve meaningful progress. Alongside socially responsible investors, NGOs are perceived as the most important influencers on business and government; they are also seen as the most trusted. Campaign tactics that directly impact business value drivers such as product boycotts are seen to be as the most effective in driving changes in corporate strategy and behavior. Many of the most important social movements have come from grassroots initiatives.
- Campaigns spur change and innovation. Without agenda-driven NGOs it is harder for internal change-makers to demonstrate the need to embed sustainability into every aspect of their business. We have heard from individuals in companies that they would welcome more pressure from NGOs, and some have reflected on the decline in the last decade or so of effective issue-focused campaigns. NGOs put the spotlight on sustainability and societal imperatives and make it easier for social intrapreneurs to mutate and evolve their organizations towards more sustainable ways of doing business. Nike is a prime example of a company that has been the target of sustained campaigning over the past 20 years and has used this pressure to evolve its own approach to sustainability, triggering innovations in the supply chain and as a driver for embedding sustainability into every aspect of the company’s business.
- Issues are given center stage and a powerful narrative. NGOs argue from the point of view of issues themselves, not from the perspective of a country or a business. They are not bound by financial or political cycles and can act fast to address a concern. While their expectations may sometimes seem idealistic, their strength lies in creating powerful narratives that bring issues alive and make them relevant. They create stories that resonate, inspire and engage in a way that corporates can only aspire to do.
- NGOs help business focus and determine value. Activism also serves to bring issues into focus for business and provides clear signals to business what matters to important stakeholder groups. NGOs and civil society organizations are often used as a proxy for consumer and customer views. As Jonathon Porritt puts it another of the videos from The Regeneration Roadmap, “The way in which business is taking these perspectives from civil society and embedding them in their views on consumerism, on transparency, accountability, on what they owe to their customers, to their investor, to their regulators — a lot of that is imbued by NGO thinking.” Companies need to continually assess which sustainability issues are key for their many stakeholders as well as their commercial success. For internal management, NGOs provide that critical lens on environmental and social issues and future value.
The pressure we need
In our enthusiasm to embrace collaboration as the answer to some of our most critical challenges, let us not blur the boundaries between business and NGOs. As we seek to leverage the power of collaboration, let us also equally value the spirit of activism and push for intelligent campaigns that confront but also lend themselves to developing solutions.
The lack of progress at Rio+20 mobilized Greenpeace to move to a “war footing” and its latest Save the Arctic campaign follows a string of victories that have ignited public opinion. 350.org has relentlessly campaigned against the Keystone XL pipeline and Hugh’s Fish Fight in Europe has been hugely successfully at mobilizing the public to put pressure on supermarkets, the fishing industry, government and the public sector to support more sustainable fishing. In a different way, the New York Times’ recent exposés on labor and human rights in electronics supply chains have brought much-needed attention to these issues.
We need many more activists to follow suit and to once again build the powerful narratives that inspire and engage audiences, and which are so important for holding business and government to account.
This article originally appeared as part of SustainAbility’s Changing Tack column on GreenBiz.com.