Power of the people

David Burrows examines how activist groups are influencing big businesses to improve their environmental responsibility.

Environmental campaign groups and global corporates have long been at each other’s throats. The likes of Nike, Nestlé, Monsanto and Lego all have battle scars from (very) public skirmishes over labour, palm oil, genetic modification (GM) and Arctic drilling (by association with Shell) respectively. 

Currently, plastic pollution is the topic that has activists up in arms, and Coca-Cola is the brand at the centre of the storm. “Don’t let Coke choke our oceans” is the strapline being spread by Greenpeace – but few firms have escaped the ire of activists or, increasingly, consumers and politicians. Activism at this scale on a single topic only happens once every few years, but Robert Blood, founder of Sigwatch, saw it coming. “Anyone prepared to listen to us would have had a two-year head start,” he says.

Sigwatch first started monitoring how NGOs talk about corporates and their brands 20 years ago, when the big issue was GM. However, things “got serious” when the company started to quantify this earwigging in 2010 (the year that Nestlé had its fingers badly burned by that Greenpeace video of an office worker eating what looked like a Kit Kat but turned out to be the bloody digit of an orangutan – a species threatened by the deforestation caused by rocketing demand for palm oil). Today, Sigwatch’s global network of multilingual researchers track 7,000 or so NGOs on more than 700 issues, not only to determine what’s happening and the reputational impact this has on thousands of companies, but also to pre-empt future problems. 

If plastic is the big focus today, what’s next? 

“We get asked that a lot,” Blood says, “but my prediction is meat” (as in eating less of it). This is based on what the data is telling him (though the signal is “quite weak” at the moment) and “gut feeling”, with meat consumption becoming an environmental issue thanks to livestock farming’s huge ecological footprint. It makes sense – the widely reported shift to vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian diets is currently being driven by concerns over health and animal welfare, but, bit by bit, the environmental cost of livestock production is capturing the attention of campaigners, and activity is beginning to snowball. 

Greenpeace – the world’s most effective environmental group by far, according to Blood – has only recently come out as anti-meat, or rather pro-veg. The issue, which until then had largely been ‘owned’ by WWF, is out of the group’s comfort zone – but the fact that it’s jumped on this particular issue is revealing. “It doesn’t do that unless it thinks it can succeed,” Blood explains, “so when it senses public opinion is running in a certain direction, it puts more resources in.” Other campaigns are subsequently dropped, so the focus on meat has been at the expense of GM (an issue that many NGOs now feel is “done and dusted”, Blood says). 

How quickly do these big campaigns gain traction?

Things can bubble along for a long time before overflowing into mainstream thinking. A positive response from the media, the public or politicians can all trigger widespread activity. In the case of plastics, it’s been all three, which is why things have scaled very quickly to a point where regulations are already in force (microbeads) or being tabled (bans on plastic cotton buds and straws, for example, or taxes on single-use coffee cups). 

However, purely environmental campaigns tend to be much slower to gain momentum. It’s a similar story with human and labour rights, which, perhaps surprisingly, is only seventh in the latest table of global issues that groups are campaigning on. That could change as mainstream environmental groups take up human and (especially) indigenous rights. 

Look at the top issues, though, and little has changed in the past five years. Most activity in the 12 months to June 2018, according to Sigwatch, was on pollution, followed by biodiversity and health. Indeed, compare the latest findings with those in the year to June 2013 and the only significant difference is that climate change has moved into the top six.

What other issues should companies watch out for?

Animal welfare, sitting in eighth, is climbing the ranks pretty quickly overall. In fact, split the sectors up and it is currently the top priority for NGOs in agriculture – and activity is increasing all the time. It’s also the top issue in food, with ‘battery/caged/indoor poultry and eggs’ commanding enough attention on its own to sit in fourth.

This means that companies taking action to improve welfare within their supply chains are beginning to win over NGOs. In the results for the second quarter of this year, McDonald’s, Sodexo and Barilla Group made the top 10 of companies recognised by NGOs for their leadership on environmental issues, human and animal rights. French food service and facilities management company Sodexo and Italian food company Barilla Group have been commended for their stance on animal rights, notably on caged eggs (Barilla is committed to a completely cage-free egg supply by 2020, while Sodexo has pledged to source only cage-free eggs by 2025).

Which companies are most praised by NGOs?

NGOs giving praise to corporates is a relatively recent phenomenon, according to Blood. “It stems from the fact that fast-moving consumer goods brands, in particular, are more willing to engage and embrace the issues NGOs are working on,” he says. “Companies have seen an opportunity to change their relationship with NGOs – they don’t try to change their minds, they try to change the relationship.”

In the past year, the firms most praised by campaigners were Unilever, Aldi and H&M. The fact that AXA made the top 10 is more surprising, but reflects the enthusiasm for investors that are seen to be taking climate change seriously. “Now that NGOs have got past the idea that all business is bad, they are using campaigns to put companies under pressure to address issues with meaningful action,” says Blood. 

An energy company that burns coal, for example, is merely one primary target that is hard to change (11 of the top 20 energy companies assessed have received not a single pat on the back in the past year, with energy far and away the most criticised sector). However, there are hundreds of secondary targets – the firms that buy power or invest in these energy companies – which can be successfully put under pressure to change their purchasing behaviour. NGOs call this strategy ‘market change’ – influencing the primary target by removing their customers, supply chains and investors. The Church of England’s vote to divest from oil and gas firms is a case in point. 

Can companies that receive high praise rest easy?

Not at all. This time last year, Nestlé was sitting pretty as ‘most praised’, but is now on the ‘naughty list’, with campaigners critical of its use of plastics and palm oil, as well as its bottled water range. This is not unusual – “change-makers”, as Blood calls them, that are responsive to NGO campaigns “often receive praise and criticism in equal measure, to reward them for change and spur them into further action”. 

Unilever, Nestlé and H&M are examples. The fact that these are consumer-facing brands helps – they are fast-changing and can turn on a sixpence, as some of the commitments to reducing plastic use have shown. NGOs also use praise to play companies off against one another; a common tactic used is to get at least one brand to sign up to its demands before launching a campaign. They also like ‘prodigal sons’, it seems. “Curiously, companies that make changes before NGOs have pressured them tend to earn less praise, or it is more muted,” says Blood. 

Companies now realise that they ignore NGOs at their peril. “Consumer brands have learned to take NGO arguments very seriously and try, where possible, to anticipate issues, rather than wait for them to blow up in their faces,” says Blood. 


Most criticised companies

Kinder Morgan
TransCanada
World Bank
Monsanto
Enbridge
Royal Dutch Shell
Nestlé
JP Morgan Chase
Essity
Coca-Cola

Most praised companies

Unilever
Aldi
H&M
Nestlé
BNP Paribas
Marks & Spencer
AXA
McDonald’s
Signet Jewellers
Lidl

David Burrows is a freelance journalist

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