It’s Time to Study how Corporate Targets Influence Activists

By Brayden King

Social movement activists have numerous goals in mind when they choose a particular corporate target, including implementing a specific policy change, changing the norms or standards of an industry, and drawing attention to their cause. Choosing the optimal target can affect the activists’ abilities to accomplish these goals. As demonstrated through research by Tim Bartley and Curtis Child on anti-sweatshop campaigns and by Mary-Hunter McDonnell and myself on boycotts, activists do not choose corporate targets randomly. They frequently go after the largest, most dominant, and most prestigious companies in their respective industries.

For example, when human rights activists took on companies that used sweatshops in their production process in the 1990s, much of their attention went to Nike, which at that time was one of the most profitable and high profile athletic apparel companies in the world. Nike’s dominance of their market made them an attractive target – not because they were the only athletic apparel company to employ sweatshop labor, but because their reputation and size meant that they were a visible target that would generate a lot of media attention for the movement. Any negative media attention created by human rights activists would put the company’s reputation in peril and lead its executives to defend it, even if this meant negotiating with activists.

The negative publicity created by anti-sweatshop protests and boycotts on college campuses in the 1990s instigated a reputational crisis for Nike and forced Phil Knight and other Nike executives to take the activists’ demands seriously. In the years that followed, Nike began to change its image and internal culture by being one of the first companies in the athletic apparel industry to adopt tougher labor standards and seeking to get rid of sweatshop conditions in their supply chain. Because of Nike’s prestige and market position, it’s not surprising that other apparel firms followed their example and the norms of the industry began to change.

Although the athletic apparel industry still has significant labor problems (as does every other apparel industry), it’s clear that human rights activists were influential in improving those standards. It’s also clear, in retrospect, that choosing to target Nike was a successful strategy for activists.

Unfortunately, we know far less about the consequences of this strategy on the activists themselves. Activists who have sought to target companies are not immune from the influence of the very companies they seek to change. Once activists are successful in generating influence with a company, they often develop relationships with those companies. From the corporation’s perspective, they would like to avoid the activist’s spotlight in the future, and so they will often reach out to former activist adversaries and seek their advice in setting new standards. In some cases, this relationship turns into a partnership. Activists consult the company in its ongoing efforts to become a better corporate citizen. In some instances, companies have hired former activists to work as internal champions for social/environmental issues or as corporate citizenship officers. From the activists perspective, going into a partnership with a former target is a form of success inasmuch as it indicates that they now have a seat at the table with a powerful player. The willingness of corporate executives to engage with activists is a form of inclusion that activists rarely receive in government institutions.

Some of this partnering can lead to very positive outcomes. In a recent paper published in the American Sociological Review, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, Sarah Soule, and I show that companies that have been frequently targeted by boycotts and shareholder activists are more likely to adopt “corporate social responsibility” committees and issue CSR reports. Companies that adopt these initiatives, which are initially meant to defend themselves from future activist targeting, actually become more open and receptive to activists in the future. Even if adopting a CSR committee or issuing a CSR report was initially intended as a defensive measure, adopting them establishes a relationship with activists that has a long-term impact on the company’s culture.

But how does increased receptivity influence the activists themselves? To what extent is receptivity leading to co-optation? These are pressing questions that face movement scholars who care about movement-target interactions. So far, we have a lot of anecdotal evidence that companies seek to exert their influence over their activist partners. Consider, for example, the evidence compiled in Peter Dauvergne’s and Genevieve Lebaron’s Protest Inc. or in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Both books depict the environmental movement as being corrupted by the money and access that flows from the corporate world. The Nature Conservancy – one of the most prominent NGOs in the conservation wing of the environmental movement – has all but become a subsidiary of the fossil fuel companies it has partnered with to create land preserves. Although they may initially have been bought with the intention of keeping oil and gas companies off precious habitats, many of these preserves are being loaned out for drilling. In talking to people who work for the Nature Conservancy, I was surprised to find out how many of them don’t actually think of themselves as activists at all. Instead, many of these MBA-trained do-gooders have fully embraced the idea that helping companies make a profit by exploiting natural resources and saving the environment can go hand-in-hand. Even if they are right, it’s not clear who in the Nature Conservancy is charged with keeping their priorities straight or if they have merely swallowed the market ideology wholesale.

If the Nature Conservancy was the only environmentalist group to have succumbed to the monetary influence of corporations, we could call it an anomaly, but as Naomi Klein points out, this form of funding is becoming extremely common in the movement. Besides the Nature Conservancy, she claims that Conservation International, Conservation Fund, World Wildlife Fund, World Resources Institute all accept money from petroleum firms and other corporations. Even the Sierra Club is in on the game, receiving funding from Clorox for helping to market its “green” cleaning products. Although it would be unfair to say that taking money from corporations always leads to influence, it would be naïve to think that it never does. This logic is the main reason that Greenpeace refuses to accept any type of corporate funding.

My point is not to say that the environmental movement has become wholly corrupted by corporations, but rather it is to point out that now is the time for social movement scholars to begin our own inquiries into the effects of this growing relationship between business and social movements. I want to reemphasize that the relationships between movements and businesses have clearly enabled significant changes that have broad effects on society. Corporations, after all, are more flexible that government institutions and can change their policies to meet movement’s demands relatively quickly. For instance, many Fortune 500 firms supported LGBT issues long before state or federal governments did, and Fortune 500 firms have been more progressive on specific LGBT issues than the majority of the American public. It is hard to imagine how this would have happened without meaningful partnerships between the LGBT movement and corporations. At the same time, the deeper these relationships become, the more likely it is that the influence will run both ways. Social movements are, as we’ve come to know through years of studying them, highly dependent on resources for mobilizing collective action and change. How movements evolve certainly depends on where those resources come from.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Protestors and their Targets

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