What’s behind the current wave of ‘corporate activism’?

D. Ross Cameron / EPA

What’s behind the current wave of ‘corporate activism’?

Recent years have witnessed the emergence of what appears to be a new breed of business person: the corporate activist. Hardly a week goes past without the head of some blue chip or other publicly agitating for a better world, be they Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, speaking out on the environment and LGBTQI+ rights, or Starbucks founder Howard Schultz bemoaning “the violence, hatred, and empowerment of white supremacists” at a nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review even offered a “CEO activist’s playbook” as a “guide for leaders who are deciding whether to speak out and how”.

A closely allied trend is so-called “brand activism” in which businesses launch carefully designed “social good” campaigns aimed at building awareness about a particular issue while also promoting a positive corporate message. Recent high-profile cases include outdoor clothing firm Patagonia’s “The President Stole Your Land” campaign to protect national parks in the US, or Nike’s adverts featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who first knelt during the national anthem to highlight racial injustice.

You might be forgiven for dismissing all this as merely the latest examples of cynical rebranding, all of a piece with the worst examples of greenwash cooked up by boardroom executives and slick marketing consultants to peddle more “politically correct” products to the gullible while boosting shareholder value.

But perhaps this time we need to look a little closer. More than ever, the customary dividing lines between activism and business are blurring, as the corporate world, driven by millennials in management positions, becomes a force for fighting for social and environmental issues.

So, what’s causing this new phenomenon?

1. Donald Trump

It’s all-too tempting to blame the 45th president of the US and his divisive policies for provoking the corporate world – often his target during his 2016 election rallies – to find a conscience and start speaking up for what they feel is right. Indeed, Trump’s failure to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazis prompted not just Starbucks but the head honchos at General Motors, JP Morgan and Walmart to speak out.

However, big business has been on the defensive since the 2008 global recession as populist, nativist politicians have blamed it for the world’s ills – which makes it all the more crucial for companies to secure a moral high ground. Staying out of politics is no longer an option for the corporate world, even if its tactics can sometimes clash with strategies to optimise profits.

2. Loss of public space

In times gone, protesters would instinctively take to streets to air their grievances and champion change with the Occupy movement and Arab Spring protests being well-known examples. But as public space is increasingly privatised, monitored and secured with ever more powerful military-style policing, activists are being forced off the streets. If their voice can’t be heard there, new venues must be identified and exploited. And that includes the workplace, where activist employees now settle to struggle.

Occupy protesters ended up on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as it is a rare public space in the City of London. Dominic Lipinski/PA

3. New technology

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms allow people to reach an audience that would have been unimaginable a mere decade ago. No longer are the means of mass communication wholly controlled by a select group of powerful state and private interests. And, as these potent tools often enable anonymous communication, company employees can be as active with their resistance as the “die-hard” NGO activist. More like whistleblowers than advocates.

4. We’re at work more often

Since proper activism needs time, what happens as we spend more and more time at work? A recent study in the US found that those in higher-paid professions were more likely to clock in longer hours, with 30% of management and legal workers putting in 45 hours every week. In the UK it’s a similar story – many parents now work the equivalent of an extra day every week beyond their contract.

In truth, it’s probably worse than that as few of us can resist checking work emails on our phones outside office hours – we’re voluntarily on-call 24-7. With so much time at work, is it any wonder that activism, and expressions of personal politics, need to be logistically squeezed in there?


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If 21st-century corporate activism actually changes anything, it will be thanks to those who Stanford University professor Debra Meyerson calls “tempered radicals”. These are people “who want to succeed in their organisations yet want to live by their values or identities, even if they are somehow at odds with the dominant culture of their organisations”.

Many of these former activists now occupy positions within enterprising organisations. They may be viewed with suspicion from both outside and within the business world, but nevertheless they might quietly be changing society.