As with all good activists, Mihela Hladin loves a good fight. At present, she is throwing her energies into protecting Iceland’s wild salmon from open net fish farms. In the recent past, it was dams in the Balkans. Conservationism runs in her blood. Her grandmother was a subsistence smallholder in Slovenia; her mother an environmental engineer who dedicated her career to trying to clean up the country’s coal-dependent power sector.
“Where I grew up was the third largest area for brown coal in Europe . . . we had these beautiful blue lakes but they had no fish because they [the mining companies] were depositing coal ash in them,” recalls Ms Hladin.
Yet, oddly for someone of her convictions, she chose not to join a campaign organisation, but opted instead for a job in the world of high-street retail. As European director of environmental initiatives for the outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, Ms Hladin is one of a growing cohort of what might be termed “corporate activists”.
The decision to swap banners for briefcases implies a willingness to put pragmatism above ideology. What motivates the likes of Ms Hladin is bringing about positive change; how and where she does so is of secondary importance.
A significant appeal of the private sector for activist-minded changemakers is access to resources. Compared with cash-strapped charities, corporations have deep pockets to dip into (should they wish to). Patagonia, for instance, says it has donated more than $105m to environmental groups over the years.
More than cash, however, activists such as Ms Hladin are attracted to the public platform that brands provide. As she notes: “If you have millions and millions of customers, you can use their voices to make real changes in the world.”
Take Artifishal, a new documentary produced by Patagonia, highlighting the alleged threat of fish hatcheries to wild fish stocks. The film’s online trailer clocked up more than 1.4m views in the first 24 hours after release. Using brand power for campaigning also drew Jessie Macneil-Brown to the private sector. As head of global activism at cosmetics retailer The Body Shop, she has helped to develop brand-led campaigns on everything from sex trafficking to rewilding.
Last year, for example, the company garnered 8m signatures worldwide for its petition calling for an end to animal testing across the cosmetics industry. “We have a huge communications platform. There is no NGO [non-governmental organisation] I know of that has that kind of reach,” says Ms Macneil-Brown, who previously worked as a global campaigns manager at Amnesty International.
Even at The Body Shop, Ms Macneil-Brown admits to facing pushback. To win over the sceptics, she draws on her background as a marketing executive at cosmetics group L’Oreal to show that she understands how the retail game works. “Lots of people don’t really get my job. They see me as a ‘do gooder’. So using my knowledge of retail really helps, especially if I can show how what I do feeds into sales,” she says.
Marketing is not the only draw for this new breed of corporate activist. What lies behind the brand is important too. Do its products contain polluting chemicals? Does it underpay its overseas workers? To resolve such questions, it is better to have a seat at the table than lob a stone through the window, in-house activists believe.
This reasoning led Katie Fergusson to join diamond mining group De Beers. A masters graduate in gender and development, she has used her role as head of social impact to spearhead an alliance with UN Women. The partnership has so far seen her employer give $3m to the UN body to support female entrepreneurship in southern Africa, plus additional support for a number of education initiatives aimed at young girls.
“By embedding gender equality throughout the organisation, we’re able to draw on the considerable resources of various parts of the group to support this work,” Ms Fergusson states.
This idea of size and influence matters to corporate activists. To paraphrase a remark by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard in his book The Responsible Company: companies that do harm on an industrial scale can also effect change by making industrial-scale improvements.
For many in the activist community, however, some sectors lie beyond the pale. Anyone who thinks they can change an oil major or a Wall Street investment bank from within is “delusional”, says Deborah Doane, partner at human rights charity Rights CoLab. Although she rejects the “black and white” idea of “companies bad, charities good”, she still urges her fellow activists to retain a “healthy scepticism” of big business.
Her advice? “Think about what the industries of the future will be that have the potential to make positive contributions to society, and which are aligned with your values.” Speed of change might be added to the list as well. Large corporations can be slow to alter course. Some activists are happy to play the long game, but many are less patient. As a consequence, some choose to join smaller, often explicitly ethical, companies.
One example is Tony’s Chocolonely. This fast-growing Dutch chocolate manufacturer was set up by investigative journalist Teun van de Keuken after he learnt about labour abuses in the cocoa industry. All the brand’s chocolate bars are labelled as “Together we make chocolate 100% slave-free”.
Having an activist agenda from the outset acts as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, according to Henk Jan Beltman, the brand’s majority owner and CCO (chief chocolate officer). “We have 120 people in the company, all of whom are fired up on our mission,” he states. “If they are not, then they are gone pretty quickly.”
Responsibility for pushing the brand’s campaign message falls to about a dozen people, split between communications and what Chocolonely refers to as its “impact” division. Their profiles are “very similar” to professionals working in the campaign sector, says Mr Beltman: “The only difference is that we are actually working in the cocoa value chain and an NGO acts as an adviser to us.”
Chocolonely is illustrative of a rising number of mission-minded organisations dedicated to achieving social or environmental outcomes through the market, rather than political or civic action. Joining such a “social enterprise” challenges the image of the corporate activist as a lone voice in a hostile world. But even in mainstream businesses, employees in general are getting a taste for collective direct action.
In June 2018, for example, more than 100 staff at Microsoft wrote an open letter to their employer calling for it to end its contract with the US immigration service after the child-separation scandal on the US-Mexico border. Amazon and Google have witnessed similar employee-led protests.
Gib Bulloch, author of The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent, compares such employee activism to the work of trade unions, only with a focus on human rights rather than just workers’ rights. “We are starting to see employee interest groups emerging around specific issues and then forcing the hand of companies,” he notes.
Corporate activism, either on an individual or collective basis, remains the exception, however. The door may be swinging open in politicised brands such as Patagonia and The Body Shop, but most employers still prefer their employees to arrive with briefcases, rather than banners.