Campaign groups will need to evolve their approach

So Greenpeace is going after Tesco for having tiny amounts of tinned beef in their stores linked to Amazon destruction.

Meanwhile War on Want is attempting to use the Olympics to use Adidas’s Assocation with athletes to highlight the face that poor conditions for workers exist across global supply chains.

Other campaigners have been using the forthcoming London Olympics as a platform to campaign against Dow Chemical. This is because they own Union Carbide, the company that caused the Bhopal disaster in 1984.

There’s a lot going on right now.

There are some busy campaign groups out there and lots of cynical opportunism rearing its ugly head.

Tesco undoubtedly wants no assocation whatsoever with Amazon forest destruction.

When the Greenpeace campaign launched the company (it says) was already phasing out the Brazilian beef supplier guilty of supplying tinned beef farmed in areas related to deforestation.

Adidas, for at least the last decade, has done as much as any large brand to protect workers in the supply chain.

That’s not to say these two companies are perfect but they are clearly are working hard to bring their suppliers up to speed on sustainability/corporate responsibility standards.

Brands not really the target

The real target of Greenpeace and War on Want of course, is the suppliers to Tesco and Adidas.

It is they who can prevent deforestation in the beef supply chain and improve working conditions in factories using smarter business thinking and improved management.

But these brands don’t have yet, the reputation concerns that campaigners know Tesco and Adidas are obliged to take seriously. They are unlikely to anytime soon, at least not to the same level.

So the campaigners go after the brands who buy tiny amounts of product (in Tesco’s case) or who are working hard on improvements (Adidas) because they know it will gain them headlines and push the companies to “do more”.

Campaigners not immune from over-reaching

But what happens when their claims begin to lack credibility? Consumers and even some sections of the media are increasingly educated about environmental issues and working conditions.

I’m wondering how effective and appropriate it is for campaigner objectives to go after companies in the way Tesco and Adidas have just been targeted.

What does War on Want and Greenpeace hope to achieve with such relatively tenuous links between brands and global issues highlighted in the media? Is it helpful to bash companies who already “get it” and are working hard to maintain and spread better supply chains standards?

When readers of the media coverage see the evidence, and the company responses, this only serves, in cases like these, to make the campaigners look either ideological or desperate. Neither of these are helpful for achieving objectives.

There’s a better way to go here. If the problem is the supply chain (and it mostly is) then the targets should be the suppliers more directly.

But War on Want and Greenpeace know that they carry less weight, a lot less, with most big brand suppliers, so they go after who they can: the brands who the media will write about at the drop of a hat, or more accurately, the release of a slightly dubious press statement or report.

But when the messages become so tenuous, as in these two current cases, the campaign groups must tread more carefully. Their only weapon is their credibility that secures them donations and media coverage. When credibility is weakened, they have a problem. Potentially a serious one in the long term.

Beyond the partnership/opponent debate

A campaigner/corporate partnership is not the solution here. Campaigners should stick to their core business. They don’t do partnerships well, and shouldn’t try.

(Big business would not trust War on Want anyhow. Although relationships can be built with Greenpeace, they can easily founder and are at best regionally focused)

So if a business/campaigner joint effort can’t work, what can?

My view is that campaigners must take a twofold approach when seeking to maintain “issue” awareness when serious evidence of brand mis-behavior is lacking (and this looks to increasingly be the case in the next five-then years).

Firstly, they must choose their battles more wisely. Better to stay quiet than to say something that lacks, and can detract from, credibility. A good campaigning strategy on issues such as deforestation or working conditions will recognize that the “war” is a long one, and there will undoubtedly be opportunities to highlight real problems which brands can genuinely help to fix sooner rather than later.

Crowbarring tenuous brand references into a campaign they feel needs to be maintained is not a long term tactic that will last.

Secondly, campaigners will need to become much more solutions-focused. We’ve seen that this is beginning to happen in the latest five years.

Labour standards campaign groups have focused on a living wage whilst campaigners such as Greenpeace have worked with Nestle and partnership NGOs to help solve supply chain deforestation But there’s much more to be done here by the campaign groups.

A third way?

There’s no reason that they couldn’t both campaign publicly against genuine evidence of a lack of brand involvement with tackling issues such as deforestation or poor working working conditions, whilst pointing out privately to large companies that solutions to supplier inefficiency (more often the problem than a desire to exploit workers or rip out forest) do exist and can be worked on in partnership with suppliers.

This approach of course, relies on campaign groups such as War on Want and Greenpeace actually having some insight to bring to the table which can drive supplier efficiency and better management via big brand encouragement.

Greenpeace are aware of this, and claim they often point to science-based solutions. But they probably need to do more. War on want, and others, focus on areas such as living wages and trade unions. This is fine, but too narrow in the long term.

They are not alone. Many campaigning NGOs currently lack capacity to be as practical as they might be. And no doubt some desire.

But if campaign groups want onto drive genuine change, and yet cannot use a partnership model to do so, offering behind-the-scenes tips on supplier efficiency based on their ‘on the ground’ knowledge and local connections, where they exist, is the only way they will drive sustainable social/environmental progress in corporate supply chains.

Campaigners will need to think hard and deeply about how they can contribute to offering more solutions than they currently do, whilst campaigning in their traditional way at the appropriate times.

That does not make them corporate partners.

One does not have to be friendly in order to be practical.

As corporate practices, policies and targets improve, running campaigns against brands where there is obviously little connection between the company and solving the problem at hand is going to appear ever more dubious, and have ever more unhelpful results for everyone involved, including both the environment and workers in the supplier factories and farms world-wide.

Can campaign groups grow up, and assume this dual role effectively?

There is some hope. There’s also a very long way to go.

1 Comment

  1. Bil Royce

    Toby, I have found from recent experience with a major global corporation and an industry alliance trying to work with Greenpeace on a long-term supply chain transformation. We've encountered exactly this problem: well-meaning and well-informed campaigning, even with a good evidence base, only goes so far unless the NGO can bring policy and scientific insights, better understanding of business processes and practices, and an ability to help find practical solutions and valuable connections to innovators or entrepreneurs who can accelerate R&D&D.

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