What Effects Have Activism and Advocacy Had on Corporate Sustainability?

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Activism and advocacy are often lumped together under the same umbrella when it comes to economic, social and environmental change. However, the two terms mean something different and have different effects on how we do business.

The connotation of the word activist can often be viewed negatively — for many, the image of a loud, angry protestor comes to mind. However, that is not necessarily the image of activism. The difference between activism and advocacy can be found in the words themselves. An activist is someone who acts to make change. It is someone who actively runs or works within a project which aims to create a difference in the economy, in society or in our environment. An advocate is someone who supports a particular cause but who does not necessarily take tangible actions to inciting change.

Both are as important as each other.

In order to make a difference, activists need the support of advocates. The change incited by these two groups of people working together is something we have seen in business.

Firstly, let’s look at activists within the corporate world. I would argue that Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, is not just an advocate — he is an activist. He makes real change within his business to achieve a sustainable future. He also requires other businesses make change through leveraging the supply chain.

Sustainable development activists within the corporate world are executives who push the boundaries, set new standards of responsible business and require their suppliers to adhere to these standards. They may not be on the street holding signs and chanting, but they are activists nonetheless, making tangible changes to our society.

Then there are activists who are not operating in the corporate world. They are the people who call attention to global atrocities and ask tough questions of business. One of the most famous examples of this was the blood diamond trade and the passing of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1295 which halted blood diamond trade internationally. This then led to a series of conferences over the course of the early 2000s where a series of checks and balances were implemented to ensure consumers would feel comfortable in buying diamonds without the fear of funding war and insurgency efforts through their purchases.

There have been countless other similar instances which have led to a major change in an industry through the work of activists. It is important to note, additionally, the voice of advocates in this process. Without advocates, the message would not spread as quickly or as widely. Advocacy is a process which has become far easier in recent years through social media. Whether it be a share, a repost or a retweet, advocates can be empowered through what is known as slacktivism, the act of being involved in advocacy without even needing to leave the couch.

Activism and advocacy has also effected business through users boycotting certain brands. In recent years, Choice pushed for consumers to boycott buying bad eggs, which were eggs labelled as free range even though they did not meet certain standards. The boycott garnered such widespread support that there was a noticeable increase in free range eggs from smaller and boutique farmers, with one company reporting a 100% increase in demand in just five months.

As consumers become more aware and channels to spread the message become more accessible, companies are facing more pressure to meet consumer demands when it comes to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

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This article was originally published on the Strategic Sustainability Consultants website.

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