Radical activism has a role in speeding up corporate change
Activism is traditionally seen as the enemy of business but early grassroots campaigns helped shape valuable partnerships
1st February 2013
Large businesses and governments often regard radical activists as a nuisance, a threat or an outright enemy. I've worked with both sides and the feeling is entirely mutual. But what both sides rarely recognise is this conflict can catalyse the positive and lasting change that would be slow or impossible to achieve otherwise.
Given the fascination that management theorists have with change, it is strange how little recognition is given to the value of outside agitation as an opportunity for organisational change.
B&Q is one example of a company that accepted that challenge. Back in 1990, I was working for the London Rainforest Action Group on a national protest campaign against the DIY giant for its sale of rainforest timber. I was somewhat surprised to get a phone call from Alan Knight, B&Q's sustainability director, asking to meet.
As a young grassroots campaigner it was somewhat disconcerting to have a director of a vast timber retailer sitting in the saggy chair of my pokey bedsit talking about his deep commitment to the environment. He was hardly happy about the protests – in fact he seemed thoroughly pissed off about them – but at least we had found some common ground and opened communications.
We escalated our protests and pestered the hell out of the directors of B&Q and a few months later, Friends of the Earth joined in and started turning up outside B&Q's stores all over the country with banners and a five-metre long inflatable chainsaw.
Alan, to his credit, seized the opportunity. He shared the photos, press cuttings and customer complaints with the board of directors, using the campaigners to support his argument that B&Q should lead the DIY sector in environmental procurement. Years later, I found out that our tatty leaflets had found their way into Powerpoint presentations he gave to senior timber traders.
By then the banners and polite leafleting seemed rather quaint and the forest campaign was adopting far more confrontational direct action tactics: occupying timber ships and company offices, blockading timber yards, and raiding high profile retailers such as Harrods for illegally logged mahogany products.
Some companies braved it out. When Timbmet, the largest tropical timber wholesaler in southern England, was occupied and closed down it strongly defended itself in the media. When its Oxford yard was occupied a second time, activists found stacks of Alerce, a Chilean timber species so critically threatened that its trade had been expressly banned by the Convention in the Trade in Endangered Species. The experience generated intense debate within the company and within five years it had become one of the largest specialist suppliers of environmentally certified timbers in Britain. Now, 20 years on, two thirds of the timbers it sells are independently certified.
Like Knight, Francis Sullivan, then head of the forest campaign for WWF (now lead sustainability adviser to HSBC), saw the strategic opportunity that activist campaigns offered to generate change. Immediately after each protest, WWF would move in on the shell shocked company and suggest that they work together to source their timbers from sustainable sources – a comforting pen from the rabid sheep dogs. The number of companies in the pen grew rapidly and generated the initial market demand that led to the formation of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
This is certainly not to suggest that grassroots activists were taking direct action and getting arrested in support of WWF's business-friendly reformism. The radical campaign was not seeking to reform the tropical timber trade – it didn't really want a trade at all and was deeply ambivalent about the FSC. Nor was WWF adopting a business friendly position as a front for an anti-capitalist agenda. Instead, a spectrum of different players saw it in their interest to push in the same direction while maintaining their independence and different tactical approaches.
Radical activists needed someone to work out the logistics of change and more mainstream environmental organisations and internal advocates needed them to inject energy and urgency into campaigns and generate pressure.
Senior management in businesses and governments need a sharp poke to think about change. In 2008, Ed Miliband, then environment minister, called for more pressure on climate change. He said: "Political change comes from leadership and popular mobilisation. And you need both of them [to make climate change a priority] ... Maybe it's an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there's a real opportunity and a need here". Not odd, I suggest, just unusually honest and perceptive.
It is important to stress that change did not come from compromise or conflict resolution – the initial conflict was vital. Campaigns can easily falter or collapse when are dominated by reformers who block out those snapping sheepdogs.
Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol recently published a damning critique of the failed 2010 campaign to push through a climate change bill in the US senate. Mainstream environmental organisations had been so concerned with their credibility that they had made excessive concessions to energy and oil companies and alienated the grassroots activists, she said. Meanwhile, opponents such as the billionaire Koch Brothers, funded their own grassroots resistance in the Tea Party that actually swayed senate votes. Progressives wrote the campaign text book but the right wing showed that it had read it, absorbed it and now understood it better.
Years on, with less hair and a family to keep, I advise governments and companies on public engagement and struggle first hand with that inertia and conservatism that plagues large institutions. Agitation, occupations, pickets and lock-ons? Bring them on. Then I'll have something to wave under the noses of my clients and say: "Look! This is a chance to do so the things you really need to do."
George Marshall is the founder and programme director of the Climate Outreach Information Network
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