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Corporate Activism: An Analysis of Three Case Studies

The year 2020 has seen a climax of corporate activism activities, spanning from companies releasing statements pertaining to the Black Lives Matter movement, companies using promotional dollars to urge Americans to vote, to companies taking legal action against the President in support of social/environmental causes. At the same time, political division and public scrutiny of companies’ words and actions is more acute than ever. It’s muddy waters when it comes to deciphering if, when, and how to engage in activism as a business.

Below are three examples that showcase some methods in which companies have approached corporate activism; these examples provide some insight into the considerations that any company should take when evaluating how to position itself in political matters

Ben & Jerry’s Stance on Black Lives Matter

Mission Statement: “Manage our Company for sustainable financial growth; use our Company in innovative ways to make the world a better place; and make fantastic ice cream – for its own sake.”

Company Background: Ben and Jerry’s was founded in 1978 as an entrepreneurial venture between two friends. The vision was humble – it was not to become a billion-dollar brand, and it was not to change the world. It was simply to create a food company that generated ‘linked prosperity’ for its people, community, and environment (this mission was officially defined in 1988). But the founders’ own proclivity for activism became entwined in the company’s culture as well. The ice cream tubs themselves became a medium through which Ben and Jerry’s could propagate campaigns, from Rainforest Crunch (promoting rainforest preservation) to Justice ReMix’d (promoting racial justice) and countless others. These campaigns were not without controversy as each ‘flavor’ generated reactions from both sides of the agenda, but Ben and Jerry’s has held firm on the causes it promotes.

Activism Approach: Ben & Jerry’s is often regarded as the highest standard of corporate activism. When considering that activism is baked into the company’s culture, this is not surprising. In fact, there is an entire team dedicated to activism efforts. Though publicizing support for the BLM movement became fairly mainstream for companies in 2020, Ben and Jerry’s shared a longer history with BLM activism spanning back to their first BLM statement in 2016.

Main Takeaway: Activism is a key facet of Ben and Jerry’s culture, not for one specific issue but rather for the act itself to generate worldwide change. Ben and Jerry’s is unapologetic about their beliefs and stances as they recognize that activism inherently is divisive – there are two sides to any issue, and it is impossible to please both. As a company, Ben and Jerry’s has embraced this fact and has held strong in its core beliefs.

Patagonia “Vote the A**holes Out” Shorts

Mission Statement: “We’re in business to save our home planet.”

Company Background: Patagonia was founded in 1973 as a way for founder Yvon Chouinard to fund his passion for rock climbing. Somewhat ironically, Chouinard saw rock climbing as a sort of rebellion against consumer culture, as it was an activity that “had no economic value in society.” As the company grew, it developed an increased awareness of the environmental crisis which threatened the very basis on which Patagonia was founded. One of Patagonia’s earliest activist engagements was providing office space and materials for Mark Capelli, a 25-year old biology student who fought against a development plan on the Ventura River. Since then, the company’s activism has only grown, and has even led to Patagonia levying several lawsuits against President Trump in protest of his decision to reduce the size of two national monuments – Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante – in Utah.

Activism Approach: One example of Patagonia’s activism that became a viral sensation was the release of a pair of shorts with a bold statement on the inner tag: “Vote the A**holes Out.” Interestingly, the company did not make any public announcements for this product release, but rather allowed the customers to uncover the label for themselves. The power of social media quickly took over from there, and the shorts sold out within a week. The shorts spark many questions, among which, who are the ‘a**holes?’ The answer is well-known to anyone who has worked at Patagonia, as the same phrase has often been uttered by Chouinard in internal meetings and memos, referring to any politicians that were climate-change deniers. Though Chouinard and other senior leadership at Patagonia were not aware that the shorts had been created until after-the-fact, the product design team felt empowered to release the shorts since the phrase had become a mantra of Patagonia’s activism.

Main Takeaway: Patagonia’s involvement in environmental activism is quite rational when considering that climate change is a direct threat to the company’s mission. A quote from Chouinard exemplifies Patagonia’s stance on activism: “If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that things aren’t going very well for the planet. It’s pretty easy to get depressed about it. I’ve always known that the cure for depression is action.”

Coinbase (lack of) Stance on Black Lives Matter

Mission Statement: “To create an open financial system for the world. An open financial system is one that is not controlled by any one country or company (just like the internet did for distributing information). We think this is the highest leverage way to bring about more economic freedom, innovation, efficiency, and equality of opportunity in the world.”

Company Background: Founded in 2012, Coinbase’s story is one of extraordinary growth – in under eight years, the company has become valued at over $8 billion and made 10 acquisitions. From the start, the company could be described as mission-driven – having seen first-hand the complexity, bureaucracy, and inefficiency of the traditional financial system, founder and CEO Brian Armstrong desired to build a different kind of financial marketplace, that is transparent and fair.

Activism Approach: Coinbase came into the public spotlight in late September, after employees threatened to stage a walkout over the company’s refusal to put out a formal Black Lives Matter statement. In an open letter, Armstrong explained the rationale, choosing to focus on mission versus activism as a way to make change in the world. To further support the stance, Armstrong explains, “We don’t engage [in issues that are] unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” Rather than “distract” the workforce with divisive politics, Armstrong prefers to keep united under a common understanding that “even if we all agree something is a problem, we may not all agree on the solution.”

Corporate Activism Insights

  1. Tend your own house first: The most common pitfall for companies engaging in activism is the public backlash for putting words before actions. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, consumers and media were quick to point out the racial inequities in companies’ own executive boards, supply chains, and marketing. Patagonia’s position is an example of the right way to approach different types of issues: in the sphere of environmentalism, Patagonia has taken a very external-facing, activist stance. Regarding issues of racial justice/equity, however, Patagonia has taken a more internal-facing perspective. Acknowledging that it has much room for improvement as a company, Patagonia does not impose declarations for change onto its peers in the business community or to anyone else, but rather states: “Talk is cheap. In the months ahead, we’ll share our progress so that we can be held accountable.”
  2. Where activism is a no-brainer: For some companies, certain social issues will fall directly in the crosshairs of its corporate mission. For companies considering engaging in activism, this is the most straightforward case for taking a stance. Patagonia, again, is a great example. For a company that is in the business of protecting the planet, environmental issues are a direct threat to that cause. For most companies, however, many social issues fall somewhat outside of that clear-cut distinction. This is where the third insight can be beneficial:
  3. The difference between activism and responsibility: For companies considering whether or not to engage in corporate activism, it’s important to remember that there are different ways to address social issues. Activism is an inherently external approach to addressing issues. Corporate responsibility, on the other hand, is internal, and may be a more appropriate (and in some cases, absolutely essential) way for companies to engage in some issues. Consider Coinbase, for example. While the company has refrained from becoming involved in racial matters from an external perspective, it has acknowledged its responsibility to create “incredible job opportunities and a welcoming environment for people of every age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.”

There is no simple playbook for companies planning to engage in corporate activism. For those wishing to start from a place of self-evaluation and improvement, Clarkston can offer support. Reach out to our team of diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants for more information.

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Tags: Organizational Health, Corporate Social Responsibility