Under pressure: Campaigns that persuaded companies to change the world | Guardian of sustainable business

HHard-hitting activist campaigns against big business have become part of the sustainability landscape. Some change the world. Some change little. Telling the difference between one and the other is not easy.

Consider this example of a victory that’s less than it seemed at the time: When the Breast Cancer Fund accused Revlon of using cancer-linked chemicals in its cosmetics, the company called the accusations of “false and defamatory”, demanded a retraction and threatened to sue.

Instead, last month Revlon released an ingredients policy for the first time. The activists declared victory. “This is now one of the most comprehensive cosmetic safety policies out there,” says Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund. Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group, who also campaigned against Revlon, says, “They’re definitely a leader.”

So what happened? Not much, according to Revlon. The company has reformulated some products to remove some chemicals of concern – long-chain parabens and DMDM ​​Hydantoin and Quaternium-15, which release tiny amounts of formaldehyde – but the company says the process was well underway before start talking with the Breast Cancer Fund.

“It was happening,” says Alexandra Gerber, vice president and assistant general counsel. “Corn [the critics] helped us realize how bad a job we had done to get the message across. The change was only transparency.

Transparency is important – without it, buyers of shampoo and nail polish cannot make informed choices or avoid potential allergens. But Revlon and Food and Drug Administration regulators say its products, including those using the disputed ingredients, are safe and always have been.

Then there are game-changing battles, like the decade-long campaign by green groups against Indonesia-based Asia Pulp & Paper. In 2013, AP&P, as it is known, committed to a no-deforestation policy. It went further last spring, promising to restore 1 million hectares of natural forest and other ecosystems in Indonesia, where it is the largest forest products company.

AP&P’s efforts are monitored by respected NGOs Rainforest Alliance and The Forest Trust. The Indonesian company’s efforts have been cautiously hailed by Greenpeace and WWF. Rhett Butler, founder of mongabay.com and forestry expert, says: “The paper products giant could abandon the status quo for a very different approach – one that could change the way forests are managed around the world.

So far, the signs are encouraging. Following AP&P’s pledges, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (April), Indonesia’s second-largest paper company, pledged to stop pulping the country’s natural forests. US food giant Cargill and Singapore-based Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, have also made no-deforestation pledges. At the UN Climate Summit last September, more than 150 governments, businesses and non-profit organizations signed the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to do their part to halve global deforestation. by 2020 and end it by 2030.

“I think we got the ball rolling,” says Aida Greenbury, sustainability director at Asia Pulp & Paper. “If we can deliver, other companies can too.”

If Revlon’s turnaround was mostly cosmetic (pun intended) and AP&P’s commitments were a game-changer, what can we learn from NGO campaigns targeting big brands? Some produce little more than press releases, intended to garner attention and funding from activists. Others have triggered significant changes. Here is an admittedly subjective sampling, ranging from the important to the insignificant.

In 1998, Nike CEO Phil Knight said, “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse.” Photography: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Nike

It was the ancestor of all militant campaigns. Throughout the 1990s, Nike was targeted by labor activists, campus organizers and anti-globalization forces for allowing its suppliers in poor countries to abuse and exploit workers.

At first, Nike said it couldn’t be responsible for conditions in factories it didn’t own. Protests and media reports increased. In 1996, Life magazine ran an article titled “Six Cents an Hour”, featuring a photo of a Pakistani boy sewing Nike soccer balls.

Then-CEO Phil Knight promised reform in a 1998 speech. “The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime and arbitrary abuse,” he said. “I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made under abusive conditions.”

It was slow in coming, but Nike eventually implemented an extensive and costly system to monitor and address factory conditions in its supply chain – and the rest of the footwear and apparel industry. followed.

Today, Nike is a leader in corporate sustainability. “Our greatest responsibility as a global company,” he says, “is to play a role in bringing about positive, systemic change for workers within our supply chain and in the industry.” On the website of the Fair Labor Association, a coalition of brands, universities and NGOs, Nike publishes public inspection reports of its contract factories.

Some factories in poor countries continue to abuse workers, of course, but the Nike campaign has transformed the debate about who is responsible and how to make improvements.

Kimberly Clark

For five years, Greenpeace campaigned against Kimberly Clark, which makes Kleenex, Scott tissues, Huggies and Pull-Ups, accusing the company of destroying ancient forests for disposable products.

When they made peace in 2009, Greenpeace produced a clever video to mark reconciliation. Today, KC and Greenpeace continue to work together.

Lisa Morden, KC’s senior director of global sustainability, said the company was moving towards sourcing recycled and certified fibers before the activists arrived, but the campaign “really accelerated our work and our progress”. . Kimberly Clark backfired when faced with defections from campus patrons and damage to her reputation. “It was getting difficult, commercially, for us,” Morden says.

KC has increased its use of environmentally friendly fibers, which include recycled and Forest Stewardship Council-certified fibers, from 54% to 83% in its paper products globally. Richard Brooks, director of the Canadian forest program for Greenpeace, says the company’s actions have “had a ripple effect on other companies in the tissue paper products sector”. For example, Procter & Gamble, which makes Bounty, Charmin and Puffs, exceeded its fiber purchasing targets a year ahead of schedule by achieving Forest Stewardship certification for 54% of the virgin fiber used in its fabrics.

Last fall, Greenpeace Canada launched a campaign accusing Best Buy of buying paper from Resolute Forest Products, the largest and most controversial forestry company in Canada, according to Brooks. Within a few days, Best Buy agreed to move millions of business dollars away from Resolute, Brooks says.

Lego

Under the title Save the Arctic!, Greenpeace launched a campaign for the toymaker Lego to stop distributing its toys at Shell service stations. “Shell launched an invasion of children’s playrooms to bolster its public image, while threatening the Arctic with a deadly oil spill. We can’t let Shell off the hook,” the group said.

Greenpeace won, thanks in part to an incredibly clever YouTube video that garnered nearly 7 million views.

But to what end? Keeping Shell out of children’s playrooms won’t keep the oil giant out of the Arctic.

And while Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic are risky, even reckless — especially in today’s low oil price environment — Shell is far from the worst of the fossil fuel companies. Shell says CO2 emissions must be reduced to avoid serious climate change, it supports a carbon price and it is one of the very few fossil fuel companies to sign off on the trillion tonne release.

Again, if Shell ever felt that drilling in the Arctic was seriously damaging its brand and reputation, it might decide to seek oil elsewhere.

General Mills

Anti-GMO groups like the Organic Consumers Association declared victory a year ago when General Mills announced it would make non-GMO Cheerios. It was a small victory. Oats are the main ingredient in Cheerios, and there are no GMO oats. General Mills made the switch by sourcing small amounts of corn syrup and cane sugar from non-GMO sources. Its Honey Nut Cheerios – which outsell the original Cheerios – continue to source GMO corn and sugar, and they are the next target of activists.

What has the Cheerios campaign accomplished? Very little. As the Cheerios website notes, General Mills makes a variety of non-GMO organic cereals — including Cascadian Farms Honey Nut O’s — so consumers who want to avoid GMOs can do so.

As for non-GMO Cheerios, they no longer contain vitamin B2, also known as riboflavin, because the vitamins fail the non-GMO test. In other words, Cheerios today are less healthy than before.

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