Corporate Activism Panel Recap
On May 21, professionals from Olympia12062020, Patagonia in Berlin, soulbottles and Moyee Coffee came together to discuss Corporate Activism - The Power of Purpose in Times of Uncertainty. This summary covers the main themes from my discussions with the panelists that addressed corporate activism on the ground, collaboration, and recent innovations since Covid-19 hit.
For many, 2019 has been a rough year – from Hong Kong’s protests to the fire of Notre Dame (which overshadowed the massacre the same day ), New Zealand’s shooting, wildfires in Brazil, the continued Brexit debacle, Muller report and Trump impeachment. But we also have the Global Climate Strike, the Entrepreneurs For Future and the B Corp Movement lead by purpose-driven businesses.
The positive impact environmental and social activism has grown to a tipping point, with over 28,000 crowdfunded contributions for the mega-event Olympia12062020 (currently cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic). I moderated a panel with:
- Afra Gloria Müller, Olympia12062020
- Clara Bütow, Campaign, Activism & Editorial, soulbottles
- Karry Schwettmann, Impact Marketing, Moyee Coffee
- Hervé Dupied, Environmental Initiatives EMEA, Patagonia
The event covers three main topics:
- Corporate Activism - Unpacking a concept on the ground
- Collaboration - Where’s a place to start for SMEs / NGOs / Innovators to engage larger global brands?
- Recent Innovations and Possibilities for Future Sustainability
Corporate Activism: Unpacking a concept on the ground
To open up, I asked the panelists to give concrete shape to what corporate activism meant to them and their organisations. Below are some of their key ideas:
soulbottles: using the company as a platform get the message out
Clara said that lobbyism is present in shaping our society and politics worldwide, and corporate activism as a co-responsibility of a company to use this power that we have in the economy to shift it towards a more just and sustainable one. At Soulbottles, the whole team did not work for the climate strike day, closed down the office (even working from home), logistics, and the online store. Instead, they used their store to leave a message for customers: “Today is global climate strike, please go on the streets, please spread the word and let’s all fight for climate justice”. Another example is raising awareness for Entrepreneurs for Future, which is a movement that has grown in Germany to about 4.500 companies, representing around 200.000 employees since it began in 2019. For Clara, companies that are usually seen as polluters can also be the ones at the frontlines of petitioning for change and for political improvements.
Patagonia in Europe: Supporting movements
Hervé pointed out that corporates are lead by citizens at the end, not employees and they can shape is as they want. And activism should not be seen as only people fighting against the police in the streets. There are many forms of activism. And you see more and more NGOs, institutions, even pioneers just by themselves showing that activism is only a term to say as citizens I want to have my word and take the power by connecting with others.
Moyee Coffee: picking away at systemic changes
Karry gave an example of writing an open letter to the German minister of development, Gerd Müller, who is a longtime advocate of scrapping the coffee tax on FairTrade coffee. She pointed out that educating politicians about the underlying problems we face in the coffee value chain, which may be behind the scenes can have an impact, if a long-term one. Karry mentioned that getting media on board was not bringing the attention that they’d hoped for, but a breakthrough happened when the team met Gerd Müller in person in Ethiopia, after which he changed from speaking about “FairTrade coffee” to “Fair Coffee” and it is at the center of the debate around the coffee tax.
Olympia: companies sticking their administrative necks out
Afra explained that the Olympia campaign was started by the purpose-driven company Einhorn, which produces vegan and sustainable condoms and hygiene products received criticism as marketing campaign for the company. The organizational team outgrew Einhorn, but Einhorn still supported the event by signing a contract with the Olympic stadium, making them liable and underwriting many of the administrative risks involved in organising an event. Afra mentioned that it’s important to recognise the huge risks for companies like Einhorn to say “We believe in this idea and we really want to do better in this world so we are willing to take the risk.”
Collaboration: SMEs, NGOs, & individuals and global brands and organisations
While people have differing views on how – or whether at all – to engage with global brands, the fact remains that small changes in these behemoths has impacts on lives and entire environmental ecosystems. I asked the panelists, “How can can SMEs, startups and NGOs, even freelancers and innovators to engage with larger global brands?”
From little “Kampfzwerg” to… Karry said that the beginning, Moyee was that little “Kampfzwerg” that wants to drive systemic change, perhaps like finger pointing at larger global brands. Since then, they’ve realised that they need the brands on board to create larger impact. At the same time, they emphasize they are not doing things differently in the coffee industry, such as blockchain, to create a competitive advantage over other companies but to build something that is also going to be available to other coffee brands. For this reason, they want to engage them to participate, adopt the technology, and improve the global coffee supply chain together.
Choosing partners to improve with rather than relying on certifications Clara shared that Soulbottles thought about the bottomline in how they engaged partners. She mentioned the company moved away from perfectionism – this requirement “everything needs to be perfect” and rather looking at the mid-term perspective: what can we change if we start a collaboration?
When Soulbottles launched the steel bottle, they discovered they could not produce it in Germany, and needed to go to Asia. After meeting with suppliers in person, they engaged a company that was not certified, but was smaller scale and willing to change through our involvement. After bottom lines in certain requirements in labour and in environmental footprints, they moved up step by step.
By being transparent and communicating openly with clients, they are able to bring them onboard. Though the first batch may not be perfect, they shared pictures and how they rolled out the project in order to make it better. Clara advises to approach partnerships as, “Let’s sit down at a table, let’s discuss this together, what are our options?” She points out that Soulbottles had less control of their products and packaging in earlier years when they were smaller, but as their business grew, they did research on new materials and convinced their manager from 100% fresh fiber to 95% recycled. By working with their supplier, Soulbottles not only changed their own packaging, but also gave other companies using the same supplier the opportunity to.
Using global brand clout Hervé shares that Patagonia has chosen to support local, grassroots activism groups for the simple reason that most of them have difficulties to find fundings. By allocating 1% of the company’s turnover, they’ve been able to fund almost 1000 local groups around the world. In addition, Hervé mentions that the company actively fights against the Trump administration’s attempts to reduce the size of national parks and protected areas. In terms of funding, they support grassroots groups that are focused on the root causes of the environmental crisis, which means they would not finance an organization that removes plastics from the ocean, even though it is very much necessary, but instead focus on groups that are looking at being sure that plastic is not produced anymore or is not going into rivers.
Recent innovations and possibilities for future sustainability:
In our final segment, we also explored the opportunities that have opened up as a result of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. I asked the panelists what innovations they’ve seen and what they feel could be preserved from these extraordinary times as we try to rebuild a different, more inclusive future with businesses.
Starting with the individual Clara urged everyone has to start with themselves when it comes to transforming the economy, and therefore people working in businesses can start by transforming their company. Because soulbottles is driven by the belief that every person should have access to clean drinking water, that the resources of the planet should be protected and that everyone should be willing and enjoying a sustainable lifestyle, their activities radiate out of this central purpose. This includes matching donations to purchases, and creating an incubator program for startups solving the plastic crisis. The 101 startups they supported in 2019 have received coaching, digital resources, connections to experts and 35 were later given stipends of 1.500 € basic income to to work six months fully on their project, and enjoy the soulbottles co-working space once Covid-19 regulations lift.
A Network of networks Afra called for a network of all our networks, with deeper collaboration and communication between different companies, sectors, communities. She notes that Covid-19 has shown that companies and organisations have been working together with the government for rapid responses. An example is the #WirVsVirus online hackathon with over 40.000 participants, initiated by Berlin organisations and supported by the German government. She also mentioned the German Youtube star called Fynn Kliemann, who is normally producing music and sustainable clothing and within a week he changed his production line to face masks. Within days, he was able to produce 1.5 million masks per week and became one of the biggest suppliers in Germany.
Distinguishing between CSR/PR and marketing and activism
As a final question, I asked the panelists how they see the overlapping, and sometimes murky lines between different terms used over the years by media, the public, and even companies themselves.
Clara says that for her, CSR is linked to the older model that we are looking at taking a part of the profits and investing it into some good projects but it doesn’t have to be related to the core business. Instead, she talks about value creation, where things loop back into your core business model, whether it’s employee health to making your production line more circular. Using less waste and energy also limits your costs and is a better environmental footprint. Value creation is the triple bottom line where people, planet and profit come together. Clara says that soulbottles looks at every single emission the company produces to minimize it. What they cannot minimize, they compensate. They are moving from a climate neutral production to being a climate neutral company.
Hervé emphasized consistency and about being self-critical. As an example, Patagonia does not call itself “sustainable” because the word does not have much meaning to the company, and instead they use “responsible” to acknowledge the impact we have on the environment.
Afra questioned whether we should even differentiate between CSR/PR and activism. Activism is on the rise. Marketing is also proven effective, and she cites the success of the Olympia campaign as the result of the two coming together and learning from each other.
The panel discussion was broken up with time for question and answers from the audience, which was highly engaged. I have paraphrased some of the questions and responses here:
Q&A: Do you think that Corporate Activism is easier for some types of industries than others? For example Patagonia seems to be active with campaigns on climate change and programs for sustainable clothing production. Could the same model be applicable for extractive or food industries.
Karry says that activism in itself has a cause and it effective on multiple levels. She says that some causes may be more “photogenic” (for example, the tampon tax reduction), which caught media attention and women could relate. But food suppliers making changes to the underlying system is so complex that it’s not easy to explain it to the broader audience. It takes time, you need to educate people and really elaborate on it.
Hervé added, if you don’t call out the way we consume, you will never solve the environmental crisis because in the end it’s a human crisis.
Q&A: Do we need a new type on company, for example Purpose GmbH, to make the legitimation of Corporate Activism more easy?
Clara said that soulbottles is a Purpose GmbH. The core questions is what really drives business? She says that solving a real problem becomes much easier when we solve the ownership problem that is deeply rooted in the traditional economic system of having shareholder value be the main driver of any business activity (for profit maximization). With a purpose company you give the ownership of a company to the employees, so soulbottles for example is owned by a GbR that belongs to the employees and we are legally bound to reinvest all our profit into the purpose of our business.
Afra also says that there needs to be political support and regulations need to catch up so that companies that want to do good do not need to make work-arounds in Germany. In the Scandinavian countries it’s much easier to open a Purpose Company. She also says that finding the right investors is also key, and that there still needs to be education.
Q&A: Do you feel the Pandemic has raised public awareness and support for sustainable activism?
Hervé challenged the question asking what sustainability meant since it has been marketed the wrong way by corporations. He hopes activism will not be the same. He thinks that the pandemic has shown that people have found out is that in the end we’re pretty bad consumers and that we’re pretty good human beings in a crisis. We’ve heard many beautiful stories showing resilience and mutual aid. And if there’s something activism should look at, it is the power of our collective imagination and the power of mutual aid within the groups and cultivating true, good, human relationships is maybe the biggest key to the future.
Q&A: How can you make Purpose Companies interesting to investors?
Clara says that impact investment is a growing field. She says that when she was studying business, she found it shocking that business classes taught that business is to maximise shareholder value. By shifting this narrative, we can shift what is attractive to investors.
Hervé also said that the economy is just the transformation of our environment, to produce what we need to live. As an alpinist, he wants mountains and clothes, but there is no need to overconsume or be defined by our consumption.
Afra turned the question around and asked what kind of investors do you want for your company. Because what can be very beneficial for your company and your investors is knowing that employees working for purpose companies are really engaged and motivated and that already lowers the risk for the investors.
Despite being hosted on a public holiday, we were joined by participants from not only Germany, but other EU countries and beyond. Covid-19 has catalysed borderless online discussions, and let’s hope they lay solid groundwork for future collaborations. My thanks goes to all the panelists for all their preparation, as well as to Karry and Johanna for all the behind-the scenes work.
You can find out more about the organisations mentioned here: