The days of hiring a PR agency to craft a cozy “We’re good citizens” sounding Mission Statement are over.
The age of good intentions is over… finally
Your customers and employees are closely watching your actions, not your words. If you’re a CEO and wish to remain relevant, you should become an activist. The new generations will not tolerate leaders who want to have their cake (maximize profits) and eat it too (at the expense of sustainability). Greenwashing will not work. In fact, based on the urgency unveiled through the latest United Nations climate report, you have to become a Radical Activist CEO. Nothing else will do, and you have very little time to make the change. Get going.
Before you decide to keep your company acting as usual, let’s check some inspiring stories of Radical Activists that have figured out – for the rest of us – how to lead their companies to relevance and sustainability. We hope these stories inspire you to ignore your short-term-minded shareholders and create real long-term value for your company and for our planet.
Patagonia: Don’t buy our product this holiday season… seriously
Patagonia, for one, is telling American consumers this Thanksgiving Holiday not to buy their product through ads in The New York Times, encouraging them to commit to a sustainability pledge by giving them the tools to do so. Greenwashing? PR? This is a company which has quadrupled its revenues the last few years by sticking to its sustainability purpose. Specifically, since the mid-seventies, they have stated that they are “in business to save our home planet.” Today, they are doing radical activism not only on current issues the world and society face but also on encouraging and helping others to use their platforms to act on sustainability by sharing the experience and insight they have acquired through almost 40 years of radical activism in business, which seems to have paid off handsomely.
Unilever: We have a sustainable living plan… luckily
In his book Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, tells a story about how focusing on doing sustainable business over many years paid off in an unexpected way for Unilever when they most needed it. This giant company has a nearly 150-year long history of purpose to make sustainable living commonplace. Their organization is close to 150.000 employees spread around the world, producing more than 400 consumer brands, of which 81% are among the top two in their markets in terms of market share. In 2017 Kraft Heinz, owned by the investment firm 3G, attempted a hostile takeover that could destroy the soul that Unilever had built up over a century. Kraft Heinz – itself a victim of hedge funds – was known for slashing expenses to increase short-term margins, and although the two companies were selling similar products, they had fundamentally different business models. Kraft Heinz was a perfect example of what shareholder primacy looks like while Unilever was intent on operating for the benefit of all stakeholders, in service of a better world.
This is where being serious about a sustainable living plan over many years saved the company. In order to reject the bid, Unilever needed support from friends quickly. 3G and Unilever’s critics underestimated how strongly the leadership, the board and unexpected allies cared about the company’s approach to sustainable business practices. NGO and union leaders were among those who lined up in support, and thanks to people like the general secretary of the IUF – a federation of unions representing ten million workers in the agricultural and hospitality industries, who had grown to trust Unilever, went public opposing the bid. A movement against the bid took place among all Unilever’s stakeholders, and in the end, 3G lost support for the deal and had to back off. This was mainly thanks to the trust Unilever had established through their focus on benefitting all stakeholders.
Google: We hired activist employees… alarmingly
Radical activism also includes social sustainability issues. In the case of Google it happens often, in spite of the leadership team’s efforts to do business as usual. Their employees – mostly Millennials and GenZers – have taken the moral leadership of the company in their hands. For example, in 2018, 20,000 Google employees “walked off the job in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations, sparking a wave of tech worker protests that’s been gathering force ever since,” as reported by the LA Times. They got mostly what they wanted from Google in terms of policy changes.
Sadly, management did not become activists themselves. In fact, a year later, Vox reported that “Google employees who helped organize a global employee protest in November are now saying the company is punishing them for their activism.” Since then, activist employees have leaked out internal documents exposing issues that range from Google’s coziness with the Chinese government to their misuse of employee information. As a result of this battle between employees and the leadership, Google has lost the aura of moral leadership and progressiveness it once had amongst the new generations who joined the company. Now, not “everyone” wants to work at Google.
The wave of corporate activism is coming… literally
Perhaps we are living in an era where the nature of work and the role of companies in society is changing. Maybe we’re seeing the awakening of consciousness amongst people who don’t want to see their life neatly divided between work and play. Or it could be possible that the new generations see the elephant in the room that older generations were trained to ignore. Whatever it is, radical activism from the private sector is not a fad. It is here to stay. Your options seem to be to either ride the wave enthusiastically by becoming a radical activist leader, or move away to irrelevance as it leaves you behind. Here’s an interesting article on Seven Ways to Spot Business Greenwashing to get you going in the right direction.