Corporate activism: how to move from commitment to social impact

Do Better Team

In recent years, there has been a rise in the scrutiny, demands, and social pressure on companies regarding the social and environmental impact of their value chains.  

Concepts such as sustainability and ESG strategies, the climate crisis, decarbonization, fairness, inclusion and equality, and the circular economy are now part of everyday corporate language. 

Sometimes, these concepts result from real conviction. Other times, they are simply part of opportunistic tactics such as greenwashing and purpose-washing. 

In contrast to such cynical tactics, corporate activism is committed to adopting a holistic approach to achieve real social and environmental transformation. It seeks to use focused and honest corporate action as a means to have a positive impact. 

Eulalia Devesa, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at ISS Spain, believes that for a company, “being an activist implies that the purpose of connecting people and places, to contribute to making something better, is part of the culture and the way of doing things across the entire company — for all employees.” 

As an example, Mario Rovirosa, CEO of Ferrer — the first Spanish pharmaceutical laboratory to be certified as a B Corp — says that the brand’s slogan 'Ferrer for good' speaks for itself. 

“It is the company's purpose: to do good in society and on the planet — to have a positive impact on society,” Rovirosa explains. 

“Although we are known for being a large pharmaceutical company, all of us who work here see that this is just a means to get the resources needed to do good,” he adds. 

In recent years, more than 50% of the company's profits have gone to social and environmental projects. “This comes from our main shareholder, who was the first to be convinced of the need to do this and who has been preaching it for more than twenty years, which has shaped the company,” says Rovirosa. 

The rise of corporate activism 

In 2018, we experienced how corporate activism burst with force in our society: Nike made public its support for the Black Lives Matter movement in a campaign starring Colin Kaepernick, the American football player who took a knee while the US national anthem was played at the Super Bowl final. It was a positioning campaign, with worldwide repercussions, under the slogan "Believe in something, even if it costs you everything". 

Kaepernick's gesture was a protest against police brutality toward African-American citizens. Nike's positioning campaign, under the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” reached the entire planet, generated social debate, and had an impact on the perception of the brand. 

But activism is not limited to brands. Senior executives are also becoming activists as individuals. In the same year as the Nike campaign, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled “The New CEO Activists” which looked in detail at the characteristics and attributes of activist corporate leaders.  

This transition to corporate activism has had a direct impact on public perception. In 2020, the Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures citizens' trust in different institutions, showed that, for the first time, companies were gaining ground on NGOs – the institutions that had traditionally obtained the highest ratings. 

In addition, the results of the barometer showed that 61% of the population expects CEOs to take a stand in tackling social and environmental challenges and that 81% expect institutions to make these commitments public. 

From theory to action 

In order to carry out such corporate activism, companies need strong internal commitment, which must be integrated into business strategy across all levels. Leadership and governance play a key role in integrating this commitment into corporate culture and in helping companies play an active and positive role in society. 

This commitment must, however, be authentic and come from within, generating a sense of pride and belonging in everyone who works in the organization. At the same time, it must be shared externally: this corporate culture must be transmitted through alliances and collaborations in order to inspire other companies. 

It is especially important in times of conflict, uncertainty, and fear, that companies committed to corporate activism find the optimism and strength to take action. An activist is, above all, a person compelled to act. 

Mónica Chao, Sustainability Director at IKEA Spain and president of WAS (Women, Action, Sustainability) explains the position of ‘activist’ in her company: “We created it in response to those people who wanted to become more actively involved in sustainability objectives, giving them an active, leading role.” 

Meanwhile, Eulalia Devesa of ISS Spain points out that “if you do what you have to do and do it well, a virtuous circle is created within the company that makes everyone become activists: they are the ones who commit themselves internally and externally, with customers, unions, suppliers, and more.” 

Corporate return 

Despite profit not being its main objective, business activism can have a major impact on the bottom line. There are also other benefits, such as talent retention, according to Ferrer CEO Mario Rovirosa. 

“In the selection interviews we conduct, when we explain the company’s purpose, the interview changes — people are hooked. When the values of both parties mesh, the employee has a very high level of satisfaction and participation,” says Rovirosa. 

Devesa holds a similar opinion and points out that, in the case of ISS Spain, “it has helped employees who are far away [in terms of physical distance] to feel that they are part of something, and that they themselves are a lever for change and improvement in the company.” 

“We defend decent employment conditions under the premise 'equal work, equal pay' to the point that over the years we have attracted a lot of talent and achieved a very low turnover, with a retention rate of 90%. We believe that having this foundation makes people committed and loyal,” says Devesa. 

Authenticity vs. greenwashing 

Many international voices and non-profit organizations warn of the danger of greenwashing campaigns by companies that carry out misleading communication and marketing actions, positioning themselves as 'green brands' with the sole purpose of increasing their profits. 

Mario Rovirosa believes that “eventually these companies will end up revealing themselves, because there comes a time when you have to make decisions, and that's when you see the ones who really mean it. The difference lies in integrity and authenticity.” 

“It is essential to act with trust and foster trust," says Monica Chao. “The risk of greenwashing lies in unfocused action and the noise it generates, which prevents us from listening to what is important. Action without focus takes us away from purpose and can lead to ‘compassion fatigue’ in society.”  

For Eulalia Devesa, the key is to do “few things, well, with a lot of consistency over time. First, do something and, when you have tried it and see that it works, explain it.” 

The Spanish-language event 'Activismo corporativo: del compromiso al impacto’ was held as part of the 'Connecting Through the Workplace' conference series organized by Esade's Institute for Social Innovation together with ISS Facility Services. 

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