When Public Exposure Forces Change, How Sincere is the Transformation?

Recently, Fast Company reported Kimberly Clark’s change of heart concerning its sustainability practices after an aggressive and protracted Greenpeace campaign to expose their destructive practices caught the attention of the public and the media. The public outcry continued to grow until Kimberly Clark buckled under the pressure and forged a partnership with Greenpeace to manage their sustainability goals. Kimberly Clark is not the first company to change its ways due to public pressure – Unilever, 1-800-Flowers, and Target have also recently been targets of similar campaigns. But, when companies are forced to implement sustainability practices, is the change sincere, or merely a surface fix to quiet the masses and deflect attention?

In 2004, Greenpeace began a strident campaign against Kimberly Clark for their destructive practice of depleting centuries-old forests to make their products. Fast Company reported that Kimberly Clark vice-president of global sustainability, Suhas Apte, said, “Kimberly Clark didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. The company took a lot of pride in its sustainability practices. We used to consider NGO’s as non-value add entities.” In late 2008, Kimberly Clark decided to meet with Greenpeace and discovered that their sustainability practices did, in fact, need work. During the past two years, Kimberly Clark has eschewed their deforestation practices and built a relationship with Greenpeace.

In 2010, PETA set its sights on Lipton Tea (owned by Unilever), exposing its inhumane animal testing practices. The Huffington Post and Planet Green published the graphic details of how Lipton intentionally made animals ill, then administered tea and recorded the effects so Lipton could claim their tea had health benefits. In the face of a petition signed by 40,000 consumers and an imminent, worldwide shame campaign by the flamboyant, outspoken organization, Unilever announced its decision to end its animal testing in January 2011.

Change.org also has a solid track record for bringing attention to a myriad of social ills. Most recently they gathered 54,000 signatures to encourage 1-800-Flowers to sell only Fair Trade flowers and demand that their suppliers remedy the poor working conditions in which thousands of female flower workers toil in South America. In response, 1-800-Flowers has promised to offer only Fair Trade flowers by Mother’s Day 2011.

Another Change.org petition garnered 64,000 signatures to implore several American clothing manufacturers, including Abercrombie, the Gap and Target, to compensate the families of 27 workers burned to death in a preventable clothing factory fire, and change their safety requirements. In an email to supporters, Patrick Schmitt, Director of Global Campaigns, reported that a spokesperson from Target said, “I want to understand what we have to do to get our brand off the Change.org petition…Tell me what we need to do, and we will try to do it.”

Although most of these companies made the requested changes, are they the first step toward a more sustainable organizational mindset, or a temporary band-aid to alleviate public pressure? If companies are forced to change due to the threat of poor publicity, how far into the organization does the change reach?

Companies who embrace sustainability and corporate social responsibility because they feel strongly about it – the Intels, HPs, Herman Millers and Waste Managements of the world – cite a deeply held belief to do good, encourage employee engagement and deliver quality products and services. They report that to ingrain these beliefs and practices throughout an organization takes time, dedication and strong support from the c-suite on down. Perhaps one indicator of a true change is the willingness to partner with an NGO and open sustainability practices to scrutiny and review, as in the case of Kimberly Clark and Greenpeace. As for the other sustainability efforts made under duress, only time will show if their change is short-lived or the start of a new organizational culture.

Photo credit: Greenpeace

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.