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 and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at andrea.g.newell@gmail.com and @anewell3p on Twitter.

4 responses

  1. The author doubts the depth or sincerity of companies who are drug or shamed to the sustainability table. A valid question, yet one that some would say does not really matter. Once a company realizes the business case for sustainability, which may begin with protecting brand value and attractiveness to investors, that realization can never be un-learned.

    Whether or not it was intentional, the author made the point very well, by listing Intel and HP as companies “really” interested in sustainability (which, according to article, is in contrast to Kimberly Clark) The story of how both were drug kicking and screaming to that same table is told in great detail by Jeffrey Hollender in his book What Matters Most.

  2. I understand Tamiam’s point (above) that the question of whether companies go willingly or by force to the ‘sustainability table’ doesn’t matter. Either way, they get there, right? At the same time, however, it does make a difference. As the author notes, companies may only make temporary changes to alleviate the bad press, and revert to their unsustainable ways once the spotlight has turned elsewhere.

    I think it’s important that companies that do undergo so-called positive change partner with an NGO or other organization, or even form their own CSR reports, to create some form of accountability.

    While it does not necessarily mean that change inspired from protests and campaigns is not genuine, some form of monitoring should be enacted so the change has a chance to become systemic, and not merely skin-deep.

    1. Great story, great comments. Yes, if the efforts are a success it negates the original intention. And also yes, if the companies don’t really value sustainability, it may never take off in any real way. But I am optimistic that NGOs and whistle-blowers, acting as change agents, will bring companies to the table and from there maybe they will begin to incorporate sustainability into their core values. Or at least maybe they’ll start hiring or working with people who already do and eventually the old ways will die out.

      It sort of follows Stuart Hart’s reasoning that greening came from regulation but a generation later it is innate to many companies.

  3. Opening a dialog between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace has been an eye-opening experience for both parties. Both organizations have more in common than we initially thought. Both K-C and Greenpeace want to reinforce the importance of sustainable behavior and empower sustainable forestry practices. Both teams are also very open-minded to new ideas and changes that will benefit the greater sustainability agenda.

    That being said, genuine progress on sustainability involves setting measurable goals for improvement. Working together, K-C and Greenpeace have agreed on more sustainable fiber sourcing goals. The revised standards enhance the protection of endangered forests and increase the use of both Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified fiber and recycled fiber. This is helpful to K-C’s longstanding goal of obtaining 100 percent of its company’s wood fiber for tissue products from environmentally responsible sources.

    For K-C’s part, our understanding has broadened, and our sustainability targets are higher and more meaningful based on the input we get from Greenpeace. It doesn’t mean we always agree, but we can now sit in a room and have a positive discussion – and advance sustainable forestry practices together.

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