Corporate Activism on Display Against 3M at the Sustainable Brands Conference

Protesters display signs outside the Sustainable Brands conference. Image courtesy ForestEthics
Protest signs outside the Sustainable Brands conference. Image courtesy ForestEthics

By Christine Arena 

The climate is getting stickier, and it’s not just the weather. Today, even the most socially and environmentally responsible brands can find themselves on the receiving end of heated activist campaigns. As I’ve previously written, corporate activism is today reaching new heights — growing bolder, more organized and artful all the time.

Now, with the combination of corporate back stepping on major issues like global warming and intensifying public scrutiny around the slow pace of reform, corporate activists are not likely to give up anytime soon. If the latest campaigns from groups like Greenpeace, Sierra Club and ForestEthics reveal anything, it’s that this is just the beginning. Going forward, we can expect things to heat up a whole lot more.

“The corporate world isn’t moving fast enough on major environmental issues,” says ForestEthics senior campaigner Jim Ace. “In some cases, they are regressing backwards, reverting to strategies and tactics that may have been relevant in the 1950’s.”

To Ace’s point, it’s a changed world, one that far too many companies find themselves ill prepared to navigate. When faced with criticism, brand leaders often fail to properly engage with detractors, instead choosing to ignore accusations and hope problems go away on their own. “We want these brands to know that they are at risk and might be next,” Ace says.

For instance, at this week’s Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego, thousands of socially minded business leaders got a special taste of what the new activist climate can mean. Set against a backdrop of a pristine marina and recycled ATM machines, ForestEthics waged a 3-day campaign against 3M, a major sponsor at the event.

Crowds gathered as boats wielding protest signs circled the Marina, while postcards, banners and a dedicated radio station informed conference attendees of the company’s alleged environmental missteps.

“We’ve been trying to engage 3M around its so-called responsible forestry practices for nearly decade,” Ace says. “They’ve refused to deal with us or do the right thing, so they’ve put us in a position where we needed to drag the brand out and make an example of it.”

Ace links 3M products like Scotch Tape and Post-it-Notes to forest destruction around the world, accusing the company of taking a less stringent approach to sustainable sourcing and certification than competitors.

During her on-stage talk at Sustainable Brands, 3M’s Vice President of Sustainability Gayle Schueller made no mention of the protesters outside, instead honing in on the company’s efforts to develop new products around the needs of Indian housewives.

“At 3M, we tailor innovation around developing economies, uplifting lives while preserving (local) heritage,” she said.

It was indeed a missed opportunity – not only for 3M to level set, but garner support by inviting people to join a relevant and worthwhile conversation.

There is no doubt that sustainable innovation is hard – particularly resource intensive industries. A key success factor for companies like 3M is deeper and more visible engagement around challenging issues. Now more than ever, it’s essential that more brands develop a playbook for that.

Here, in my view, is where they can start:

  1. Plan for the worst. According to the Harvard Business Review, 80 percent of large organizations will face a crisis lasting 10 days or more every four to five years. Of those, 73 percent will suffer a significant long-term business impact, and 43 percent will never fully recover. While isolated activist protests might not be enough to take a business off the rails, repeated incidents can help tarnish a corporate reputation, diminish trust and make a company more vulnerable to problems in the future.  Simply ignoring protesters or waiting for issues to escalate is not a strategy, but rather an avoidable risk.
  2. Get transparent. Activists typically target companies not sharing enough in the way of meaningful information. Any perceived lack of accountability is a vulnerability. If an activist organization links your products to ethical or environmental problems, then it’s especially important to communicate a clearer sourcing and supply chain story. While simply committing to “responsible industry practices” won’t do much to quell criticism, tangible metrics, goals and timelines very often will.
  3. Actively listen. Many companies respond to activist groups by attempting to silence, demean or discredit them. While not every activist organization operates in a forthright manner, turning the tables on organizations dedicated to preserving and protecting human or environmental rights can make companies look defensive, even heartless. Rather than playing that game, try letting the public know that you take activist concerns seriously. Sit down and listen to what activists have to say before formulating a strategy or response. You don’t have to play by their rules, but you do have to take the time to understand them.
  4. Don’t go it alone. With the plethora of reputable third party auditing and consulting groups out there, there is absolutely no reason to navigate choppy waters on your own. Aligning with the right partners on the strategic and communications side of things is an important first step to managing negative impacts, amplifying positive ones – and eventually, changing perceptions and behaviors for the better.

 Christine is an award-winning author and Executive Vice President of Edelman’s Business + Social Purpose practice, where she helps leading brands better engage communities around social and environmental issues.



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7 responses

  1. It looks like a publicity stunt by ForestEthics to me. No wonder 3M does not want to give them credibility. Anyone can find fault with anything, but has the sustainability world run out of big polluters. 3M and other company have plans to reduce carbon pollution and tackle the largest sources of pollution first. I retired from 3M a couple of years ago and followed their achievements improving energy efficiencies by significant amounts. Why is ForestEthics riding around in energy inefficient and polluting boats?

  2. An alternate perspective, given the nature of Sustainable Brands is that this crew didn’t do their homework. They were essentially protesting to allies, including the folks at 3M who are likely more sympathetic than they might think. My criticism is coming mainly from their second protest – against Coke and Pepsi over the use of tar sands oil in their trucking fleets. Given that oil is a commodity and it’s nearly impossible to tell where your gasoline originated from, it doesn’t make much sense to me to target a company just because they use a lot of gas that might have originated from the tar sands. This plus the fact that nearly 100% of the people they were protesting likely agree with them in principle.

    Despite my concerns, given that we’re talking about this and seeking to learn more, I’d say the protest was fairly successful!

  3. Marty — It was indeed a publicity stunt designed to get people’s attention, and in my view it succeeded. Read my point #3 above. It’s important to recognize that these groups do sway public opinion, so it is vital to get out in front of the problem from a strategic and communications perspective. If 3M is doing someting more substantial to minimize its impact on Forests, then now is a great time to tell people about it.
    My sense is the Sustainable Brands community would have been quite supportive of 3M had they at least acknowledged the activity. Most of the executives there face the same kinds of problems, and might have lent valuable insights and support.

  4. I’d say 3M has done a poor job of showing how far they’ve come, and in reaching to its critics for common ground. Sounds like a Future 500 project, or perhaps your work is very similar, Christine?

  5. I think that the purpose of these actions was to reach out and ask leaders of the industry to hold each other accountable and call out green washing, not to alienate allies :)

    1. Totally agree, and Sustainable Brands was a good place to do this. I attended and exhibited at SB, and looked into ForestEthics when I saw the signs. I also spoke to another person whose company had had dealings with them but chose to engage and resolve the issues. My take is that if large companies are going to make claims about sustainability, they need to be ready to answer the tough questions if they come up. The 3M presentation was not well received. Failing to address the protests at all was a big mistake, and the topic of the talk made 3M seem oblivious to the topic of sustainability it general.

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