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Business Sustainability Prompted by Activism in 2014


By Michael Green

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently posted a “top 10” list of the most important sustainable business stories of 2014. Given the gravity of the situation, it’s appropriate that the first five stories are around climate change (although it’s a little troubling that the No. 1 story for sustainable business is described as “climate change is now.” Wasn’t that a top story of 1999? Are sustainable businesses really just figuring this out?)

For health and environmental advocates, an even more compelling aspect of the HBR 2014 review is the number of top stories showing that businesses are changing in response to citizen activism. Five of the 10 stories reflect issues that were first brought to light by grassroots activism, including four that directly relate to activists’ role in influencing corporate behavior.

  • HBR notes the joint movement by retailers including Target and Walmart on toxic chemicals used in personal care products sold at their stores. This business alliance came about following years of advocacy by our organization and hundreds of others allied as the national “Mind the Store” campaign.

  • HBR notes several businesses that are taking steps for a living wage for their workers, despite the failure of revised minimum wage regulations. The living wage movement has long highlighted the income gap and connected hundreds of organizations who are advocating for equality.

  • According to HBR, the massive citizen movement on climate change involving large national groups and hundreds of small grassroots networks is a social change movement that business needs to take seriously. HBR notes that businesses that respond to citizen action with truly renewable, healthy solutions will win both in the public eye and in the marketplace.

  • Social media and youth activism are highlighted in the 2014 story of Sarah Kavanagh, a teenager from Mississippi whose online petition culminated in corporate change at Coke and Pepsi (our organization had a similar effect on the companies when our work exposed a cancer-causing chemical in their colas).

  • HBR notes the increasing corporate attention to the problem of food waste, an issue activists have been tackling for years: College student activists from the Food Recovery Network have created a national coalition on campus food waste, while Food Shift offers innovative programs for making food surplus “problems” into resources for jobs and community empowerment.

Other 2014 stories missing from the HBR list show that citizen advocacy works to influence business sustainability. In the most recent example, New York’s ban on fracking was won following mass pressure from grassroots groups across the state. The ban presages a boon for renewable businesses: New York has already announced support for “Community Shared Renewables,” an innovative approach to making solar and other clean power choices available to renters and millions of other energy users in the state, and has committed nearly $1 billion to solar power.

We’ve also seen grassroots victories in the movement for safer food and farming in 2014. Vermont adopted the nation’s first law requiring labels on genetically modified (GMO) food in 2014, and Hawaii voters passed a ban on cultivation of GMOs a few months earlier. After winning the withdrawal of the strawberry pesticide methyl iodide in 2012, safe food advocates continued to call for safer strawberries in 2014, rallying consumers, farm workers, health and environmental activists together against the use of the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos. Advocates also celebrated the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service’s decision to ban GMO crops and bee-killing pesticides from the country’s National Wildlife Refuges.

In 2015, look for more businesses responding to grassroots health, environmental, worker rights, consumer and social media advocacy. The trend is clear: Where activists lead, business will follow.

Michael Green is Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Health.

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