The new wave of employee activism is alerting more executives to the opportunities that can arise when companies collaborate with their workers on issues of public concern. There are also many challenges, but latecomers have the benefit of learning from ethical leaders. One such leader is the United Kingdom-based artisanal soap company Lush.
For Lush, ethical issues are not a sidebar pursuit. The company has built its brand identity around a series of ethical campaigns.
Lush employs an in-house campaign professional, also known as the company’s “in-house activist.” That position is currently held by Carleen Pickard, who brings a career in social and environmental activism to the company.
The position enables Pickard to bring together insights from workers and management. She also ensures that everyone is educated and on board once the campaign has been identified.
That approach involves a significant amount of input from employees, who bring their personal experiences together from hundreds of Lush locations in different countries.
“We routinely pull staff in and ask them what should be the issue to work on,” Pickard explains. “Our leadership likes to say that we should focus on issues that are not talked about in other places and spaces, and are not expected from a soap company.”
Lush also forms alliances with organizations that are active in areas that could lead to a campaign.
As a result, Lush has ventured deep into territory that has little or no direct relationship to its supply chain or its bottom line.
Pickard cites the example of a long-running campaign against the practice of harvesting shark fins. Last February the company campaigned for transgender rights, and in 2017 it campaigned for abolition of the death penalty in the U.S.
Lush’s history of ethical campaigning placed the brand in a strong position to support the Global Climate Strike, a series of street protests and other actions taking place around the world from September 20 to 27.
The company had previously focused on more specific climate issues central to Canada, including the tar sand fields and oil pipeline construction. During those campaigns, Pickard felt like the climate movement was “beating on people’s doors and knocking down walls” to get attention. The feeling of urgency was confined to those actively involved in the movement.
One of the most compelling differences in the Global Climate Strike movement is the mass involvement of students, many in their early to mid-teens.
“What is different this time absolutely is the youth voice coupled with the urgency. We are not just feeling that urgency, we are also hearing it from the other generation,” says Pickard.
Pickard cites one banner in particular at the Global Climate Strike, which read: “You will die of old age. We will die of climate change.”
“That is some of the clearest campaigning I have ever seen,” she says. “It is very inspiring and also very humbling.”
Pickard emphasizes that Lush is not encouraging its workers to “strike” in the conventional sense, as an action against the worker’s own employer.
“We are participating in this all together and we value the power of workers to strike,” she clarifies. “That’s an important part of the conversation, and it provides an opportunity to talk about that power.”
Lush foresees political alliances as the next logical step, for ethical campaigning, especially regarding the transition to sustainable energy.
“That question of what we do next — recycling and tote bags are embedded in people’s minds as the thing you do, not just the right thing. At this point we need political action,” Pickard explains.
Lush is not alone in that regard. In the field of gun safety, for example, leading U.S. retailers have adopted new in-store policies for their customers while also allying themselves with grassroots political organizations to lobby for common sense gun regulations at the state and federal level.
As with gun safety in the U.S., Pickard cautions that the road to sustainable energy is a minefield of challenges.
The concept of a “just transition” for energy workers and their communities is especially fraught in countries rich in fossil resources, like Canada.
“We are a country that has an economy based on natural resources. A just transition is an incredibly urgent issue but a particularly difficult one, and it can be a particularly ferocious one,” she explains.
It is practically impossible for most companies to be absolutely perfect in terms of their own energy transition, and that can provide fossil energy advocates with an opening for criticism. Nevertheless, Pickard advises that brands can prevail against their critics by staking out the high ground.
“It’s not about us. At this point it’s about the future generations, and I think people are responding to that,” she says. “Talking about climate is not a progressive or conservative issue. All of our messaging is about the future.”
Lush may be unique in its emphasis on ethical campaigning as a brand identity, but some elements of that approach are already at work among other leading companies.
Two examples of that strategy are the anti-poverty projects of the Whole Planet Foundation of Whole Foods, (now owned by Amazon), and Coca-Cola’s water replenishment and conservation initiatives.
Another type of example is illustrated by Accenture, which has adopted a broad collaboration with its employees to support LGBTQ+ rights around the globe.
Many companies are also active in the gender equality movement. The waste hauling company Republic Services is a good example of a company that is aggressively reaching out to recruit women to traditional male-held jobs.
In addition, the Global Climate Strike has inspired participation by thousands of businesses and websites to spread the climate action message to their customers and clients. Meanwhile, employee groups at several leading companies — most notably Amazon — have used the Global Climate Strike to lobby for change by their own employer.
With the rise of both youth and employee activism evident in the Global Climate Strike, it appears that the grassroots have spoken. Businesses that expect to thrive in the coming years would do well to follow the lead of Lush and companies like it, and respond to the concerns of their employees, now and in the future.
Image credit: Lush U.K./Facebook
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.