It needs to be more than 15 minutes of fame: Social movements and corporations.

by | Jun 2, 2017 | Corporate power, Protest and repression | 0 comments

by Bethan Pollington

Without social movements, corporations such as Nike would not have become leaders in sustainability in the corporate world. However, the campaign against Nike was launched in the 1990s – when social media and the internet was still a baby. The pressure that was mounted against Nike resulted in great change, but this pressure must be continued against other corporations in 2017. There is the danger that the internet and social media means there is some trending of a hashtag, but six months down the line everyone has forgotten. I will explore the victories of social movements and yet highlight how the biggest victories come from constant pressure, not just a 15-minute trend on Twitter. We need a commitment from activists in order to establish commitment from corporations.

In recent years, Greenpeace has seen many successes. These include pressure on Mattel (the company that owns Barbie) to commit to stop adding to deforestation or pressure on Santander, which resulted in the bank ending their contract with APRIL, a huge paper company responsible for forest destruction in Indonesia. However, these successes are seen after months of rallying, thousands of signatures and mixed tactics to target corporations at their bases. A guardian article from 2015 explored how small boycotts do not work. A lot of the time they result in decreases in sales for a short period of time but then after the 15 minutes of fame is up, people go back to buying the product once more and sales return to normal. This is highlighted in the US boycott of French wines, sales sharply decreased by 26% but then sales returned quickly to the normal trajectory that Chapel Hill expected. You can think of any social movement, be it environmental protests such as those conducted by Greenpeace or racial movements such as the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, very little is accomplished until you mix the tactics. Martin Luther King did not just help organise bus boycotts, he organised marches, he gave out speeches, he met with the President – he tackled the issue at the root rather than just stopping at the Mississippi Bus Boycott, a pattern that 21st century citizens and social movements seem to do. The work by social movements using mixed tactics succeeds. You can simply look at WWF who in 2014 introduced the first international standards for water stewardship. However, they did not just do so with one boycott or one petition signed by thousands of people. They achieved such a huge success by partnering with global leaders, rallying support from ordinary citizens, and developing a sustainable plan with a clear aim.

This leads me to the issue I have with Greenpeace – and social movements on the whole – especially in recent years. Greenpeace shall be the main focus since it’s such a global social movement and at the forefront of many social issues. Since the 1990s there has been a huge increase in corporates’ responsibilities, so much so that we now see food retailers tripping over themselves to demonstrate who is the first to eliminate landfill waste. Throughout the early years, Greenpeace applied pressure to businesses to do exactly that, to outline their sustainability plans. But corporations now do that off their own backs, as they seem to become more moral in nature, Greenpeace must fight for other causes. Not for one second am I knocking the work that Greenpeace has done in recent years. However, on their own website, the most recent big success was back in 2015 with Santander – as earlier mentioned. Of course, the slow nature of progress is to be expected but I can’t help but feel like Greenpeace is not staging protests in the right way.

Greenpeace celebrates a victorious campaign

You can look at two examples of this is the campaign against air pollution in London resulting in two arrests, and more recently a protest against Donald Trump’s environmental policies. In 2016 two Greenpeace activists valiantly scaled Nelson’s column and attached a gas mask to his face to rise up against the issues of air pollution. This story went viral as the pair were arrested and spared jail time, Twitter went crazy for it. However, after searching through Greenpeace’s website I saw nothing that linked this demonstration and a change in policy from the Conservative government. In actual fact I found a newer article explaining the risks we still face from horrific air pollution in the capital, explaining how children are severely at risk – this time with a flying Mary Poppins in the sky. In terms of Donald Trump, Greenpeace erected a huge banner behind the White House in January 2017 stating “Resist”, and yet since that day, the gagging order on the Environmental Protection Agency has not been lifted. Perhaps it’s too harsh to judge for now but where is the constant rallying of pressure? The point is this, I am not against what Greenpeace is fighting for and I honestly believe we need social movements such as Greenpeace to help mobilise the people. Yet this is clearly what is not happening. Greenpeace instead seem to be opting for a trend on Twitter and thinks this support is going to stretch out over the many years it’ll take to solve social issues such as this. Greenpeace have proven themselves to be incredibly successful over many years in solving problems, but it seems that they are now seeking short-lived support for issues far bigger than a hashtag.

In conclusion, social movements are exactly what we as citizens need. We need social movements to see corporations such as Nike held responsible like in the 1990s. We need social movements to end deforestation. We need social movements to highlight Donald Trump’s censorship of the media. We need them. However, we need them to not opt for short-lived demonstrations that result in conversations that end once it no longer trends. We need corporations to be held to account in the long term, we need perseverance and mixed tactics to bring down capitalist giants that refuse to morals.


10 WWF Success Stories of 2014 | Stories | WWF (accessed 5.22.17).
Corporate social responsibility: how the movement has evolved since the 90s | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian (accessed 5.22.17).
Deforestation | Threats | WWF  (accessed 5.22.17).
Do boycotts really work? | Vital Signs | The Guardian  (accessed 5.22.17).
Greenpeace activists hang giant “Resist” banner near White House | Global | The Guardian  (accessed 5.22.17).
Greenpeace activists put gas mask on Nelson’s column in pollution protest | Environment | The Guardian (accessed 5.22.17).
Major King Events Chronology: 1929-1968 | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute (accessed 5.22.17).
Sarah Soule: How Activism Can Fuel Corporate Social Responsibility | Stanford Graduate School of Business. (accessed 5.22.17).
Successes | Greenpeace UK. (accessed 5.22.17).
Up where the air isn’t clear | Greenpeace UK. (accessed 5.22.17).


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