Why social movements Trump the corporation
post by Helen Crowley
A corporation – a separate legal entity created by individuals, stockholders, or shareholders, with the purpose of operating for profit. In modern society, the Corporation has arguably become the prevalent economic institution, with a staggering 37 of the world’s largest economies being corporations. As Voltaire (1793) once said, with great power comes great responsibility, and the rise of social movements has certainly raised questions about what exactly the corporations should be held accountable for, and why they have a duty to act in a responsible manner.
Sociology suggests that corporations have the potential to be vehicles for positive social change, primarily due to their influence on the market and therefore, their power to set up corporate social responsibility programmes (King and Pearce, 2010). The ideas surrounding corporate accountability has led to the development of the concept Corporate Social Responsibility, defined as ‘the duty of every corporate body to protect the interest of the society at large’ (Holme and Watts, 1999). However, what happens when corporations seem to be blissfully ignorant of such responsibility?
The answer lies with the rise in the activism of contemporary social movements who routinely take aim at corporations, and use campaigns to reinvigorate debates about corporate responsibility within and across borders. (Bartley and Child (2014). But with so many corporations, how do they decide who to target? Bartley and Child (2014) found that a firm’s power, its position relative to points of production and consumption, and its spatial organization shape the likelihood of becoming a social movement target. Social movements may seek to achieve changes in numerous ways, but most prominently through direct challenges to the corporation, who are often more responsive to new types of social activism than it is to the government. (King and Pearce, 2010).
The main form of direct challenges is the use of boycotts, whereby consumers avoid the interaction with products related to a specific corporation. Such action has become commonplace in a consumer orientated society, 2014 suffered a year of protests with several high profile corporations coming under fire. Amazon came under scrutiny when it emerged they weren’t paying their workers a fair wage, leading to a boycott costing the internet giant £2.5 million under the slogan an ‘Amazon-free Christmas’, during the 2014 festive period. Starbucks found itself facing a revenue loss of 3.4% in a single year, as a result of a boycott following their involvement in a tax-avoidance scandal.
The use of social movements to empower the consumer to boycott unethical corporations is certainly not a new phenomenon. One of the most high profile and successful boycotts was the Greenpeace campaign against Shell in 1995, which resulted in a fall in sales of up to 70% in some companies, and led to the prevention of future dumping of oil-rigs in the North-East Atlantic.
The nature of boycotts, while having the potential for global action, also enables them to happen on a local scale. Perhaps the most consistent city-wide boycott is the case of Liverpool and the News of the World Corporation, spanning almost 30 years. This stems from the outrage of their newspaper ‘The Sun’ colluding with the Police to create a narrative that blamed the fans for the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. Such action helped to perpetuate an establishment cover-up and prevent justice for the victims, which still to this day, no one from the News of the World Corporation, has been held accountable for. A systematic city-wide boycott is no easy feat, from taxi’s branding the famous ‘Don’t Buy The S*n’ slogan escalating up to Royal Mail allowing its employees to opt out of delivering the newspaper in the Merseyside area. Boycotts allow the transfer of power from the Corporation right into the hands of the consumer which in turn impacts upon the now politicised markets, a powerful tool for enabling change in an economically focused world.
What happens to the markets, however, when the head of a large corporation ventures into the political domain? Enter, Donald Trump. As head of the Trump Organisation, he presides over an empire worth in excess of $2.7 billion, yet the world now finds the business tycoon as the Leader of the Free World.
Trump previously bragged about the 21% gains in the stock market since his election, but this coincided with good predicted returns and strong economic tailwinds. So what about his business gains? Since his announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, the Trump Organisation has not been immune to boycotts, both nationally and globally. Abroad, his Turnberry golf resort in Scotland reported losses of $23million in 2016 and a fall in revenue by 16%. Closer to home, the political divide in America had a profound impact upon his resorts, particularly in 2016. In Florida, revenues were rising for two golf clubs he owns in the state, a state which he won in the 2016 Presidential Election. Clubs owned by the Trump Organisation in traditionally Democratic states, however, such as in the Bronx, New York, reported an 8% drop in rounds of golf. Such statistics clearly highlight the profound impacts that political, as well as social movements have on the Corporation through the interaction, or lack thereof, with markets.
The Corporation is omnipresent in the modern day consumer society, but not necessarily for the right reasons. More often than not corporations make the news headlines for all the wrong reasons, and social movements appear to be the main actor in attempting to hold corporations to account. Are, therefore, the ever-increasing political markets the battleground for this clash? Corporations rely on them to profit, and social movements seeking ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ use them as a leverage to try to ensure fair play. There is certainly nothing novel about this issue, but the widespread use of the Internet and social media have very real potential to help ensure that such ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ could become commonplace in an economically driven society.
Bartley, T., Child, C. (2014) “Shaming the Corporation: The Social Production of Targets and the Anti-Sweatshop Movement”, American Sociological Review, 79(4), pp.653-679.Available online (Accessed: 17/04/2018)
Holme, R. Watts, P. (1999) “Corporate social responsibility.” Geneva: World Business Council for Sustainable Development
King, B.G., Pearce, N.A. (2010) “The Conscientiousness of Markets: Politics, Social Movements and Institutional Change in Markets”, Annual Review of Sociology, Vol 36, pp.249-267. Available online (Accessed: 16/04/2018)1973)
Collection Générale des Décrets Rendus par la Convention National Volume 9 (Publisher: Chez Baudouin, Imprimeur de la Convention Nationale: Paris.)