Four reasons why you should never hate a company if you want to change the world

30 May 2016

Anti-Nestle campaign

Lots of companies have attracted the negative attention of campaigners. Even the most impressive sustainability champions have had protesters pointing fingers at them at one time or another. It’s one of those things. If the issue is a genuine one, the companies find a way to change what they do, and everyone moves on.

But then there are a select few companies who are hated for who they are just as much, if not more, than what they do.

Nestlé has been one of those companies for decades. Exxon is one. Monsanto is another. People talk about “why Nestlé is evil” and they go on the “March Against Monsanto.”

These conversations are not about what the companies need to do differently. They are about how every right-thinking person should have nothing to do with that company. Ever. 

If you are serious about wanting to see change in the world, there are some good reasons why that’s not a great habit to get into.

1. You give up an achievable goal for an unachievable one

If you campaign for a company to change what it does, whatever that may be, then you present them with a demand that they need to work out if they can meet. If you oppose the company, your proposition is that the company should simply go away and die. You leave it nowhere to go.

There is no history of anti-company campaigns successfully bringing those companies to bankruptcy

Because guess what? Given the choice to fight or die, they will fight. So would you, offered the same choice.

When Gandhi was campaigning to make the British leave India, he said that it was a solution that was in their mutual interest, it was just that the British hadn’t realised it yet. Seeing it that way completely changes the nature of the task you’re trying to achieve. 

Think of yourself as the company’s ally. The challenge is for them to be able to adapt to the issue at hand whilst still being a successful business, giving jobs to people, making products that people want or need. The nature of the debate consequently moves from an adversarial one into a problem-solving one.

2. You miss one of the best opportunities for a fresh start

When you hate a company you are effectively turning that brand into a surrogate person. But of course companies are communities of people, with the key decisions taken by a leadership that regularly changes. 

When a new leadership arrives, there is a valuable window of opportunity to persuade this ambitious new broom that the healthiest future for the company under his or her care lies in a more progressive attitude to its role in a sustainable future.

People that simply hate the firm often don’t even notice that the faces have changed. They see it as irrelevant to their aim, which is to destroy the company and what they believe it stands for. They may even react negatively if there is a suggestion that the new regime is more sustainability-minded, seeing it as a threat to the campaign to persuade everyone that the company is evil.

Of course, if the company has done things that are criminal in nature, the legal liability for that stays with the company. It is treated as a legal person in that regard, as it should be. None of this is about removing accountability in that sense.

But that shouldn’t lead you into actually treating the company as a person, whose past behaviour should lead you to make assumptions about the future. Not if the key personnel have changed in the mean time.

3. You are more likely to misread what’s actually going on

If you’re serious about achieving change, it’s important to have real clarity about the facts. Even if you’re in an adversarial situation, it’s important to know how close the enemy is to actually capitulating, and to do that you have to understand them and their real motivations.

As soon as you assume that the company is implacably evil, staffed purely by bad people at the top, and at best shameless people elsewhere, then you are much more likely to read ill intent into everything that they do.

For example, all the memes that circulated suggesting that the CEO of Nestlé had said that access to clean water should not be a human right, implying that he had meant that poor people should have no right to drinking water. That was nowhere near the point that he was making and Nestlé has actually been one of the companies that has done the most on changing practices to improve water consumption. But large numbers of people now believe it as fact.

Such misperceptions will lead you not only to miss real change, but potentially in so doing to put yourself in the position of making such change more difficult.

When I’ve spoken to some companies about their approach to corporate social responsibility, they’ve bemoaned the fact that they feel like they get no credit for taking genuinely difficult steps in the right direction, and this makes it harder for them to sell the value of such steps to their CEO. To some extent, that’s their problem – to build a robust business case that doesn’t depend on the approval of others. But on the other hand, what’s the point of your campaign if it’s actually making real change more difficult? Presumably that’s not the rallying cry you intended.

4. You’re tempted towards campaign messages that are ineffective

When significant bodies of people adopt a hate figure, they very quickly persuade themselves that all right-thinking people see that figure in the same way. They can end up using that as a key part of their campaign message, not realising that it simply doesn’t resonate for others. They’re using a language particular to them. Obviously, effective campaigns are built on a common language.

For instance, some people recently urged a boycott of Starbucks arguing that it was allying with Monsanto to oppose laws on GM labelling (in fact, all that was the case was that Starbucks was a member of the industry association). So they produced posters with messages such as “Monsanto Latte.” It’s a slogan that means nothing to anyone except those who know of, and hate, Monsanto.

Take the current campaign that is focusing on glyphosate, the most commonly used weed killer that some are now arguing should be banned because of a potential link with cancer. This is being taken as another stick with which to beat Monsanto. “Monsanto is poisoning you” etc.

As far as the general public is concerned, this completely misses the context where they might seeing this issue. Glyphosate is one of the few remaining effective weed killers available for people to use in their gardens. Gardeners face the prospect of it being banned as a considerable hardship to them, and are therefore likely to interpret it as ‘busybodies’ making their life more difficult for no good reason. By seeing the issue as a stick to beat a company, rather than an issue that may have a significant downside for millions of people, the ability to craft an appropriate communication to build wider support is completely missed. And that makes it less likely to succeed.

Conclusion

Here’s the bottom line. There is no history whatsoever of anti-company campaigns successfully bringing those companies to bankruptcy. For instance, Nestlé has continued to thrive as a global corporation throughout the years of the high profile boycott against it.

There is considerable history of companies, targeted for specific changes relating to practices that have a genuinely negative impact, changing those practices in response.

There is some history of companies that used to be blind to the issues suddenly taking them on board and pushing them to a scale previously unimagined. Think GE’s ecomagination, that was certainly not anticipated during the era of Jack Welch. Think WalMart on climate change. 

The truth of it is that if sustainable development is going to become mainstream (and it’s not sustainable development if it doesn’t) then the major corporations are going to become one of the channels for that to happen. That needs to include the ones you love to hate. It will take forms that don’t meet what you believe to be the ideal but that’s what happens when it goes to scale.

Companies of all sizes are our much-needed allies in the attempt to build a more sustainable future and to solve some of the big problems facing us.

It’s just that some of them don’t realise it yet.

To get there, we need to focus on the change we want to create in the world. That is a very different process to the self-indulgence that frames enemies to be fought and demons to be killed.