Harnessing customer climate activism

Jon Woodhead - February 19, 2021

Power to the people      In early 2021, the shareprice of Gamestop was affected by the actions of small shareholders co-ordinated via the social media forum, reddit.  Whether you believe this was really a case of the underdog striking back against the vultures of Wall Street, or just grown-up kids getting protective of their old-time favourite game shop, it doesn’t matter.  What this case does give us is a glimpse of the possibilities for this type of social activism, and how it can be harnessed for good.

Traditionally, NGOs have brought forward shareholder resolutions on climate change at AGMs, on behalf of those impacted by a company’s action (or inaction).  This was typically a time consuming process that required knowledge of company processes, and a connection between NGOs and those without a ‘voice’ or other means to raise concerns.  Now we can imagine other ways in which the ‘reddit approach’ can be used to put power, information and a means to speak-as-one into the hands of the masses. 

No longer does information on a company’s climate impacts, management approach and performance, need to be limited by what is communicated by the company in annual sustainability reports or corporate websites.  Data and information can be rapidly shared, building ‘swarm intelligence’ amongst a community of interested parties, leading to recommended actions that could have far reaching consequences.  These consequences are not limited to share prices – brands could suffer large scale sales declines as a result of momentum building behind a reddit thread on climate change, or on other sustainability topics – not least diversity and inclusion.  In the current ‘cancel culture’, this is a potentially significant risk to any brand.  According to a 2020 study by Edelman: 74 percent of consumers say a brand’s impact on society is a reason why brand trust has become more important; 85 percent want brands to ‘solve my problems’; 80 percent want brands to ‘solve society’s problems’.

Reaching out     So what can a company do, not only to mitigate these risks, but to get ahead of the curve? 

Be proactive, but…  When pressure and noise around an issue ramps up, so does the feeling that you need to say something.  But if you have not done the work ahead of time, to decide what to say – and more importantly – why you are saying it, a hurried approach can backfire.  Looking again at Edelman’s surveys, they found that most investors (85 percent) believe companies are not prepared for shareholder activism.  Investors themselves are taking action, with 95 percent planning to increase their engagement with company boards over the impact of climate risk.  You need to have something to say, which brings us to…

Say something meaningful  It’s easy to get lost in sustainability jargon and acronyms, especially around climate change.  Do you know the difference between GRI and SASB, or the difference between Representative Concentration Pathways and Shared Socioeconomic Pathways?  When it comes down to customer communications, the simpler the message the better.  What matters is demonstrating that you know where your most significant climate impacts are, how you are managing these, and articulating the wider range of risks and opportunities associated with climate change.  Quality communications like this rely on research, data, analysis and insight that are developed and distilled over time.

Build trust  Fear of greenwashing is now a healthy pre-occupation for brands, who know their customers will see through any trite or misleading claims on climate action.  So what makes for authentic communications on climate action?  Trust can be supported through independent checks, but above all, trust is earned through delivery of a shared endeavour.  Customers that can see that their concerns around climate change are understood and acted upon by brands, will be attracted to those brands.  When customers feel that through their purchases they are contributing to increased action on climate change – here is where trust is nurtured into a powerful connection between customer and brand.

Seeing the wood for the trees   A number of brands are now exploring new ways to make this connection.  Here at Challenge Sustainability we’ve decided to join the dots by working with a new initiative focussed on protecting the rainforest.  The One Tribe platform offers a way for brands to link their online sales with action to protect rainforests.  Every online sale and lead that is tracked through One Tribe protects 100 square metres of the rainforest, home to approximately 25 trees. For each online sale or lead, a micro-donation is triggered, of which the majority goes directly to rainforest charities to fund rainforest protection.  One Tribe’s partner rainforest charities have protected more than 23 million acres of rainforest since the 1980s.  Participating businesses like Nuzest, Treat RepublicGungho, and Goose Studios are already on board and tracking their contributions.  Challenge Sustainability has decided to join this movement and we will be setting up ways to work together with One Tribe to build uptake and make our own contributions towards climate action.  For every new business that signs up for a subscription through the link below, One Tribe will pay to protect an acre of rainforest in the name of Challenge Sustainability!

We’ll publish details on our website, and in the meantime if you want to find out more, click here.