In an age of political gridlock, stakeholders recognize that the most likely campaign wins will come from corporations rather than regulators. "Extreme energy" is today's biggest issue, and brands may soon find themselves in the crosshairs.
By Kellen Klein, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Future 500
It’s time for a little word association: Toys and fracking.
Soda and tar sands.
Supermarkets and Arctic drilling.
Do you see the connections? Activists do.
The pairs above are all examples of recent campaigns targeting prominent international brands, launched by environmental groups eager to slow global fossil fuel development:
- In late 2013, campaigner Climate Parents launched a petition asking Radio Disney to sever its education-based partnership with the fracking-friendly Ohio Oil and Gas Association. Accompanied by 85,000 signatures and one viral Twitter hashtag, Disney agreed to cancel the program.
- Last May, Sierra Club and Forest Ethics launched the Future Fleet campaign, asking PepsiCo and Coca-Cola to not use tar sands-based fuel in their large vehicle fleets. The campaign is ongoing but ForestEthics has already secured similar commitments from 19 major companies.
- In late 2012, Greenpeace U.K. called on luxury supermarket chain Waitrose to end its relationship with Shell due to the energy company’s plans to drill for oil in the fragile Arctic. The campaign worked and the partnership was halted (although new talks between the companies have Greenpeace reportedly considering additional action).
Many companies might find these campaigns confusing or at the very least distracting. Consumer brands are used to stakeholders raising concerns regarding their products, operating practices, and human rights records.
But fracking? Tar sands?
There’s no denying it’s a bit of stretch to make consumers understand the links between “extreme energy” – a catch-all term for fossil fuel sources and extraction processes deemed dirtier and more dangerous than traditional drilling – and their favorite brands. But for environmental groups and their funders, such unusual tactics are desperately needed.
The Stakes Are High
North America is in the midst of a massive energy boom. Shale, fracking, oil sands, pipelines, LNG, coal exports, offshore – these are the words of the day and the stakes are high. Activists have repeatedly demonstrated they’re not going to tolerate aggressive extraction practices sitting down (unless chained to a drill rig). But with billions of dollars in profit on the line, energy companies appear more than willing to play hardball via injunctions and other legal recourse. Consequently, campaigners are now eyeing less combative pathways to address rampant fossil fuel use.
But Why Brands?
1) They're visible
Name 10 cereal brands. Now name 10 energy companies. See the point? To drive it home, here’s a graph of the average Tweets per day over the last month for Disney compared to ExxonMobil and Chevron, the world’s two largest publicly traded energy companies (that’s Disney in green):
Campaigns need two things to succeed – money and publicity.
The former depends largely on the latter. In the age of social media and ubiquitous marketing, consumer brands make for compelling “targets by proxy” to ultimately fight energy companies and lax regulation. In other words, the brand is what grabs your attention and urges you to learn more, even if it’s not the true target.
2) Their footprints are huge
In a perfect world, most campaigners would likely prefer to go directly for Chevron’s jugular. But asking Coca-Cola to reduce its transportation fuel use, for example, is not exactly a bad substitute. According to Sierra Club, the beverage titan “generated 5.32 million metric tons of carbon pollution in 2011.” That’s more than the emissions of many countries. Reducing the company’s emissions across numerous supply platforms will undoubtedly have substantial benefits for the planet and human health. Avoid sourcing fuel from particularly high-impact regions like the Canadian oil sands and the environmental benefits are potentially even greater.
Perhaps even more importantly for activists, sustainability is a growing point of competition for consumer-hungry brands – just look at the commitments to greener chemistry the apparel industry has made since Nike and Puma first accepted Greenpeace’s Detox challenge. If campaigners are successful in getting even a few brands to oppose “extreme energy,” there’s a good chance many others will follow and put significant pressure on the fossil fuel industry to reduce its environmental impacts.
3) The campaigns work
All the campaigns mentioned above led to firm commitments or internal changes from the targeted brands. There are similar examples across other key stakeholder issues such as forestry, where brand-focused campaigns led to dialogue and eventual significant environmental pledges from suppliers like Asia Pulp & Paper. In an age of political gridlock, stakeholders recognize that the most likely campaign “wins” will come from corporations rather than regulators.
Engage Post Haste
The battle over “extreme energy” is just beginning and stakeholders realize the need to accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy. When it comes to “unconventional" energy development like fracking or tar sands, no company should consider themselves immune to stakeholder activism. Brands might feel far removed from such contentious issues but activists have proven that clever campaigns targeting these companies – be it for their sourcing practices, operations, or simply the company they keep – are both effective and impactful.
But now is not the time to panic.
Prescient brands should begin educating themselves on “extreme energy”– not just to prepare for possible activism, but also to understand the risks this new energy boom may pose to their business. Train crashes, wastewater contamination, pipeline ruptures, and climate change are capable of harming corporate bottom lines as much as they harm communities. Climate adaptation and improved water management will be imperative for 21st century businesses; stakeholder campaigns are simply forcing companies to start thinking about it sooner.
Furthermore, brands need not wait with the door locked for their stakeholders to come knocking. Many companies have already demonstrated the effectiveness of proactive engagement with civil society on climate and energy issues. Even corporations who find themselves under fire should not feel the need to resort to litigation or combative tactics – we at Future 500 already created a roadmap employing an alternate path.
When it comes to corporate and social responsibility, society’s expectations are higher than ever. But as with other critical environmental and social issues, consumer-facing brands shouldn’t feel compelled to “go it alone” when addressing extreme energy. Stakeholders are chomping at the bit to assist companies in tackling this new challenge and to begin considering the higher-level solutions needed for a clean energy future.
Brands that engage now can still dictate the narrative; brands that don’t may soon find a mob at the gate.
About the Author:
Kellen Klein is a Stakeholder Engagement Manager at Future 500, a global nonprofit specializing in stakeholder engagement and building bridges between parties at odds – corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others – to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.