Every so often, business collides in a shower of sparks with emerging social movements, but what happens when business starts to build its own social movements? This question has been in my mind as we helped evolve The B Team, the new sustainable business platform chaired by Sir Richard Branson of Virgin and former PUMA CEO Jochen Zeitz.
There is growing business interest in building social movements, but what makes such movements not just effective but also legitimate?
The Emerging Science of Movement Building
An expert movement builder I grilled on the subject was James Slezak, a partner at New York-based Purpose. Previously, he led projects for McKinsey & Company, including developing green stimulus plans for the Australian Prime Minister and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, developing strategy for a major global anti-poverty group, and leading the Russian national carbon efficiency project in Moscow.
So does he see an emergent science of social movement building? Yes, Slezak said,
“In the sense of a field that is advancing, with practical goals, tools, practitioners and successes. We are clearly better at mobilizing social change than we were 50 years ago, in part because of people deliberately studying how to do it.”
And are there encouraging examples of social movements building today? Yes, again.
“The rapid progression of gay marriage is one great example: it went from almost unthinkable to being official government policy in just five – 10 years. The Occupy movement and Arab Spring uprisings also caught people by surprise in terms of how quickly they grew.”
But surely such movements are not wholly new in what they are trying to do? No, Slezak agreed. "In fact many of the principles and tactics were already being used as far back as the late 1700s abolitionist movement, arguably the first global movement." The big change is that new and increasingly accessible technologies are accelerating the evolution of social media and networks, in turn spurring the scaling of a growing range of campaigns.
The next question: how can we determine whether movements are legitimate? “There are really two dimensions here,” Slezak noted.
“One is the axis of authentic, popular grassroots movements versus so-called ‘astroturf’, or manufactured, campaigns; the other is fast versus slow. I don't think the correlation between those two axes is particularly strong, since we do see fast-emerging, bottom-up movements, like the ones mentioned above, and also slow-emerging manufactured movements. For example, it took the U.S. gun lobby generations of corrupting the political process in the U.S. before their extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment became national policy.”
Astroturf vs. Collaboration
Activists have long had to cope with the emergence of industry-friendly “front” movements.
“At the Kyoto climate conference we came up against the Global Climate Coalition,” Slezak recalled, “a registered NGO, whose denialist position on climate change was spookily similar to that of the oil businesses like Exxon that funded it. Those groups will always try to exaggerate their popular support, and there are lobbying firms on K Street in Washington D.C., who happily write fake letters to newspapers and circulate petitions on their behalf. But the thin veneer of popular legitimacy of these groups becomes clear when you can get any visibility into the basic facts of their membership, funding and operations. They are nothing like a real movement.”
At the same time, however, some social movements do form alliances with existing or emerging industries in ways that Slezak sees as perfectly legitimate. The environmental movement, for example, sees the renewable energy industry as a natural ally.
“Take the Sierra Club, which has commercial revenue-sharing agreements with renewables businesses. Of course, people on the other side will criticize this. Al Gore is no doubt well used to being accused of supporting carbon reduction just so he can get rich on cleantech investments! Still, none of that is sufficient to suggest that the climate change movement is ‘manufactured’ by these industries, because it enjoys a very wide base of support in the community.”
The Sharing Economy Example
Given that groups like Avaaz and Purpose are now in the business of movement building, what sort of issues are surfacing? Slezak explained:
"The group I recently co-founded, Peers.org, had to tackle these questions. It is unapologetically friendly towards organizations that support the sharing economy – both businesses and nonprofits – and receives support from them in various ways.
"We built the organization as a vehicle to support what we believe is a real emergent movement, and we worked with a diverse range of ordinary people who have been advancing it in different ways in their communities."
We were speaking a few days after the Peers.org launch, when it already had 10,000 people signed up. Slezak stressed:
"No matter how well resourced an organization is, it is very difficult to fake popular support effectively. And if you can say you have 10,000 supporters, journalists will ask to speak to them, hear their stories, and try to find out why they were motivated to take part. Those stories would unravel very quickly if people tried to fake that, which is why the most effective astroturf campaigns are secretive, and generally focus on buying advertisements.
"There's a nice example of how much more powerful authentic public support can be than corporate astroturfing," Slezak concluded. "Chevron spent tens of millions on a campaign a couple of years back to whitewash their record. The Yes Men, an activist group of just two or three people, spoofed the ads a few days before the main campaign went live, and ended up with much greater publicity and a larger audience."
So the answer seems to be yes, business can—and will—build social movements. But for those pondering future astroturf solutions, be careful. This can be a double-edged sword.