Imagine the scene: the chairman of Shell UK, Erik Bonino, sitting alongside Lee-Anne Barraclough, Shell’s VP of communications, over a Pret a Manger takeaway at Shell’s offices in London. They look out the window at the giant mechanical polar bear that’s been parked there since the morning, “I think we need to back out of the Arctic – this reputational damage is destroying us,” they bemoan, over the echoes of Emma Thompson shouting through a loudspeaker in the background.
The reality, of course, was far more nuanced, with politics and protest both playing a role in the decision. But the economics were undoubtedly the bigger tipping point. A more likely scene would have placed the finance director and the head of exploration shouting expletives at each other around a boardroom table wondering why their $7bn spent to date had added up to nothing, blaming each other for poor forecasting and a failure to grasp the realpolitik.
Meanwhile, in another corner, Volkswagen’s use of sophisticated software to cheat emission tests, even after having been the toast of CSR awards and sustainability indexes alike, tragically proved that corporate misbehaviour still seems to be the rule rather than the exception.
Both companies are exemplars of “the thin yes” – the superficial and ultimately empty nod to sustainable behaviour in order to gain competitive ground, easily sacrificed when profits are at stake.
But did it really have to come to this? Did Shell have to spend $7bn before giving in? Did VW need to cut corners to sacrifice its previously stellar reputation? What else could campaigners have done? We already know that even changing underlying laws are subject to wax and wane with a fickle electorate. The government’s current dismantling of renewable subsidies is a case in point.
The antidote is far more challenging. “As much effort needs to be placed on shifting values and cultures as it is on changing economics and laws,” says Duncan McLaren, the former CEO of Friends of the Earth Scotland. There is, he argues, a far bigger difference between companies motivated by values and those motivated by markets. And it’s more of the former that we need.
Engaging in values sounds woolly, but it is exactly the opposite. It takes bravery, it takes time, and it takes a complete shift in our thinking. Having spoken to a number of campaigners, I’ve arrived at three key starting points.
Campaign on cultural change
You can campaign to stop an oil company. You might even be able to strike a nerve and inspire people in the short-term to donate money, which gives you the mandate to carry on. But in this era of hyper media, where these tactics become part of the normal, everyday landscape, their efficacy is diminished. Good stunts make headlines and put a gradual dent in the armour of the company targeted, but as a colleague once said, this is no more than the “whack-a-mole” outcome – another one pops up as soon as one is dampened down.
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We’ve ended up with a Tory government because they promise more money in an individual’s pocket, or an illusion of security for one’s family. These are me-me-me policies at a time when politics in general, is distrusted. Can campaigners have a role in shaping the values of an electorate to prioritise pro-social and environmental we-we-we policies?
Tom Crompton, a director of the Common Cause Foundation which researches and promotes shared values, suggests that alongside sending out a plea to save the near extinct tiger, for example, we should be campaigning to shape cultural values. His first point of call would be advertising, because it inspires extrinsic values – such as status or material wealth – which actually undermine public support for common services like health, education or the environment. Tighter restrictions on advertising – especially to children – would be a good start in shaping the values for the future.
I recognise that short-term campaign wins are needed to keep people inspired. But quite often, campaigners drop the ball afterward. A law is won, but there’s no scope to hold the government to account for upholding it or to test its application through the courts. A company retreats from a project, but any conversation with them stops short. Once the publicity dies down, companies are at it again.
Short-term actions are enabled by a funding sector and supporters that want to see visible results. And they’re demanded because the urgency of matters, like climate change, deem long-term strategies a luxury. We need to overcome this.
Long-term strategies would enable better collaboration, both inside the NGO sector and between other sectors; less reliance on promotions that over-play small successes; and more deep thinking about how change happens. It would focus some of our time on finding and building constituents of shared concern – looking at systemic change, rather than short-term transactional shifts that don’t add up.
Talk to the “enemy”
Slavery was ended, in no small part, by a group of Quakers who, rather than accusing business leaders of being evil, simply asked the question: “is it right to keep slaves?” Even the suffragettes’ militant tactics were considered by some historians to hinder rather than help their cause.
No doubt, direct action helps bring issues to the headlines, but on their own they’re unlikely to bring about change. At some point, you need people to break ranks, to go behind enemy lines, and people who are prepared to listen without judgement. We spend far too much time preaching to the converted and not nearly enough time conversing with people who disagree with us.
Shifting cultural values is far more difficult than anything campaigners do at the moment. But it’s a useful starting point in helping to change the repetitive paradigm we find ourselves in. History may repeat itself, but with a bit of ingenuity and dash of optimism, it may not have to.