Growing numbers of activist and advocacy organizations are embracing the world’s biggest corporations as allies.
Oxfam has partnered with Marks & Spencer, Nokia, and KPMG; the Human Rights Campaign has partnerships with Apple, Microsoft, and American Airlines; the WWF has a worldwide partnership with Coca-Cola worth over US$20 million a year; and Greenpeace has teamed up with PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Unilever to market ‘natural refrigerants’.
Even the anti-corporate Occupy Wall Street has taken donations from business leaders. Definitely many activists remain wary of companies, well aware of the long corporate history of human rights abuses, unfair wages, and environmental damage. Yet a new ethos of cooperation is clearly emerging, with activists increasingly asserting that it’s possible to partner with corporations without compromising values and goals. ‘Corporations,’ Greenpeace USA tells us, ‘can be extraordinarily dynamic, powerful, and swift allies’.
Many groups, including Greenpeace, continue to condemn corporate misconduct. Most now, however, are speaking in business- and market-friendly language. They are calling for ethical consumption, eco-labels, and voluntary corporate codes of conduct; and they are choosing to co-brand consumer products to raise money for campaigns. Many NGOs are still calling for an end to the most egregious abuses—such as ‘modern slavery’—yet far fewer are working toward broad reforms to the world economy, such as establishing fair wages and safe workplaces.
The time, energy, and resources that activist groups are devoting to partnerships and multistakeholder coalitions reflects a growing belief in—or at least a begrudging acceptance of—voluntary corporate governance and business responsibility, as well as global capitalism more broadly.
Protest Inc. investigates the consequences of these trends for the power and influence of activism and big business. We ask, how are corporate funding and values changing NGOs? How are strengthening ties between corporations and NGOs interfacing with grassroots movements? And what are the consequences of corporatization for the potential of activism to spark change within world politics?
The answers, we argue, should worry anyone who believes that ‘another world is possible’. Even as workers and environmentalists and the unemployed continue to take to the streets to call for democracy and redistribution, the general trend, we argue, is nevertheless toward a corporatization of activism that is diminishing the power of activism to bring about system-wide change.
By embedding the projects and goals of NGOs in the very systems that activists claim to want to change, corporatization is causing more and more groups to conform with, rather than strive to transform, the capitalist world.
Importantly, this isn’t a simple story of NGOs selling out to big business. Our research reveals that wide-ranging political and socioeconomic shifts are driving corporatization. These include a deepening of consumerism; a worldwide crackdown on protest, direct-action tactics, and confrontational forms of dissent; and the crumbling of the social and material infrastructure once sustaining post-WWII social movements.
Our hope in writing Protest Inc. is to inspire a conversation about why these shifts are deradicalizing activism—and how best to challenge them.
Genevieve LeBaron is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow in Politics at the University of Sheffield.
Peter Dauvergne is Professor of International Relations and Director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia.
They are co-authors of Protest Inc.: The Corporatization of Activism.