Why business needs more activism

Two decades ago, business and NGOs sat poles apart, wary of each other’s intent and aims. Twenty years on — and with the realization of the need for collective action on environmental and social issues that play out across geographical, political, market and ecosystem boundaries — we see a shifting landscape. But has this move towards a focus on partnerships and collaboration overshadowed the critical tool of activism that is so important for helping companies move in the direction that is needed?

SustainAbility has for many years observed and researched the relationships between NGOs, business and markets. We have seen the rapid transition from an era when suspicion between civil society and business ran deep to the current reality, where much hope and expectation rests on the private sector working closely with traditional activists and governments to co-create solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges.

A GlobeScan/SustainAbility Survey on Activism released at the start of the year found that the majority of sustainability experts are convinced that NGOs can be more effective on sustainable development by collaborating with — rather than by confronting — business. They also said that companies should increasingly engage with NGOs to determine how they can best advance the agenda together.

Much-needed environmental, social and economic advancements have in recent years come through business, government and civil society working together to develop solutions, to collectively change understanding and mindsets, as well as to develop a new set of frameworks that support sustainable development. Sir Mark Moody-Stuart observes, in one of the interviews conducted for our video interview series The Regeneration Roadmap: “Many of the big successes — sustainable fisheries, Forest Stewardship Council, Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights, the Kimberly Process — they are all products of these alliances.”

In our own strategic advice to companies on how to engage with stakeholders we have been actively pushing for a shift from stakeholder dialogue to collaboration. And indeed, we now see business and NGOs cooperating, working together and co-creating in a way that would have been unheard of two decades ago.

Next page: The need for watchdogs