Pushing CSR in cyberspace

The internet makes it easier to track corporate behavior, and is becoming a powerful tool for pushing corporate social responsibility (CSR), reports Lynne Elvins, E-Comms Manager at sustainable development consultancy, SustainAbility.

Websites, online discussion groups, listservs and databases are relatively inexpensive methods of global communication for campaigners, which means that pressure groups can, for a very low cost, potentially reach an audience of millions. And, as customers and consumers become more informed about corporate responsibility, they are able to exert more pressure on companies.

This was highlighted when police faced thousands of demonstrators at the meeting of the World Bank and the IMF in 2000, compared to the few dozen protestors that had turned up the previous year. The increase in numbers was attributed, in a large way, to the internet, which allowed activists to get together, communicate their grievances and swell their ranks. The event put online activism on the map as a powerful and successful tool to challenge corporate behavior.

E-mail revolutionized business communications, but is also widely used by networks of activists across the globe. The most notorious type of e-mail campaign is the uncontrollable e-petition. These are rarely taken seriously by their targets, and are becoming a major headache for IT administrators but they do manage to raise awareness of the issue in question.

Using a more considered approach and through careful targeting, campaign-related e-mails have been effectively used to push home a point to business. When Jonah Peretti was refused the word ‘sweatshop’ on his customizable Nike shoes, the response was e-mailed to a dozen friends, and from there it raced around the internet, reaching millions of people. Time, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Business Week covered the story. The exchange is now working its way into sociology textbooks, viral marketing seminars and business-school cases.

But no e-mail campaign is complete without a website, and amongst the web campaigns today, there has been an explosion of anti-corporate activities – ihatestarbucks.com, mcspotlight.org, aolwatch.org, noamazon.com, gapsucks.org to name a few. Cindy Baxter, Campaign Co-ordinator for www.stopesso.com, a campaign against oil company Esso, says the website has been highly successful, with thousands of visitors logging in every week and 6,500 people signing up to their e-mail discussion. A key tool that they have used is the ability to type in a UK postcode (zipcode) to find and boycott local Esso stations. But as well as helping local co-ordination, the site also took the message around the world.

“After the UK, the site is also popular in the US, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands,” said Baxter. “News of an event last September went ‘viral’ and we ended up getting mentions and links from Brazil, Finland, Portugal, Latvia and Hungary, as well as our usual support areas. The website is a central part of our campaigning.”

Spreading the message is having an effect. In December 2001, Robert Monks, Chairman of LENS Investment Management and Ram Trust Services, stated that there have been “dozens of stories highlighting criticism of [Esso] for its environmental and social positions. Bad publicity destroys shareholder value”.

Communicating globally via their website has also been a major benefit for Global Exchange in their aim to promote human rights understanding. Jason Mark, Communications Director re-emphasizes that “by making communication cheaper and easier, the internet makes organizing easier. And the better our organization, the more of a threat we are.”

But beyond the ability to disseminate information, they too have employed more creative Internet tools. Global Exchange members and supporters can fax policy makers directly from their website. “We can give our supporters the opportunity to express themselves with a click of the mouse. People can communicate their disapproval of corporate policies directly from our website.” With 15,000 people signing up to their e-mail lists and tools to facilitate head-on communication Mark believes this should have a democratizing effect on corporations.

It’s not just the campaigners who are mobilizing on the Internet. Customers can also use the web to add their voice to the protests. Boycott Action News and Consumers International provide comprehensive lists of current consumer boycotts, details on organizations leading them and the rationale behind them. And, customers are learning about product information over the internet through ‘conversations’ based on real experiences. These exchanges about companies and their products are said to carry far more weight with many customers than corporate advertising. And, although these websites can be a thorn in the side of the companies, they can also serve as a direct, frank, and anonymous communication channel for business leaders to learn from.

As organizations realize the power of one-stop-shops, portals rather than websites are beginning to appear, providing centralized information on specific topics. Responsible Shopper has a feature called ‘compare companies’, which pulls up company rankings in different industries. Several organizations have emerged recently that are providing online ‘reporting portals’ – sites that provide users with the ability to see published corporate responsibility information from a variety of member companies.

The ability to easily compare company information like this is a huge benefit of the portal approach. And, if portals are run independently by trusted organizations, they add a level of credibility to the information. “The world is suspicious of what companies say about themselves. We are trying to help organizations communicate what they have done in a way that is reliable, so that those using the information can feel secure.” Says Prof. Karl Lidgren, Chairman of Global Responsibility, who have created an online platform where companies can report on their work towards achieving sustainable development.

Many company websites already have their own range of information on environmental and social responsibilities, but the majority of corporate responses to online campaigns are defensive and heavy-handed. Trying to shut down an anti-company website, or leaning on a third-party provider, such as Yahoo!, to block users from their system, may be correct in the eyes of the law, but the PR implications of being heavy-handed may do more harm than good. The increased ability to put corporations under the spotlight reflects the communications revolution of internet and online networking. Companies should consider biting the bullet, and engage with their online critics, such as with Royal Dutch/Shell’s Tell Shell facility, which has allowed the company to successfully connect with its detractors (see related feature).

As well as being E-Comms Manager at SustainAbility, Lynne Elvins is co-author of the recently published Virtual Sustainability: Using the Internet to Implement the Triple Bottom Line. SustainAbility’s customers include Ford, Nike and BASF.

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