B Lab Forces for Good Podcast — Episode 4: How can business promote social justice activism?

How can businesses take part in movements for social and environmental justice? By examining their practices and changing for the better — and advocating for peers to do the same — businesses can unlock enormous potential for positive change.
By B Lab Global
November 25, 2022

How can businesses take part in movements for social and environmental justice? It might seem like a strange question — business is a core driver of negative impacts, from economic inequality to environmental extraction. Yet by examining their practices and changing for the better — and advocating for peers to do the same — businesses can unlock enormous potential for positive change. Activism has a place in corporate boardrooms, and businesses can enable activist work both among their employees and in their actions at a corporate level. 

This episode aims to answer the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be a business activist — or an activist business? 

  • How can business activism help companies break beyond working towards what is ‘possible,’ and envisioning what is truly needed to improve life for all people and the planet? 

  • How is business activism tied to collective action in the business community, and how can they complement each other? 

Guests include: 

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TRANSCRIPT: Episode Four — How can business promote social justice activism?

Pavithra (Pavi) Ram, Impact Navigator, Tony’s Chocolonely: So on television, he ate chocolate that he was sure had false and child labor in the supply chain. And then he turned himself in as a chocolate criminal, making himself complicit to illegal labor. 

Charmain Love, Co-founder, B Lab UK; Global Director of Advocacy, Natura & Co.: Every single person in a business has the power to take action to make that business truly a force for good.

Amanda Gordon, Chief Customer Officer, Future Super: [00:24:02] I think that overall. People, consumers, people who are buying products actually care a lot more about what they're buying and who they're buying from. [00:24:12][10.0]

Pavi: Why should businesses who do good be labeled social enterprises? All businesses should be social enterprises. And those that are not should be called asocial or antisocial enterprises. 

This is Forces for Good, a podcast from B Lab, the nonprofit network powering the global B Corp movement. Forces for Good takes a hard look at how businesses are helping to solve the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time. I’m your host Irving Chan-Gomez, joining from the Philadelphia offices of B Lab Global. 

On our podcast, you’ll hear from B Corp leaders, industry experts, and changemakers. We’ll tell you about what companies are doing to move beyond buzzwords--and change destructive practices across industries. We’ll ask tough questions to uncover how we can truly drive positive impact for people and the planet.

How can businesses take part in movements for social and environmental justice? It might sound like a strange question. But after all, business is responsible for driving many of the negative impacts these activist movements fight against, from economic inequality to environmental extraction. 

But what would happen if that activism had a place in corporate boardrooms? As the guests on this episode show us, it’s possible to be a business that empowers and engages in activist movements, both among their employees and in their actions at a corporate level. In this episode, we’ll look at the ways different businesses engage in advocacy, from an ethical investment fund to a social impact chocolate company. We’ll also be joined by the Director of Advocacy at the world’s largest Certified B Corporation. 

Pavithra (Pavi) Ram, Impact Navigator, Tony’s Chocolonely: I think it's I think over the past few years, especially during COVID, we've come to realize that, you know, that all businesses need to be better businesses. Right. So it's it isn't an exception anymore, really should be the norm. [00:07:43][16.4]

That’s Pavithra Ram.  Pavi left the nonprofit sector to become the Impact Navigator at Tony’s Chocolonely.

Pavi: Tony’s was one of the first Dutch brands I became aware of because of  its really strong brand image. So you go to a supermarket. I think it jumped out at me from the shelves. And so and Tony's was what kind of made me aware about the issues in the cocoa sector. So up until then, I was one of those ignorant chocolate consumers. 

Tony’s stands out on a store-shelf both because of its packaging, and because of its mission. Tony’s chocolate wrappers are brightly colored with bold lettering. And they have a seal that reads, “100% Slave free.” Raising awareness about modern slavery and child labor in the cocoa supply chain is the entire reason Tony’s exists. 

Pavi: In its very DNA, it's about the impact that it makes. So we always say Tony's is an impact company that makes chocolate and not the other way around. 

Tony’s origin story is unlike any other. It was conceived not just to provide an alternative to chocolate produced with exploitative and inhumane labor, but to push the whole chocolate industry to stop using these practices. In 2005, a dutch journalist named Teun van de Keuken learned about child labor practices on cocoa farms.

Pavi: He was shocked when he read about forced and child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa, especially because in 2001, many large international chocolate companies had signed something called Harkin Engle Protocol, which was this voluntary commitment promising to eliminate child labor in their supply chains. 

Teun had an investigative tv show at the time and he decided to cover what he thought should be a headline, front page, bombshell issue. The Harkin-Engle protocol, which was signed by companies like Mars, Hershey, and Nestle, hadn’t stopped the exploitation of child laborers on Cocoa farms. When Teun went to produce his show, no one from any of the major chocolate companies wanted to speak to him.

Pavi: So on television, he ate chocolate that he was sure had false and child labor in the supply chain. And then he turned himself in as a chocolate criminal, making himself complicit to illegal labor.

Dutch prosecutors refused to charge Teun, but he still wanted to make an impact. He found witnesses to his crime, 4 children who had been forced to work in modern slavery on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast. Still, prosecutors refused to charge him, saying they would have to prosecute all chocolate eaters if they charged Teun. So, Teun decided to give chocolate consumers an alternative.

Pavi: And what he did then was he decided to set the example himself and produce 5000 Fairtrade chocolate bars in an alarming red packaging. 

And with that batch of chocolate, Tony’s Chocolonely was born. 

Pavi: Tony, the international name for the founder, and chocolate, and his lonely fight to make the cocoa value chain more equal.

Pavi asked me what comes to mind when I think of chocolate. I told her I think of sweetness, joy, and my childhood home in Mexico. 

Pavi: So chocolate is comfort. It's a treat. If you're having a good day chocolate is there to celebrate with you; if you're having a bad day, chocolate is there to comfort you. So it's a treat. It's definitely not a want. It's not something that you need to have. It's very much an indulgence. And that's the thing. So even though chocolate should be a treat for everyone, unfortunately, it's not because there is a very bitter reality behind chocolate. 

On one end of the cocoa supply chain, there are small farmers, on the other, there are chocolate consumers. But, in between, there are actually only a few companies that process cocoa beans into chocolate. And those major chocolate producers keep wages incredibly low for the small farmers. 

Pavi: Historically, they've also kind of kept the chocolate, the cocoa prices, very low, which has resulted in these millions of farmers at the top of the value chain being in poverty. 

But it is not only an issue of working poverty. As a result of low wages, over 1.5 million children work on cocoa farms, and 95 percent of those children are working in hazardous conditions.

Pavi: And often they do this staying back from school so they're not going to school and instead helping out their parents or families on the farm. And no parent — and so as a parent, I can tell you — no parent wants to keep their child away from school, wants their children to work, you know, when they should be studying instead, when they should be playing instead. No one wants that for their child. But this is what their circumstances driven them do. 

Consumers and businesses can have an impact on these supply chain norms by refusing to purchase unethical products.

Pavi: So consumers and retailers have the power to hold chocolate brands accountable. Then we when I talk about creating awareness, it's everything, right? So if you look at Tony's bar, our bar is unequally divided because it reflects the inequality in cocoa. 

Tony’s is leading the fight to take modern slavery out of the cocoa supply chain, and they’re trying to take other chocolate producers with them.

Pavi: So we want to show that chocolate can be produced in a different way, in a more sustainable way, while still being and why you can still be a profitable company among the market leaders. So you can do this. You know, it's not even at all like financial success and ethical sourcing and sustainable businesses. It's not it's not, you know, like either or. It's very complementary. It can go together. And I always say it can and must go together like sea salt and caramel, which is also my favorite Tony's bar. 

In fact, Tony’s wants its competitors to copy them.

Pavi: We want people to join us. So we have the Tony's Open Chain, which is an industry led collaborative initiative where other companies also join us in our way of sourcing, because you do need to collaborate on cocoa and leave the competition on chocolate. 

Tony’s Open Chain includes brands like Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream and ALDI. 

Pavi: The power of collaboration is tremendous, which is why we say together, right? Like in our mission statement, we have to work together— it's only together. Can you actually create systemic, structural change? You can't do it alone. 

So we are Fairtrade certified. We are B Corp Certified, we are proud to be certified. But we also hope for a world in the future where because certification has no significance, because everyone is upholding the core values. 

But, if chocolate producers won’t make the switch to exploitation free chocolate on their own, Tony’s is also pushing for legislation that would force them to change their ways.

Pavi: We've seen that voluntary commitments do not work or aren't as effective as we saw with the Harkin Engle protocol where everyone committed to something. But change did not happen. It needs to be illegal for companies to have human rights and environmental abuses and violations in their supply chains and get away with it — like you can't. It needs to become illegal so companies can get away with it anymore.  

From its inception, Tony’s purpose has been activism — but the success and growth of this business model shows that any company can make a difference through advocacy.

Pavi: When we started out, we were a small, small company making big, big noise in the cocoa sector. We're still not that big. We're bigger, but we're still a small company if you look at the sum of all the competitors. Right. But it's still an important voice, that rehab and annoying voice. I'm sure that many of us will find us annoying. Many, many in the sector will find us annoying. But it's an important voice. So don't think that you're too small to make a difference

B Lab encourages activism from all B corps, big and small. Charmian Love is the Co-founder of B lab UK,  who is now the Global Director of Advocacy at Natura and Co., the world’s largest Certified B Corporation to date. 

Charmain: Activism is a relative thing. So you're going to your edge. All of our edges are going to be different. But the point is to stretch ourselves to go further. So for some people, it might be joining a protest. For another, it might be speaking out in a meeting where they wouldn't otherwise speak out. And for others, it might be, you know, engaging in their local community in a way, or arranging to meet with their employees, to share what they really care about. 

Natura and Co is made up of 4 brands, Avon, Aesop, Natura, and The Body Shop. Each brand has found its own way of engaging in activism. For example, Natura recently launched its Amazonia Viva campaign to empower people to protect the Amazon. The Body Shop launched its Be Seen Be Heard campaign designed to amplify youth voices in public life.

Charmain: Every single person in a business has the power to take action to make that business truly a force for good. And actually, I think one of the most exciting things that's happening right now is that companies are looking at ways that they can really inspire a desire the people in the business to find their voice, to find their power, to understand the influence that they have both inside the business and outside of the business, and also finding ways to transfer the power to enable them to take action on those things that they have a desire to be advocates for, activators for or activist with. 

Char is really excited about empowering people within businesses.

Charmain:I am super clear of like, what I am put on the planet to do, what my contribution is, and it is to create space for others and to share my energy.

Many purpose-driven companies around the world have started focusing on ESG. This stands for environmental, social, and governance — the factors beyond just financial performance that define a business’s impact on the world.

Charmain: You start with governance. Governance becomes almost the first thing you need to establish. And from that governance, from that the decision-making framework, you can then move into the environmental and the social side. 

The ultimate decision-makers in a company are executives and shareholders. They have to be clear on their business's purpose, so they can back causes that align with those values. This is relatively easy for companies with good, stakeholder governance. 

Charmain: So I think sometimes governance is a word that can feel kind of complicated or inaccessible. I feel like there needs to be a massive rebranding exercise. What we mean by governance. Again, if you boil it down, I think it is around decision making. 

As companies start looking beyond just financial performance, Charmain also suggests five key practices for companies that want to start taking a more activist stance.

Charmain: So the first thing we're seeing is businesses finding ways to really support their people. And that kind of comes back to this first point, right, about really recognizing that this has got to be about supporting people in business to be a force for good. 

One of Natura and Co’s brands, The Body Shop, introduced kindness days for its employees, giving them designated paid time to engage with community organizations making a difference for causes the company supports. 

Charmain: Another thing that's really important that businesses can do is really publicly take a stand on issues that matter.

For this activist practice, Charmian cited Patagonia’s Facebook boycott. In 2020, the B corp removed all of its paid advertising from the social media platform because it allows hate speech and misinformation. Char’s third practice might sound a little familiar, as it relates to our previous conversation with Pavi…

Charmain: There's also the ways that businesses and people in business can engage in this through the actual business products and spaces that businesses have access to. So we've got big groups like Tony Chocolate, Right that have their conversation bars, which encourage people to have conversations around some of these really important issues that we need to be talking about. 

Practice number 4 is collective action. By joining forces with one another, businesses can have a bigger impact than they would on their own. We’ll have an episode on businesses working together to be a force for good later in the season.

Charmain: Natura and Co is involved in Eco Beauty Score Consortium, which is a group of businesses coming together and joining forces to enable a change at an industry level. 

Other industries have collective pledges, groups, and practices as well. Earlier we talked about Tony’s Open Chain, which is a group of chocolate makers that have agreed to work together to make their products more ethical.

Charmain: This is the fifth and final way that I think businesses really can step up and engage, and that is to recognize that this is a really and truly a moment for systems change. 

Businesses need to realize that while advocacy can start small, to make a lasting difference regulatory and culture change is also necessary. At a moment when climate change, social and financial inequity, and other global challenges are becoming even more urgent, business needs to seize its opportunity, AND responsibility, to make a difference for people and the planet. 

In addition to these business practices, Charmian shared her 5 A’s of Advocacy -  Authenticity, Ambition, Agency, Activism (or engagement), and Allyship

Charmain: How do we open up a space for a different kind of activism and maybe not even calling it activism, but one that is a bit more moderate that may maybe gentler in its approach and more about engaging in conversations that are about driving change through collaboration. It could be about investing different forms of resources. We have time and financial and human resources, and it's just about widening out the ways in which we can get people engaged rather than it having to be about that really disruptive form of activism that again, has a really important place, but isn't necessarily going to be the thing that gets everyone involved. 

So far we’ve looked at an impact-driven company, and at how major brands are integrating activism into their everyday business plans. But how can regular people encourage business advocacy?

Amanda: So Future Super is an Australian pension fund and it was actually founded to help people use the power of their money to take climate action. 

That’s Amanda Gordon, Chief Customer Officer at Future Super.

Amanda: So our mission is to build a prosperous future, free from climate change and inequality. So ethical investing or the ESG sector is about environmental, social and governance based decisions and actually screening companies based on those decisions that companies make. 

Amanda says that when people make investments, they aren’t necessarily aware of where their money is being held, or what it’s being used for. Future Super is part of a movement  that’s changing the norm.

Amanda: It really is a growing wave of people who are aware that ethical investing is an option. And there's also rising concern about climate, as you can imagine. So people are very familiar with things like recycling or composting or keep cutting those things that require a lot of quite a lot of effort to be quite honest and are very visible. But often their largest asset or their second largest asset in their pension fund is actually invested in things that go against their values and against the things that they care about in day to day life.  

Many people have heard of divestment, but not everyone is sure how to engage with it and apply it to their own retirement and pension funds. It’s the idea of taking your investments out of things that don’t align with your personal values.  For many people that includes divestment from fossil fuels and mining companies.  It’s a way to take a stand and advocate for a change in business practices as a consumer.  Importantly, it is also a smart financial move.

Amanda: We believe that there is a risk associated with investing in coal, oil and gas companies, companies that make armaments. We believe that there's not a future for those companies. And so that's actually bound up in a risk assessment. 

We are a financial services company, we actually have an obligation to deliver the best returns that we can for members. So it wouldn't be right for us to be purely funneling money into climate advocacy groups and not actually working on the portfolio that's going to deliver the best returns for our members. That wouldn't be right. So there are choices that we make in terms of putting. Purpose and values at the center of what we do. 

Amanda says your money gives you a voice in a company and many people don’t use it. As a shareholder in a company, you have the right to tell that business how you want them to behave.

Amanda: A second and lesser known facet of ethical investing is the idea of engaging with these companies. So voting on resolutions and actually using the voice that you have as a shareholder to say, we don't think that you should be increasing your emissions targets or we believe that you should be reducing your emissions targets. So we have a voice and we actually work hard to use that voice. 

Char from Natura and Co was careful to point out that people are the ultimate decision makers in any business. Amanda says those people have a responsibility to take action and advocate for responsible business practices. 

Amanda: So Future Super comes out of really a group of activists who started Future Super. And so within activism, there's a lot of collaboration, there's a lot of working together, there's little partnering for the same goal with different strengths. 

Future Super has partnered with School Strike 4 Climate. The activist group in Australia knew that kids would show up to their protest but was concerned about adult workers being able to attend. 

Amanda: Somebody within future super had actually asked for the day off to go and participate in the climate strike because future super is made up of people who are intimately connected to the climate movement in various ways. 

Amanda: So we started to talk about it and said, You know what, we should give everybody the day off because everybody should be at the climate strike. Actually, this is not a normal business day. This is not a normal environment to be operating in as businesses or schoolchildren. And so we said we're going to give everyone the day off and we're actually going to invite other businesses to join us, too. 

Alongside Future Super, 12 businesses originally committed to giving employees the day off. But the movement spread through word of mouth — growing to  3000 businesses in just two weeks!

Businesses can and should take responsibility to advocate for change in their industry // and drive all companies to use more responsible practices. The Body Shop is doing this in the beauty sector, Tony’s is doing it in the chocolate industry and Future Super is doing it in financial services. 

Amanda: We can make a difference just by doing something relatively small. And I think there is strength in numbers when you feel like you're not the only one. 

And business advocacy is not just an ethical choice. Advocating for action on issues from climate change to workers’ rights is a good business decision.

Amanda: That's important to me, to work for a company that actually does what it says and has a more progressive stance on these things. 

I hope that our guests today have inspired you to think differently about the role of activism and advocacy in business. As Charmian mentioned, it’s a stretch, small or big, from where you are today. 

Importantly, like every single one of us on the planet, business has a great stake in ensuring a livable future, so what will your business commitment be? How will you advocate for the betterment of your own practices, supply chains, industry, and even public policies to ensure a better future for all? In other words, what will be your lasting legacy? 

If you'd like to learn more about B Corps and purpose driven companies visit BCorporation.net. And listen to the rest of our season! We have more episodes on how business can drive positive impact and be a Force for Good. 

Please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Your ratings and reviews help Forces for Good reach new audiences, so we thank you for your support.

For more opportunities to engage with us, follow us on social media.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the interviewees and do not reflect the positions or opinions of the producers or any affiliated organizations.

The podcast was brought to you by B lab. Our team includes Sherri Jordan, Jude Wetherell, and Hannah Munger.  Forces for Good is produced by Hueman Group Media. 

For this episode, I’d like to thank Charmian Love, Pavi Ram, and Amanda Gordon.

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