As this year comes to a close, we at Future 500 wanted to take a step back and reflect on all of the momentum we’ve seen in stakeholder engagement over the past year. While it’s easy to focus on the negative, we challenge folks to focus on the positive. Below is a summary of the highlights we feel best represent examples of the “Best of the Best” in stakeholder engagement in 2014.
Apple "clicks clean"
2014 could be remembered as the year the world's biggest brand completed its transformation from IT sector laggard to clean energy leader. Just two short years ago, Apple was the prime target of Greenpeace's #ClickClean campaign, an ongoing effort calling on Internet companies to power their data centers with renewable power. Notoriously tight-lipped about its operations and business strategy, Apple had been reticent to disclose its energy sourcing or respond to environmental concerns voiced by stakeholders. That changed in May of 2012, when Greenpeace launched protests at the company's Cupertino, CA headquarters and delivered a petition signed by over 200,000 consumers. Within a few days, Apple announced a new commitment to source 100 percent clean energy for its data centers.
While Greenpeace celebrated Apple's declaration, the group didn't hold its collective breath; it would take time for the company to demonstrate its authenticity and win over critics. But Apple aggressively followed through, and by 2014 all of its data centers were fossil-fuel-free. Perhaps even more significantly, the world's biggest brand has shifted its messaging — sustainability is now positioned as a value-added core brand tenet, as evidenced by Apple's new micro-site and video (narrated by CEO Tim Cook) released on Earth Day this year.
Apple is confident this new approach will resonate with consumers, and the commitment has paid off with stakeholders, too — Greenpeace's latest "Clicking Clean" report places Apple at the head of its class, and executive director Kumi Naidoo has heaped on additional praise. The pressure has now shifted to industry competitors, with Greenpeace calling on companies such as Amazon and Twitter to follow Apple's lead. The case is a model lesson in how genuine engagement, transparent follow-through and humble communication can add business value while winning over even the harshest of critics.
Apparel companies compete for most "responsible down"
In 2014, we also saw the campaign against The North Face and Patagonia, initiated by Four Paws International in 2012. Representatives from both companies met with Four Paws & PETA, resulting in both apparel companies revisiting their supply chains, confirming the activists' claims of force-feeding and live plucking. Both companies then set out to change their existing practices, despite down being a byproduct of the meat industry and thus limiting their ability to control price and supplier practices. Ultimately, both companies released standards (Patagonia in late 2013, The North Face in early 2014) for completely traceable and humane down sourcing.
The North Face even "gifted" its Responsible Down Standard to the Textile Exchange this year, opening up the process to the entire industry. Since then, nearly a dozen brands have signed on to source certified responsible down. Four Paws has praised the efforts of TNF and Patagonia, acknowledging that the outdoor industry "punches above its weight class" and that this effort is likely to perpetuate more humane practices across industries.
Major corporations shift climate rhetoric, drop denialists
This example is less a model in constructive engagement than an acknowledgment of the evolving sustainability landscape. Over the past year, Future 500 has observed an increasing number of stakeholder campaigns that leverage the prominence of major brands and retailers to ultimately target "dirtier," but less accessible, companies and industries. While some activists have used this tactic to enact change across global supply chains, others aim to alienate sustainability laggards by threatening the social license of their consumer-facing partners.
Nowhere have these "brand politics" been more at play than on the issue of climate change. And in September of this year, the largest climate event in history may have yielded a tipping point: The day after the People's Climate March, Google chairman Eric Schmidt announced that the company would be severing ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) due to the group's ongoing anti-climate science stance. The next day, Facebook also announced its departure. The day after that, Yahoo confirmed that it too was leaving, and Yelp revealed that it'd stopped funding ALEC a few months prior. Finally, less than a week later, News Corp, Overstock.com, International Paper and Occidental Petroleum all disclosed that they too were splitting ways with ALEC. This wave of recent departures brings to 99 the number of corporations that have left ALEC in the past few years. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune went so far as to peg lingering climate deniers as "the new tobacco executives — nobody wants to be seen with them."
The majority of major brands now recognize that ignoring climate science is bad for business. Encouragingly, many forward-thinking companies are now seizing this momentum to partner with NGO stakeholders and advocate for progressive climate policies and other mitigation strategies. This rapid uptick in collaborative, bipartisan support for climate action bodes well as the world's policy leaders prepare to convene on the issue in Paris next year.
The year of zero-deforestation commitments
Just a few years ago, it was unlikely anyone would have predicted the sea change we’ve witnessed in the forestry sector, which has proven monumental in 2014. In particular, pulp & paper and palm oil suppliers have historically been notorious for clearcutting Indonesia’s tropical rainforests in order to turn the trees into products and to use the cleared land to produce agricultural crops such as palm oil. But strategic and unrelenting campaigning from Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and a host of other advocacy groups came to a head this past year, as environmentalists called for a market shift in forest commodity sourcing. The pressure consumers leveraged against brands — and subsequently brands against suppliers — led to productive dialogues on adopting policies that set new standards of zero-deforestation in supply chains.
For palm oil and other agricultural commodities, it began with Wilmar’s commitment at the tail end of 2013 to zero-deforestation, zero-peatland and zero-social conflict in its expansive global supply chain. NGOs Climate Advisers and The Forest Trust were instrumental in engaging and encouraging Wilmar to adopt this policy, as campaigners at Forest Heroes had been targeting Kellogg, one of Wilmar’s customers, to make this substantial shift. As a result, brand after brand — from General Mills and Colgate Palmolive to Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts — followed suit. As governments, companies, NGOs and indigenous communities came together during Climate Week to sign the NY Declaration on Forests, Cargill announced its commitment to zero-deforestation, which Mongabay dubbed the “the most far-reaching zero deforestation policy ever established” as it includes palm oil, sugar, soya, beef and cocoa. As of this month, 96 percent of the world’s palm oil is now covered under zero-deforestation policies, as the last major palm oil supplier, Musim Mas, announced its policy shift just last week.
This year it became obvious that not just one individual, one company, or one advocacy group can alone make positive shifts in supply chains. Rather, it takes trust and coalitions composed of various stakeholders to build and sustain a movement of change. Previously unimagined alliances have led to shared goals and values for forest preservation, an example being the multi-sector steering group devoted to developing the methodology to implement these forest conservation policies. Constructive collaboration and rigorous policies preserving the world’s forests are now becoming a reality, and Mongabay’s Rhett Butler poignantly described his sense of “informed optimism” in Yale’s Environment 360. We see this positive trend toward continued improvement and on-the-ground implementation continuing, both in 2014 and beyond.