Should charities and campaign groups always work to achieve strategic, systemic change, or can they work from within to steer governments and large multinationals in the right direction? Amongst the Left, it’s a debate of ongoing and sometimes bitter disagreement, and one which is explored in Protest Inc by Genevieve LeBaron and Peter Dauvergne.

The book exposes a number of genuinely shocking details about partnerships between major NGOs and corporations, and how these collaborations and funding agreements could be softening the core aims of activism.

Now being adapted into a documentary, Protest Inc will be the subject of a talk by Genevieve LeBaron, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sheffield, at the Workstation Creative Lounge on 2 November, part of Festival of Debate and Off The Shelf Festival of Words.

What was the inspiration behind Protest Inc? When did you first pick up on the trend you describe?

I became aware of deepening links between activists and corporations early on in the Occupy movement in 2011. Occupy is an explicitly anti-capitalist and largely anti-corporate social movement, yet many groups within the movement have accepted funding or other forms of support from companies. For instance, Occupy Wall Street in New York City accepted funding from a group of business leaders led by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, which is owned by a multinational consumer goods company, Unilever.

I was fascinated to discover that corporate funding and partnerships went way beyond Occupy. After spending far too many hours on NGO and corporate websites, I learned that many of the groups and movements that I had considered to be independent groups largely focused on holding corporations accountable for environmental and labour abuse were also partnering with corporations. So Peter [Dauvergne] and I wrote the book to try to understand why growing numbers of activists and advocacy organisations are embracing the world’s biggest corporations as allies, and what the consequences are for the power of activists to create change.

What are the particularly striking examples of the corporatisation of activism that you bring out in the book?

The most striking examples are those wherein the groups we widely consider to be independent of companies – and holding them accountable – are working alongside the world’s biggest corporations: Oxfam has partnered with KPMG, Nokia and Marks & Spencer; the WWF has a worldwide partnership with Coca-Cola worth over $20 million a year; Greenpeace has teamed up with PepsiCo, Unilever and Coca-Cola to market ‘natural refrigerants’; the Human Rights Campaign has partnerships with Apple, Microsoft and American Airlines.

In some cases, NGOs are renting their brands to companies to sell more products. For instance, WWF allows companies that donate $1 million or more to use their panda logo, an internationally recognised symbol of environmental sustainability and conservation, in their marketing, as Gap, Bank of America and Coca-Cola have done. This can give consumers the impression that these companies’ products are sustainable and ethically made, when in reality they may not be.

Should all activism be focussed on tackling root causes, one of which is neoliberalism and the way large business behaves within that system, or are there any particular examples of activists ‘working from the inside’?

Some of the incremental changes that NGOs and corporations are pushing for may have merit. One of Greenpeace’s recent campaigns focused on convincing Mattel, who manufacture Barbie dolls, to remove illegal rainforest wood from the packaging that it uses on Barbies. Greenpeace touted this as a major victory in 2011. Reducing a single company’s use of illegal rainforest wood isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it does also legitimise the unsustainable patterns of growth, consumption and trade that Greenpeace has long protested. And this type of incremental campaign is a pretty radical change from Greenpeace’s activism in the 1970s, when they were using fishing boats to stop nuclear war testing.

Our concern is that as more and more activists focus on incremental change within the system, system-changing causes and issues are being marginalised and taken off the table. We worry that the time, energy and resources that activists are devoting to working with companies reflects a growing belief in the idea that corporations can govern themselves, as well as iron out the problems with global capitalism more broadly. We are sceptical about the extent to which those strategies are effective.

How can this trend towards corporatisation be countered? 

Activists and movements who are serious about changing the economic system have to question and push back against the growing power of corporations over our lives, not to mention challenge corporations’ constant efforts to re-write the rules of global production, labour relations and world trade.

It also goes back to governments, who are going to ever-greater lengths to depict activists who question corporate power and the capitalist economic system – especially wealth inequality and environmental destruction – as menacing and unpatriotic, and to stifle NGOs who take political positions contrary to the government.

Many governments have also cut funding for NGOs and activist groups, which is pushing them towards other forms of support. As states suppress more radical activists, the world’s biggest corporations are funding and partnering with more moderate NGOs. The right to protest needs to be protected and governments committed to democracy need to allow space for critique and questioning.

Protest Inc is currently being made into a documentary film. Tell us about that project.

The book is currently being made into a documentary film by two London-based filmmakers, Paul Burgess and Rebecca John. The film will explore whether activism is being compromised by corporate money. Growing numbers of NGOs are arguing that working with corporations is the best way of achieving real change, and the film will explore whether that is the case, telling the stories of these partnerships and exploring the failings and compromises that can spring from these alliances.

Is there any overlap in the subject matter of Protest Inc and your current work around forced labour, human trafficking, modern slavery and corporate supply chains?

The thread that connects the two projects is corporate power, and the curiosity about the effectiveness of strategies for social change that are premised on corporations governing themselves. My research on forced labour is trying to understand the business models of forced labour – how and why forced labour arises within certain industries and portions of the supply chain, and what businesses are doing about it – so it has a different focus. One key overlap is that both projects ask questions about whether consumers are being given accurate information about the labour and environmental practices behind the products they buy.

Dr Genevieve LeBaron will speak about Protest Inc at the Workstation Creative Lounge on Wednesday 2 November as part of Festival of Debate and Off The Shelf Festival of Words. Tickets are £6/£5 via SIV Box Office.

genevievelebaron.org
@GLeBaron
festivalofdebate.com

Sam Walby