Are activists looking at your supply chain?

petaimageOne day when I was at lululemon, I got an email from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Many companies dread the group for its no-holds-barred tactics – from buying a gravestone next to Colonel Sanders’s plot that said “KFC Tortures Birds” to acting out a dominatrix scene in front of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus under the slogan “Whips and Chains Belong in the Bedroom, Not in the Circus.”

Now they wanted to speak with someone about our down sourcing, and as the company’s sustainability innovation manager, that someone was me.

In many organizations, the initial response to queries from “activists” – people who work or volunteer for environmental or social nonprofit organizations (aka NGO’s) – is a mix of panic, dread or annoyance. Some companies view them as uncompromising zealots, who will never relent until they take down their corporate target, like a wolverine going after a caribou.  Most employees have had little direct experience with activists, beyond what they’ve seen and heard in the media.

I’m fortunate to have worked on both sides of the aisle, and know the critical role that both NGO’s and progressive businesses play – and the value that can be created on both sides when they work together. One of my former employers, Patagonia, funded two of my stints with environmental NGO’s through their environmental internship program, and even trains activist groups in its bi-annual Tools for Grassroots Activists Conference.

For that reason, here are a few things businesses should know when deciding whether to return an activist’s call:

1) NGO-business collaboration is increasing: Many activist groups have become more collaborative with businesses over the years. As a journalist in Indonesia, I worked on a story in the mid-00’s about this trend, and it has only continued. PETA’s founder and president Ingrid Newkirk says: “We are unapologetically abolitionists. But what many critics (and supporters) don’t realize is that we’re also pragmatic. We’re willing to work with companies – even the ones we publicly criticize.”

2) Their supporters are, in part, your consumers. If this weren’t the case, then you wouldn’t have anything to worry about if they staged a protest or launched a media campaign. For both sides to get value from working together, their donors and consumers need to share the same values (at least on an aspirational level). That way both feel good about collaborative actions taken – and the groups taking them.

3) Silence can increase risks to a brand. By picking up the phone, you can uncover potential upsides of action, and downsides of inaction. These groups are on the ground, inside these issues every day. Why not learn now about what your consumers might care about before learning from media coverage of the protest outside your office or your falling share prices? They can also interpret silence as evidence of wrongdoing.

4) Conversation can lead to brand value. Brand value is one of the biggest potential upsides for many businesses that invest in corporate sustainability initiatives. Finding out exactly where you can take action and what it will mean to your customers will help you to get more efficient with your corporate responsibility efforts.

There are things NGO’s can do too to make it easier for companies to pick up your call, but educating them on that starts with a phone call or in-person meeting. Through several conversations with PETA, they learned about the steps we had taken to source down responsibly, and I learned about opportunities for more progress. As is often the case, there was a gap between what both sides wanted to see happen. Our conversations built trust and understanding, though, of what their supporters – at least the ones who were our customers – would want. We agreed to keep working together in the future.

So next time you get a call, try picking up the phone. Or better yet, try reaching out to an NGO!