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Activists are not the enemy, so let’s work together 

Published 28 March 2023 in Audio articles • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Confrontation was always seen as an essential weapon for campaigners, but a new era of cooperation is proving equally effective. With the right approach, everyone can be a winner. 

“We are being poisoned,” the Indigenous communities told me upon my arrival at the huge Sudcam rubber plantations in Cameroon, central Africa. “Our forests are gone,” they said. “Everything we used to live off is gone. What will we do now?”  

The plantations belong to Singapore-based Halcyon Agri,the world’s largest natural rubber supplier.The 2019visit was part of my investigation into the company’s supply chain for my former employer, Mighty Earth, a global advocacy organization working to defend the environment.  

As I crossed back roads and hiked forest trails in Cameroon, I observed extensive deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of culturally significant indigenous land all caused by the plantations. 

But I also saw an opportunity: to go beyond naming and shaming Halcyon to help the company to clean up its act.While many corporations think environmental campaigners exist to make business leaders’ lives a misery, Halcyon was willing to engage and, as a result, it was able to reap the benefits. 

Business leaders stand to gain when they communicate openly, effectively, and rapidly with campaigners – as do the planet and wider society

Over the next few months, following consultations with 50 local NGOs working to curb deforestation, I prepared a report for Halcyon that portrayed the concerns of local stakeholders, emphasized the key environmental problems, and proposed solutions. The company’s executives were fully willing to hear us out.  

Together, we hammered out an agreement on the steps the company would take to address past environmental and social wrongdoing, which included pledges for compensation for deforestation as well as more environmentally friendly rubber cultivation. 

The results demonstrate how positive benefits can come from collaborations between activists and corporations, which have all too often been seen as enemies. A good example is the anti-sweatshop campaign against Nike in the 1990s.The global sportswear brand was ravaged in the public arena by non-profit groups. 

The Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse,” Philip Knight, Nike’s co-founder, said at the time. “I truly believe that the American consumer does not want to buy products made in abusive conditions.” 

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With a falling share price and lower sales, the US company appeased its critics and promised to use objective observers to monitor working conditions, raise minimum wages, and uphold health and safety standards at its factories. The episode has become a classic case study in how giant corporations can be held to account by individuals. But activism now takes different forms. 

In a break with tradition, many campaigners, including me, are using reward as well as punishment as the main weapons in their arsenal. Boycotts are still alive and well, but carrots can be vital complements to sticks. 

Business leaders stand to gain when they communicate openly, effectively, and rapidly with campaigners as do the planet and wider society. The rubber supply chain is one example, but there are countless others that showcase how the corporate sector can have a large negative or positive impact on the planet and society. 

To push companies in the right direction, many NGOs have established business-facing units or individuals who try to share best practice with executives and propose time-bound implementation plans for environmental reforms of policy and practice.These teams provide essentially free of charge, high-quality sustainability audits which can uncover hidden problems telling you, for example, if someone in your supply chain is dumping toxic waste or chopping down ancient forests. 

By holding a mirror to the corporate world, we can help organizations to get ahead of ESG issues early on, before they snowball into a full-blown public relations crisis

By holding a mirror to the corporate world, we can help organizations to get ahead of ESG issues early on, before they snowball into a full-blown public relations crisis and an environmental or human rights disaster. Many NGOs bring deep sustainability expertise to the table something that is often lacking in the business sector.  

Few companies have the luxury (or mandate) to focus sufficient resources on social and environmental issues, given our broken legal system’s relentless emphasis on shareholder value rather than holistic sustainability. But NGOs make their findings available to companies for free, in sharp contrast to the substantial fees that a consultancy firm would charge. They can also give wide-ranging and detailed guidance on how to eradicate those problems.  

Ultimately, NGOs can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Making the relationship work is not only desirable but perfectly possible with the right approach. Getting it right can be a huge win for the planet, the workers that your company hires or people it buys from, and can hugely benefit a company’s reputation in the long run. 

5 ways to engage with activists 

When it comes to building fruitful collaborations with activists, there are five rules to follow, based on my experience at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Mighty Earth:   

1.   Negotiate with authority 

There’s nothing more frustrating for NGOs than sitting across the negotiating table from young staffers lacking any real authority. It slows down the whole process of engagement as they need to take things up the corporate hierarchy and seek approval on everything. The temptation for us in such a situation is to end the negotiation and make our findings public in ever more aggressive ways. So, for things to be decided quickly, my advice to companies is to delegate to executives who actually have the power to negotiate. 

2.  Bring expertise to the table 

It is equally important to bring people to the table who have a strong grasp of the issues that need to be addressed people who have some knowledge of sustainability in terms of traceability, transparency, deforestation, and agroecology issues as well as labor rights and other social issues. It wastes a huge amount of time to have to educate corporate staff, especially if there are multiple teams involved in the negotiation. Sending highly qualified employees shows a real seriousness on the part of the business to want to clean up its act. If your sustainability team doesn’t have someone on board who knows enough about the relevant issues, my advice is: hire quickly or pay for your staff to get a high-quality crash course on the topic. 

3.  Ensure a rapid response 

Speed is of the essence when it comes to engaging with activists. Usually, by the time an NGO has come to a company to air grievances, it’s because the problems have been brewing for some time and are coming to a head. Sometimes, large areas of forest are imminently on the chopping block, or indigenous people’s land is about to be expropriated, for example. Companies need to start the dialogue fast, but also quickly implement whatever is discussed and agreed upon. Dealing with issues fast is a sign of good faith that helps to establish trust for future discourse. 

4.Be honest 

Companies must be scrupulous and truthful when engaging with activists. NGOs usually are more likely to become a thorn in the side of businesses that refuse to change, stonewall our queries, or worst of all fudge their answers. It may be tempting to greenwash, but in my experience, this undermines long-term dialogue with NGOs because it erodes trust that is hard to recapture. Lying and hiding simply doesn’t work – honesty is the best policy.  

5. Build rapport 

Of course, being called out for bad practices is a bitter pill to swallow. Reflecting this, some companies refused to engage with NGOs that critique them. For instance, a handful of recalcitrant actors have refused to engage with Chocolate Scorecard, a website I helped create that compares chocolate makers on their sustainability efforts by grading and ranking them on how they tackle use of child labor, farmer poverty, agroforestry, pesticides, and deforestation. It is important for companies to stay cordial, calm, receptive, and engaged. Checking out of engagement with NGOs builds mistrust (what are they hiding?) and frustration (why are we trying so hard when they just brush us off?). For corporate executives reaching out to NGOs, try to observe all the rules of participatory and respectful meetings, take detailed notes and record discussions, then share them back with NGO staff to minimize misunderstandings and ensure that you’re working off a shared vision.  


etelle hionet

Etelle Higonnet

Environmental and Human Rights Expert

Etelle Higonnet is an independent environmental expert who, before taking maternity leave, was Senior Advisor at the National Wildlife Federation. Prior to that, she was Senior Campaigns Director at Mighty Earth. Higonnet has also worked for Greenpeace (including as Southeast Asia Research Director), Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. She was named a Chevalier of France’s Ordre National du Mérite (National Order of Merit) for her work to protect the environment. 


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