Black Lives Matter movement shows: corporate activism becoming mainstream

Corporate activism is a form of corporate social responsibility that does not aim to please or seek compromises. Researcher Laura Olkkonen of the LUT School of Business and Management is interested in the role businesses play in our society.

Post-doctoral Researcher Laura Olkkonen from the LUT School of Business and Management.

The Black Lives Matter movement pushed minority rights front and centre. Many corporations are endeavouring to make their mark on society. Merely stating an opinion is not enough – businesses are expected to display actions to back up their statements. For example, the Finnish textile retailer Finlayson has visibly campaigned against extreme nationalism and for women's rights.

"Corporate activism is a hot topic especially in the United States, but a great deal is happening also in Finland," says Post-doctoral Researcher Laura Olkkonen from the LUT School of Business and Management.

Olkkonen studies corporate activism in Finland and other Nordic countries. The Academy of Finland recently awarded three-year funding for her research on corporate activism.

The Academy of Finland grants personal post-doctoral researcher funding to the most talented of the younger researcher generation. There are no corporate activism researchers equivalent to Olkkonen in Finland.

Activism does not aim to please

Corporate activism refers to activism by companies. It may take the form of external statements regarding controversial or current themes, such as racism or climate change. Vocal corporate activists include Patagonia, which manufactures outdoor clothing and gear, and the ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's.

Activism is a new form of corporate social responsibility that is gaining momentum. Conventionally, businesses have not been expected to take a stand on issues but rather to take the interests of different actors into account and do their best to be everything to everyone.

"Activism consciously pursues confrontation instead of pleasing everyone," Olkkonen elaborates.

For instance, the sportswear company Nike hired football player Colin Kaepernick for its Dream Crazy campaign in 2018, which called attention to structural racism and divided opinions sharply. Nike's product sales and customer commitment grew significantly, but critics called for boycotts and spread videos of people burning Nike products in protest.

"The campaign demonstrated that it pays to take a stand despite alienating some customers. Activism is a way to engage people and increase customer commitment. Brands want to be approachable and human. Companies have opinions and express them through action," Olkkonen explains.

Expectation of concrete actions

There is a call for activism in our current social climate. A cute slogan is no longer enough – people expect concrete actions from companies globally.

"For instance, climate marches have inspired businesses to take a stand," Olkkonen says.

Activism relates to the social role of companies; business enterprises can be important social actors. Meanwhile, increasing political polarisation has accelerated activism: even companies are now choosing sides.

Corporate social responsibility has traditionally translated into the quality of business or raw materials or the rights of subcontractors or employees.

"Activism is linked to actual business operations much more loosely. The underlying idea is that whatever concerns society, concerns the company and its employees in one way or another."

Olkkonen maintains that corporate activism is becoming mainstream. It may also involve elements of disobedience, such as Finlayson's campaign highlighting the gender wage gap. The company generated a great deal of attention by breaking the law with its gender-based pricing: women were charged 83 cents to the euro for their purchases during the campaign.

"The success of an activist campaign is determined by how the company receives and responds to the criticism it raises. Uproar for the sake of uproar is not worthwhile – the company must be able to stand by its cause even when the commotion dies down."

Corporate activism bridges previous studies

Olkkonen has a background in communication and corporate social responsibility research. Olkkonen's publications include the book Corporate social responsibility in Finland: Origins, characteristics, and trends, which she co-wrote with her colleague Anne Quarshie. Olkkonen has also studied responsible business in media enterprises.

All of Olkkonen's research focuses on the role of businesses in our society.

"It is important to me that we question perceptions and truths that have been considered unchanging."

Olkkonen mentions doughnut economics as an example of changing perspectives. Its idea is that a successful society and economy is not meant to grow endlessly but to thrive.

Are we losing control?

Olkkonen is following corporate activism in Finland and Scandinavia with a keen eye.

"Year after year, there has been talk about businesses needing to leverage their power for the greater good. I'm eager to see whether now is the time for change."

Nevertheless, if companies start choosing sides in the current polarised climate, it may entail problems. Polarisation may escalate as people are divided not only in terms of their personal values but in terms of their consumer behaviour and the products they buy. Corporate activism may accelerate this division.

"The conflict lies in the fact that despite their significant societal role, companies are not monitored as political actors, and conventional democratic control does not apply to them. Moreover, companies cannot be likened to non-governmental, non-profit organisations. Therefore, we need to study and understand corporate activism better."

Who: Laura Olkkonen, age 37, @lauraolkkonen
Degree: Doctor of Philosophy
Career: Post-doctoral Researcher, responsible business, LUT School of Business and Management. Docent, Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics
What I like most about my job: Insights and colleagues. "It's a privilege to work with amazing minds with the ability to analyse things and put them into perspective."
Motto: It's not what you think, it's how you think. "This reminds me that I need to keep developing my thinking."

More information:

Laura Olkkonen, Post-doctoral Researcher, LUT School of Business and Management
+358 50 323 6310, laura.olkkonen(a)lut.fi

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