How to stand up to 65.000 angry e-mail-activists?Posted: September 4, 2010
The current issue of the Harvard Business Review features an article by the CEO and president of Timberland, Jeff Swartz: “How I did it. Timberland’s CEO on Standing up to 65.000 angry activists“. Swartz gives an insight into how he resolved a conflict with Greenpeace that threatened his brand’s reputation. In June 2009 Timberland received 65.000 Emails by Greenpeace supporters. They were taking action on behalf of Greenpeace against “Slauthering the Amazon“. According to a new Greenpeace report, Brazilian cattle farmers were illegally burning down forests, while the leather of the grazing cows might end up in a major shoe brand. Greenpeace asked activists to take action and send emails to the brands, to governments and other actors invovled. Swartz reports that his first response to the e-mails was “to be pretty angry myself”, because he thought his company had been doing quite something in environmental terms. But he also admits that “Greenpeace was asking a legitimate question”.
This situation is very similar to what Swiss fashion brands must be experiencing at the moment in connection to the 10 Rappen campaign of the Swiss CCC. Here, e-mail activists send protest videos to companies telling them to pay a living wage.
What did Swartz do? He wanted Greenpeace to know that “it’s possible to be a profitable global business and also be actively engaged in protecting the environment”. Realizing that the “lack of traceability in our materials supply chain is almost archaic”, he tried to change that. He argues that they didn’t just want to dully respond to the mails, but to really understand the problem – “and to make sure that our suppliers had a system in place that could be implemented and sustained”. They also issued a statement in which they praised Greenpeace for bringing the issue to the industry’s attention. Greenpeace, in return, later issued a statement saying that Timberland “now leads industry in sustainability practices”.
What does this tell consumers? Collective protest can stir up companies and make them think about legitimate claims that were not in their minds before (see also Kirsten Brodde’s new book “Protest!“).
What does this tell companies? Do not “stand there with your arms folded and your mind closed” (Swartz p.43). Engage with consumers and NGOs – they often have a legitimate issue. Indeed, real engagement might be beneficial to your brand, as the Timberland-case shows. However, to identify real from fake and ineffective engagement, you must listen to your stakeholders.