Doing retail activism right

Patagonia’s recent London opening of an “activist cafe” – a three-week-long pop-up that educated consumers about and promoted activist causes – is the latest in an escalating, increasingly proactive shift in retail activism.

 As a term, “retail activism” has been around since at least 2011. It has picked up pace with the rise of B Corps, which balance people and profit. Australian retail B Corp members include Kathmandu, GlamCorner, Flora & Fauna and Koala, and Patagonia has been a B Corp in the US since 2011. Global companies such as Natura, owner of The Body Shop and Aesop, report on a “triple bottom line” incorporating profit, people and planet which, according to a 2016 Deloitte global survey, is an expectation of 87 per cent of millennials.

There’s some evidence that a focus beyond profit pays dividends. An report from 2018 suggested that B Corps were growing 28 times faster than the UK economy, with nearly half attracting employees because of their B Corp status. A Capgemini 2018 brand loyalty study indicated that millennials have the most emotional engagement with brands and are drawn to retailers they trust. According to a study by Sprout Social, 66 per cent of customers want brands to take a stand on big issues.

Retailers have been responding in various ways. In September, numerous companies – among them Lush, Mud Australia, Koala and Australian Geographic – gave their employees time off to attend climate protests.

It could be argued that one of the more passive forms of corporate social responsibility – albeit one not lacking in controversy –  is de-ranging categories.

In the US, after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods ended sales of all assault-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, prompting similar moves by Walmart. After the Dick’s announcement, Sprout Social’s analysis indicated that tweets mentioning Dick’s Sporting Goods jumped 12,000 per cent, with 79 per cent of them showing positive sentiment.

In 2014, after US drugstore chain CVS stopped selling tobacco products, consumers who bought cigarettes solely at CVS stores were then 38 per cent less likely to buy tobacco at all. Overall cigarette purchases dropped by 1 per cent across 13 states, or 95 million packs, in the subsequent eight months.

More recently, corporate “acceptable use” policies are beginning to impact retailers. Software behemoth Salesforce has instituted a policy barring retail customers from using its technology to sell semiautomatic weapons and other firearms, which could see it lose some enterprise customers. Shopify, which powers over 800,000 e-commerce sites, has followed suit. Salesforce has also threatened to withdraw investment from the state of Indiana if an anti-LGBT law was not withdrawn.

Aldi US recently announced a new policy on pollinator protection, encouraging suppliers to find alternatives to harmful pesticides. Costco soon followed suit. Hardware chain Lowe’s similarly has announced an update to its chemical policy. But sustainable supply chains are fast becoming table stakes and cost of entry, rather than differentiators.

Cause-related marketing by another name?

Retailers and consumer goods companies are increasingly willing to show they stand for something in their marketing activities.

One of the higher-profile and more recent examples was Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign, which earned the company $6 billion in sales while sparking a boycott, even if only 45 per cent of consumers felt Nike had a genuine commitment to “risking everything to stand for something” – the campaign’s tagline. Likewise Gillette’s “Is this the best a man can get?” anti-sexual harassment campaign has attracted a mixed response.

Target US decided to expand the use of gender-neutral bathrooms in its stores, meaning transgender customers and employees no longer needed to make potentially fraught decisions about which bathroom to use. But it evidently didn’t scare away shoppers, with the immediately following Q1 2018 results showing a sales rise of 10 per cent.

Choosing a polarising issue can be powerful, but potentially isolating. Something like Levi Strauss & Co’s “Circle” TVC, which promotes inclusivity,  is inoffensive. Levi’s also pledged more than $1 million in one month alone in 2018 to support non-profits and youth activists working to end gun violence.

Where consumer scepticism sets in is when the talk is not walked, when the cause selected is not a match to the brand, or smacks of bandwagoning.

Walking the talk

The Body Shop has a long history of corporate social responsibility and activism, with its “Body Shop Talks” activist videos streamed globally monthly. Not only has its recently refurbished Bond Street, London, store introduced plastic-free refills, an “activist workshop” space gives visitors information and infrastructure to get involved with various causes at local, national and international levels. Tools include an interactive screen, a noticeboard and a donation box, and activist-led events are hosted at the store.

Patagonia likewise has a deep history of activism, particularly around climate change and the environment, which is a natural fit for its outdoor brand. Moving from donating 100 per cent of its Black Friday sales in past years to environmental causes to boycotting it altogether this year, Patagonia recently filed a lawsuit against US President Donald Trump after the administration illegally reduced the size of two national monuments by up to 85 per cent. Patagonia supported this with a controversial “The President Stole Your Land” TVC featuring emotion-filled words and calls to action.

The Action Works activist cafe is the latest expression of Patagonia’s activism. Opening last September at London’s Broadway Market, it hosts climate activist training courses and workshops run by environmental and social experts through Patagonia’s “1 per cent For The Planet” scheme, whereby 1 per cent of annual profits are given to various causes, currently totalling more than $100 million. The space also acts as a library for activist thought leader tomes, and a series of ‘action postcards’ details different actions the reader can take to combat climate change and biodioversity loss. In October, Patagonia staff and campaign groups ran stalls outside of the cafe to educate passers-by. Patagonia’s ‘open-door’ policy with the NGOs it supports sees organisations use the space to educate both consumers and staff.

So, to Australia. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia’s recent poll of 3000 people indicated more than 70 per cent of the public agree that large companies should place equal importance on economic, environmental and social performance. More than three quarters of respondents supported business leaders speaking out on issues of national importance, including social and environmental issues. But fewer than half perceived business leaders to actually be speaking out in the national interest, likely not aided by the Morrison government’s short-sighted call for companies to focus on economic debates rather than ‘distractions’. Further, 90 per cent think companies will offer opinions only if it’s in their own interest to do so.

Retail activism can be a good path if the cause chosen is consistent with the brand, and woven into the organisation’s DNA via both internal and external activities that create change, and through empowering and encouraging employee champions. By taking a stance on hotly debated issues, brands may risk alienating some people but build a base of fans elsewhere.

Sorting out a sustainable supply chain is a cost of entry, and brands and retailers who try to be all things to all people risk not only lack of differentiation but irrelevance. Retailers are beginning to actively promote themselves as companies and spaces for people concerned about human rights, health and the environment, and not just because it’s good for business.

Norrelle Goldring has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, marketing and research, working with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses. Contact: 0411735190 or


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