Sep 7 • 4 min read
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Illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder

In April 1970, the very first Earth Day became the largest single-day protest in American history. Roughly 20 million Americans flooded neighborhood streets to demonstrate against industrial pollution and habitat destruction. Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) sued companies to get them to change their harmful behavior.

These actions shed a light on the national feelings of discontent and anger towards corporations that wrought devastation upon the environment and wildlife. At the time, it was hard to imagine that activists and corporations could ever work hand-in-hand.

But in the years since, unresolved environmental issues such as climate change have taken the center stage as a global threat to humanity. In response, corporate stakeholders have demanded that businesses provide transparent, science-based measures to prove that meaningful progress has been made and that they are aligned with targets such as the Paris Climate Agreement.

Todd Schifeling, assistant professor of management at the Fox School, explains how corporations collaborating with previously contentious social movement organizations became a reality, why it works and what tensions remain.

“EDF has staked out this position as the leading environmental organization that focuses on collaboration with business,” says Schifeling. “They’ve been important in pushing businesses forward on environmental issues from a collaborative approach. Part of the reason they’ve had so much success is that there’s increasing interest among businesses in collaborating.”

Corporate partnerships through the EDF’s Climate Corps program involve embedding an EDF fellow within the business to help complete a wide variety of sustainability projects and push organizations forward in their climate leadership. Projects may be as simple as upgrading lighting systems or as ambitious as changing the business’ climate strategy.

Partnerships are challenging enough, and the prospect of an external activist entering the organization to hold higher-ups accountable can be daunting. Many organizations aren’t willing to let activists in behind their corporate curtain. But Schifeling believes those who take that risk for the environment have much to gain.

“It’s bold to bring in these climate fellows because it’s a lot easier to not do that,” Schifeling quips. “Organizations can just hire a consultant, but those people work for you. EDF doesn’t.” 

He continues, “There’s a natural tendency to control the boundaries of your organization and whether you want to let other people in to see what’s going on inside. There are certainly questions about doing that for people who are encouraging you to change. There’s something bold about bringing these people inside your organization and saying, ‘Help us get better on climate issues.’”

Organizations more often collaborate with activists on external-facing goals, such as a statement of principles or endorsement of a new environmentally-friendly product. But when they take that leap of faith and place their trust in embedded activists, organizations can open themselves up to an enlightened perspective on environmental issues, connecting them to a “learning network” of new ideas and projects best aligned with strategic goals. 

Schifeling recalls how one EDF fellow’s experience indicates the way embedded activists can fertilize new ideas beyond the initial objectives. While originally tasked with a basic lighting project, the fellow identified underlying issues resulting in energy inefficiency: the lack of systematization, the need to get management on board and how the business could save money by doing so.

But this type of work is often easier said than done. In his research article, “Advancing Reform: Embedded Activism to Develop Climate Solutions,” Schifeling explains the inherent tension between an organization’s support for climate reforms and openness to new directions. Schifeling found that successful activists were able to integrate external resources from the EDF to productively manage this tension and drive climate initiatives forward.

Ultimately, the success of these embedded activists is only possible because organizations are brave enough to make themselves vulnerable to well-intentioned accountability and criticism. The collaboration resulted in great strides in accomplishing environmental sustainability initiatives and corporate strategic goals, which may have seemed like a fantasy to activists participating in the first Earth Day. 

So what does Schifeling want his research to mean for the corporate world? 

“I want businesses to feel excited, hopeful and motivated to think about how they could collaborate with environmental partners,” he says. “There’s a lot of value in empowering the people that are trying to make you improve your organization.”

ActivismEnvironmental Defense FundEnvironmentalismOn The VergeResearchStrategic ManagementSustainabilityTodd Schifeling