New “Superstakeholders” are gaining power: What now for CSR?

Tom Liacas —  September 8, 2015 — 5 Comments

In the past two years, major mining and pipeline projects around the world have been stopped in their tracks while corporate giants in the food and retail sectors have been forced to revise their minimum wages and sourcing practices. Though markets have been unsteady, the global economy is not to blame here. These stalls, reversals and concessions are entirely the result of pressure and demands from a new class of power player, the “Superstakeholder”.

This post is part of a series in conversation with David Connor, a renowned and respected Corporate Social Responsibility advisor.

From a corporate perspective, stakeholders are nothing new. Businesses have been listening to and engaging with their “external stakeholders” for some time now, albeit at different speeds. The third parties labelled as stakeholders have often included Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups, who hold positions on areas of business impact including social, environmental and human rights issues.

The wildcard here is the rapid growth of new social movements on a broad range of issues that intersect with business practices. Something profoundly shifts when NGOs and advocacy groups align with growing global social movements. These pairings create a synergy, for reasons we will explore below, that turns traditional stakeholders into “Superstakeholders”.

WalmartProtest Forrespect.org

Courtesy of Forrespect.org

The most prominent new Superstakeholder groups have emerged where oil and gas industry opposition is paired with the climate movement, where labor movements are driven by larger struggles against economic inequality and where campaigns against mining projects are fed by international movements against extractivism.

A recent string of surprise victories secured by NGOs or activist groups are signs that these Superstakeholders now carry enough weight to make the largest multinationals bend to their will. Looking back only as far as 2013, the list of Superstakeholder triumphs over business interests includes:

CostOfMiningConflict

So where did Superstakeholders find this new leverage? In short, by drawing from the same cultural forces that have made social movements stronger. These forces, tied to changes in the way we make bonds and communicate are built into the “networked society” we now live in. With its lowered technological barriers and the ease of creating transnational relationships, networked society has been as much a boon to global finance as it has to those working on social change initiatives.

With all the benefits that networked society confers on them, Superstakeholders are now able to:

  • Mobilize in an instant and across boundaries and build global partnerships
  • Self-sustain themselves through crowdfunding and achieve vast scale and resources quickly
  • Leverage the collective power of their supporters to impact corporate reputation

littlefisheatbigGiven their power, Superstakeholders behave differently from traditional stakeholders when engaging with target corporations. For example, they come to the table with demands and not a simple desire to be heard. They will exert pressure where they can before engaging in dialogue. And because they are often playing to a large public, their members and allies included, they will seek to secure victories and not concessions or compromises from their targets.

With the rise in social movements around the world, especially around climate and inequality, Superstakeholders are not only here to stay but will probably grow in both power and in number.

I am interested in hearing, from a business insider’s perspective, how this new balance of power affects the practice of Corporate Social Responsibility, which has served as a bridge between the corporate world and the social and environmental concerns of the public.

Given the fact that Superstakeholders demand much more than voluntary and gradual changes to corporate behaviour, does CSR still ‘work’ in this context? If not, how are businesses planning to meet such raised expectations?

Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

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An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.
  • I’m looking forward to this exchange Tom. I’ve many notes to corral into my response!

  • TomLiacas

    Great, looking forward to hearing your points of view!

  • Karan Chadda

    Hi Tom, interesting observation about the superstakeholders. From a business perspective, I think the the sophisticated approach of this group (mobilising across geographies and throughout the supply chain) and their absolutism make it difficult for CSR to achieve a meaningful dialogue unless it is able to direct (or at least strongly influence) operational decision making.

    • TomLiacas

      Hi Karan and thanks for joining the discussion! I agree that it may be hard for businesses under pressure from Superstakeholders to establish a meaningful dialogue in a defensive context, though not impossible. I myself have been called in to mediate, via digital channels, in several such occasions and a semblance of dialogue did occur.

      But businesses that see social movements and the causes behind them as an opportunity to show leadership and align with the momentum (through concrete commitments) have a lot to gain here, I would maintain. As an example, look at how some global leaders have come out with ambitious climate commitments through the We Mean Business initiative – http://wemeanbusinesscoalition.org/stories

  • CSR works so long it is not a token effort. It needs to be a full business stratedgy. This super networked group of stakeholders can tell the difference. In the end it is all about knowledge, corporations survive only if they give us what we want, and the more we know about what they are giving us, the more responsible they have to be.