Top 10 Stakeholder Engagement Trends of 2014

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Each year, Future 500 releases a Top 10 list of what we view as the most pressing and timely stakeholder issues of the year. Read more below, and watch our accompanying videos, to get additional information about these key 2014 stakeholder concerns that impact both the corporate sector and activist community.


1) Rising Activism: It’s the Climate, Stupid

The interconnectedness of humans and natural systems means so many social and environmental challenges can be mitigated in varying degrees by advancing a transparent and steadily increasing price on carbon, which is why this issue remains at or near the top of our Top 10 list every year.

Keystone XL is arguably today’s most iconic symbol for U.S. climate battles. Advocates successfully spurred President Obama to deliver his boldest support for action on climate change with his “Climate Action Plan,” which empowers the EPA to regulate emissions reductions. As the Obama Administration continues to delay a decision on the pipeline, environmental advocates will continue to demand clear and decisive leadership from the President.

With persistent Congressional dysfunction erasing hope of an overarching Federal policy, environmental campaigners and their funders will continue pressuring industry with “name, blame, and shame” campaigns, increasing calls for fossil fuel divestment and political transparency and state-by-state regulation of carbon. Grassroots opposition continues to develop across proposed energy development sites and infrastructure routes to disrupt project planning and impose costly delays.

While energy companies are the main target, corporations across sectors from consumer brands to suppliers will likely feel increasing pressure from stakeholders to show climate leadership. Advocates are requesting that these companies avoid fossil fuel consumption and deselect ‘extreme energy sources’ from their supply chains. Taking it one step further, serious companies will also leverage economic and political might to advance policy reform and neutralize naysayers like ALEC and the U.S. Chamber.

Interestingly, the interconnectedness of stakeholder campaign networks on coal, tar sands, natural gas, and the arctic are increasing as funders align to advance a long-term visions to accelerate carbon emission reductions that bend the curve on carbon output sooner than later.

But also of interest is the emergence of some conservative, libertarian and formerly skeptical scientists seeking to redefine the conservative narrative on climate, laying the potential groundwork for a much needed potential right-left alignment on the issue despite attack from the activist right.

2) Transparency On Demand

Transparency demands increased rapidly in 2013 through a convergence of several events that have challenged companies in a variety of industries to increase their public disclosure. Falling technological costs and greater accessibility make it easier to access information troves and ensuring that no company can hide from poor business practices. Adding fire to this equation, is the millenial generation, accustomed to instant online information, inclusive collaborative work, and risk taking. They are driving and demanding marketplace innovation in transparency as they gain increasing responsibility in institutions globally.

The Bangladesh Factory Collapse that killed over 1,000 people understandably shocked the world, rapidly (re)focusing scrutiny on retail supply chain management not seen since the days of campaigns targeting Nike and Gap, for example. Rising focus on toxics used in fracking has mobilized opposition to new fracking development in historically energy friendly places such as Colorado. Various efforts by dozens of groups, notably Greenpeace, Environmental Working Group (EWG), China’s Ma Jun of IPE, along with large stakeholder coalitions like Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, are raising widespread public awareness about harmful toxins in consumer products (are my clothes safe?), helping encourage moves by WalMart and P&G to demand that suppliers disclose certain toxins use.

Privacy concerns over NSA surveillance prompted tech leaders like Google and Yahoo to scuffle with the government over publicizing governmental requests for member data in what are aptly dubbed “Transparency Reports”. As tech giants scramble to reassure users that they are only replying to lawful requests, expect this tension with government to increase as revelations on the NSA’s reach continue to emerge.

Similarly, we are seeing companies come under increasing pressure from shareholders and more recently the SEC to require disclosure of CEO work pay difference and corporate political giving to groups like ALEC. This effort, led by groups like the Center for Political Accountability that work with shareholder advocates, are increasingly getting the attention of corporate boards.

The transparency movement encompasses a range of issues, but the unifying theme is a desire to dismantle the concentration of corporate power by empowering stakeholders – voters, consumers, investors, and communities – with access to the data they need to make more informed investment decisions.

3) Big Ag for a Big World: How to Feed a Growing Planet

There is a palpable and growing tension among the global community of stakeholders that comprise the Food Movement. While nearly all agree on some basic tenets – improved access to healthy food, removal of harmful ingredients, nutrition education – they differ on the tactics to achieve these results, particularly over the role of corporations.

Many advocates of small, local, organic farms wish to overthrow ‘Big Ag’ to prevent ‘poisoning’ people with processed food. These campaigns seek to abruptly end industrialized agriculture, including CAFO’s, and the use of antibiotics and biotechnology, like GMOs.

In turn, stakeholder advocates of food, health and nutrition see opportunity in leveraging the technological, marketing, and political power of multinational food companies to advance change. NGOs like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) campaign to leverage the corporate supply chain to make substantive changes in the use of sugars, salts, fats, and food dyes. These stakeholders tend to promote transparency in labeling and educating consumers on proper nutrition to better inform their food purchasing decisions.

Providing healthy, nutrient-dense food to the world’s growing population without depleting land and water resources is daunting enough even without the challenge of reconciling competing stakeholder objectives. But we find that food advocates and companies speak the same language in private more than they realize, creating great opportunities for alignment for those open to engaging constructively on the issues.

4) Fracking: Fearing the Unknown

America is well into a new age of abundant domestic energy supply, largely due to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” But as drill rigs spring up daily across the U.S. and the globe, environmental and health advocates are mobilizing to voice a litany of concerns. While fracking campaigns are more localized in nature and hence have not reached the scale of anti-Keystone XL movement, two emerging trends indicate that this issue will increasingly prioritized by stakeholder networks in 2014.

Geographic growth. 2013 witnessed a dramatic expansion in the geographic scope of anti-fracking activism. Energy companies exploring new shale plays were often met by community coalitions concerned by cases of contaminated water, industry-imposed gag orders, and depleted aquifers. Backed by a growing contingent of concerned funders, larger NGO and activist groups are adeptly mobilizing local opposition around a cohesive narrative that outline fracking’s risks. The movement has successfully enacted a handful of bans and moratoriums in several areas in the U.S. and EU, advanced prominent petitions opposing fracking in California and on U.S. BLM lands, and provoked clashes with police in Canada and the UK. In a wired world, these geographically dispersed campaigns are uniting into a synthesized global anti-fracking narrative through alliances like Americans Against Fracking and reflected in Global ‘Frackdown’ events.

Cognitive Dissonance in Shifting Stakeholder Priorities. Local communities facing speculative shale drilling align with NGO activists in mobilizing against fracking’s effects on drinking water supply & quality, human health, air quality and associate environmental justice concerns. Mainstream NGOs concerned about climate that championed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to a “cleaner energy” future have been the flanked by these odd bedfellow coalitions to completely oppose any development of the energy resource. The result of these dynamics have unified a call for more independent research on the true implications of rapid shale gas development. Unfortunately, stakeholders can’t agree on what constitutes “independent,” both natural gas supporters and opponents quickly discount the objectivity of any study cited by the rival faction. Sound familiar?

At its core, the growth of “fractivism” reflects a broader stakeholder aspiration – greater corporate and government transparency. Empowered citizens demand the truth about how modern-day fracking may impact their health, community, and environment, and will no longer accept industry assurances as a substitute for disclosure.

Barring unlikely higher-level national legislation, this issue will persist for years to come, with stakeholders advancing defacto industry regulation by challenging the social license of shale development around the world, one locality at a time. Expect progressive companies to begin breaking from the pack to differentiate themselves on increased disclosure and transparency.

5) Online Privacy: Who Watches the Watchmen?

In many parts of the world, government monitoring and control of the Internet in places like China and Iran is assumed, but this is not so in the West. 2014, however, will be a year of exceptional growth in public concern and activism over online security with the promise of ongoing revelations into NSA’s reach into the myriad of facets around individual privacy. The U.S., often the example of protections of individual liberty, has tarnished its international reputation, providing oppressive regimes justification for surveillance of their citizens and perhaps even emboldening them.

Around the world, passionate individuals care deeply about the promise of a free and open Internet to accelerate the advancement of individual empowerment, education, economics, and politics. This passion will continue to manifest in heightening activism as outraged individuals harness their collective voices and new funders enter the fray, concerned about this threat to the promise of interconnecting global humanity.

6) Arctic: The Next Battleground

Last year was a landmark for Arctic activism. Stakeholders leveraged the New Year’s Eve grounding of Royal Dutch Shell’s Kulluk drill platform – which ultimately led major oil companies to suspend their 2013 Alaskan offshore operations – as the springboard for a new wave of campaigns against oil and gas development in the polar north.

Leading the charge is Greenpeace, who has used innovative and increasingly bold tactics to draw attention to their Save the Arctic campaign: scaling the Shard building near Shell’s headquarters in London, amassing thousands of cyclists across the globe for a solidary “Ice Ride,” and dropping banners from the Belgian Grand Prix trophy platform. The campaign came to a climax in late September, when 30 activists and journalists aboard Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship were arrested for protesting at a Barents Sea drill rig owned by Russian oil giant Gazprom. Charged with piracy, these activists have garnered widespread support and inspired increased scrutiny of Arctic drilling practices.

But Greenpeace is not the only group focused on the Arctic. Indeed, a growing cohort of prominent NGOs, funders, and opinion leaders are dedicating time and capital to assess the impacts of resource development in the polar region. Of greatest concern is climate change: as Arctic ice recedes to unforeseen lows, stakeholders fear a positive feedback loop where the extraction and use of newly accessible fossil fuel resources escalates current warming trends, leading to even greater Arctic exploitation. The irony is not lost here.

Yet on issues ranging from wildlife and ocean conservation, to indigenous and community rights, to spill cleanup and risk management, campaigners are eager to connect the plight in the Arctic to the daily activities of more southern-dwelling citizens and companies. We anticipate increased incorporation of Arctic issues into broader campaigns to fight climate change, as well as greater leveraging of brand power to discourage development at the top of the world.

7) Water: The Last Straw

With earth’s population now surpassing seven billion, scarcity of clean freshwater is one of the most rapidly growing causes of stakeholder concern. Unlike past generations, however, concerns over water are now shaken and stirred by the unfathomable demand for water to sustain two critical industries: energy and agriculture.

Advocates of responsible water use have recently shone a spotlight on these two industries that account for the vast majority of humanity’s freshwater footprint. More moderate NGOs have focused on opportunities to improve water efficiency in crop watering and energy production, including through collaborative partnerships like the CEO Water Mandate and budding Alliance for Water Stewardship. Particular emphasis has been placed on reducing water use in parched regions like the Middle East and American West.

Meanwhile, many corporate campaigners are aggressively highlighting the importance of water quality as a major prerequisite for healthy communities and environments. Toward this end, strong activist coalitions have united to protest industry projects perceived as contaminating watersheds and aquifers, which threaten freshwater supply. Riding momentum from the Greenpeace Detox campaign, a successful effort to stall the Pebble Mine project in Alaska, and numerous fracking bans spurred by fears of water contamination and exemptions from the Clean Water Act, we anticipate a consistent uptick in activist efforts to hold industry accountable for what they put down the drain.

In 2014 and beyond, environmental groups will increasingly focus campaigns on the food-water-energy nexus. Activists traditionally focused on food or energy production, will hone in on the role water plays in connecting these different systems. Conversely, leading water groups will highlight Big Ag and Big Energy’s effect on the quality and quantity of our most vital resource. Because many of these impacts are felt at the watershed level, weaving a broader narrative out of localized incidents will be of particular importance to environmental groups eager to enact widespread change. Corporations looking to engage will likely need to balance far-reaching initiatives with tangible benefits for targeted communities

8) Trains, Trucks, Tankers & Tubes: Disrupting Fossil Fuel Transportation

Infrastructure disruption as a tactic to decrease fossil fuel use is nothing new. Though this issue has made our Top 10 before, it merits a place in 2014’s list as the campaigns continue to grow and diversify. The biggest campaigns have focused on oil sands, coal, drilling in the Arctic and liquid natural gas (LNG).

The campaigns typically take part within the context of broader climate-based campaigns to urge the US and other countries to go “beyond fossil fuels” and to push for viable clean alternative energy, low-carbon fuel standards, and to cease construction of coal-fired power plants. Oil sands, or tar sands, is seen as the dirtiest oil on the planet, something James Hansen claims, if further developed, is “game over for the climate.”

In 2013, anti-fossil fuel protests continued to heat up, with activist groups continuing to chain themselves to pipeline construction sites and block passage of megaloads of equipment for oil fields, disruption that cost companies millions of dollars. With anti-pipeline protests (such as Keystone XL) growing in fervor, oil transit increased by rail, but a (non-activist-related) derailment garnered attention: on July 6th 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in the town of Lac-Mégantic near Quebec, killing 42 people.

The accident understandably provided fuel to activist campaigns: in 2013, groups such as, Sierra Club, and ForestEthics intensified their efforts. Divestment campaigns grew stronger, with towns and universities pledging to divest from fossil fuel holdings, campaigns against Keystone XL persisted, and big brands were openly targeted for having oil sands-derived fuel in their supply chains. Additionally, a coalition of NGOs rolled out a campaign in the fall of 2013 with the goal of inciting local action. The campaign features an app that allows supporters to track the passage of tankers carrying oil sands fuel up and down the West Coast. The funding for anti-oil sands campaigns shows no sign of waning, so we predict this issue will remain prominent through 2014, especially for consumer-facing brands with large fuel supply chains.

9) Health “S.O.S”: Reconnecting With Our Food

Salt, Obesity, Sugar. Our health and that of our families, in particular children, is growing around the world as people become more aware of, and confused by, studies into the merits of what we ingest. Fat used to be the big baddie. Salt was demonized. Now sugar is rising in concern, fueled by viral videos and sugar tax proposals across the country. The perception is that overall health is threatened, leading to increasing rates of obesity, cancer, and other diseases.

This issue rapidly receives attention from consumer brands who know that Moms are responsible for the majority of family purchasing. Groups like Moms Rising and others are emerging and many now call for more transparency about what is in products, where they are supplied from and how they will potentially affect their children and the environment.

As with climate, GMOs, fracking and other issues, underlying health concerns is the ongoing challenge of scientific literacy and trust in its integrity, to the detriment of finding regulatory consensus (whether by industry or government) guided by science. In the absence of consensus, demons are needed, so normally moderate consumers frustrated by lack of progress logically turn to big brands as targets to effect change, one product category at a time.

10) Eyes on the Forest: Palm Oil, Deforestation, and Human Rights Unite

Widespread fires on cleared rainforest and peat land through the summer of 2013 brought international attention to deforestation in Indonesia, highlighting the complex landscape of sustainability challenges and commitments. 2013 began with the waning of international campaigns led by Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network (RAN), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) against giant Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) when the company committed to a zero deforestation policy.

This commitment cued a shift in global campaigns as international NGOs and APP have been engaging on sustainability targets. Moreover, NGO attention is being redirected toward pulp and paper company APRIL and toward palm oil supplier Wilmar. As a result, the activist community continues to apply pressure on companies to hold them accountable to sustainability standards and to monitor their progress.

Most notable in this shift is the swift rise of palm oil as a hot global issue. Various NGOs have launched palm oil campaigns as a natural progression from traditional forestry campaigns, as foundation funding is pouring in to complete this work. Amongst all, RAN’s Snack Food 20 campaign takes the forefront.

With the parallels between pulp and paper and palm oil, a complex landscape has evolved around forestry issues. Deforestation is not simply a matter of environmental degradation, but a convergence of several issues including rainforest and peat land conversion to plantations, land degradation, threats to habitats and wildlife, concerns with nutritional aspects of palm oil, and increasingly social conflict with indigenous people around concessions claims and reports of forced labor.

Deforestation for forest commodities, and the social and environmental impacts this produces, is an issue that is not fading away anytime soon. The implications of this issue and the myriad actors involved scale from the local level to the international, prompting change on many levels. On the local level, transparency is a key goal, while at the global level, there is a call to strengthen international certification standards, including FSC, SFI, and RSPO. As a result, all eyes are on the forests.

Want to dive deeper into any of the issues discussed in this report, or learn more about our sustainability and stakeholder engagement services? Contact Kellen Klein, Director –

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