Unhappy over the World Trade Organization’s refusal to discuss contentious labor issues at its 1999 meeting in Seattle, activist Mike Waghorne joined tens of thousands of protesters on the streets. The demonstrations, which turned violent, sparked anti-globalization protests around the world.
Nearly six years later, Waghorne is still unhappy with the Geneva-based trade group. But now he can voice his displeasure from a much more comfortable perch.
Waghorne was among 70 outsiders given the chance to grill three candidates last month for the position of WTO director general. It marked the first time in the organization’s 10-year history that activists were allowed to have input in the selection process, an event that Waghorne, an officer with labor coalition Public Services International, described as “civil” and a far cry from the fireworks he had expected.
Once relegated to the streets and hallways, social and environmental activists like Waghorne are finding these days that businesses and trade officials are receptive to their concerns. Activists are prompting changes in corporate practices or trade policy, in some cases partnering with their former targets. Representatives of Amnesty International and other groups were even invited into the proceedings of the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland.
“In the old days, it was complete lunacy. There was a moat and a castle, and we were serfs,” said Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an organizer of the WTO candidates forum. “It is totally different now. We’re not inside, but at least we’re visiting from other realms of the kingdom.”
The effects have been wide- ranging. Organizations including anti-poverty group Oxfam International and consumer group Public Citizen have helped push once-secretive agencies, including the World Bank, to open up their meetings, publish documents on their websites and respond to concerns about the social and environmental effects of their activities.
Greenpeace International persuaded refrigerator maker Whirlpool Corp. to use environmentally friendly insulation. Under pressure from activists, Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Cos. agreed to stop buying lumber from Canada’s environmentally sensitive Great Bear rain forest.
Gap Inc. and Nike Inc. have collaborated with labor advocates to clean up sweatshops in Cambodia. Prodded by consumer activists, Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. are working with consumer groups to step up recycling of computers and cut down on toxic waste. And activists are collaborating with Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola Co., to name two, to hasten the acceptance of codes of conduct and other measures designed to boost socially responsible corporate behavior.
“When we first started working on codes of conduct back in the 1990s, this was kind of like way out there,” said Sister Ruth Rosenbaum, founder of the Center for Reflection, Education and Action, an anti-poverty group based in Hartford, Conn. “Now, it is absolutely normal for a company to have a code of conduct.”
Activists haven’t abandoned their old-fashioned methods of protest, such as street demonstrations and boycotts. But through the years they have adopted new tactics.
“Protests are just one tool in the tool kit,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.
“As the threat intensifies, we are pushing ourselves to be smarter, to use new tools to be able to put pressure on these companies in a number of countries simultaneously.”
Aided by the Internet, activists can swiftly spread the word about alleged corporate misdeeds and enlist help from like-minded people in other countries. They have become more adept at fundraising; some organizations that once ran on a shoestring have large and global staffs, replete with lawyers, researchers and Web masters
Many have expanded their use of financial tools -- buying company shares and pressing for shareholder resolutions, for example -- honed during the fight against companies doing business in apartheid-era South Africa in the 1970s and ‘80s. Efforts in this arena have gained credibility because grass-roots activist organizations have joined forces with more powerful corporate governance watchdogs like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the nation’s largest public pension fund.
What’s behind the change? Public opinion, for one thing.
Nongovernmental organizations, as citizen activist groups are often called, rank as the most trusted institutions in the United States, Europe, Latin America and much of Asia, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of 1,500 global opinion leaders by public relations firm Edelman.
The biggest jump was in the U.S., where the “trust ratings” of NGOs soared to 55% in 2005 from 36% in 2001.
At the same time, public regard for corporate executives and government officials has fallen, according to the survey, which was released at this year’s World Economic Forum. Tarred by corporate scandals, chief executives and financial officers are viewed as credible sources by only 3 of 10 opinion leaders in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
Now, by teaming with onetime adversaries in the environmental or labor movements, companies are hoping “to borrow some credibility from the NGOs,” said Richard Edelman, president of Chicago-based Edelman.
In addition, fear on the part of corporations that a failure to police themselves could lead to rigorous government regulations has led to voluntary initiatives.
Responding to accusations that they exploited poor workers abroad and sullied the environment with their discards, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM Corp. agreed last year to adhere to an electronics industry code of conduct designed to improve the labor and environmental standards of their supplier factories.
In another example, De Beers Group, the British-South African diamond giant, has gone from villain to model of social responsibility, in large part because of a relationship it developed with two of its loudest critics: London-based Global Witness and activist group Partnership Africa Canada.
In the 1990s, those groups targeted De Beers as part of a campaign to stop the smuggling of diamonds used by rebel groups to fund violent conflicts in Africa. After the issue was taken up by the United Nations, De Beers agreed to participate in an authentication program that tracks stones from their source.
Andrew Bone, a De Beers spokesman, said that effort not only had boosted the company’s image -- prompting praise from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- but also had reduced the trade in so-called conflict diamonds.
“One of the things we learned and realized quickly was the need to engage with NGOs instead of walking away and saying, ‘It’s not our problem,’ ” Bone said.
Not everyone, however, is enamored of activist groups’ influence.
Gary Hufbauer, an economist with the Institute for International Economics, contends that the true agenda of some activists is to stop development and trade liberalization, not to improve the economy.
Activists still complain about the lack of openness of the World Bank, he said, “even though the quantity of information is substantially more than a decade ago. I think there’s no limit” to their demands.
Often, activists’ efforts fall short of their goals. Labor advocates trying to improve working conditions in apparel factories, for instance, have failed to persuade Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to open its supplier network to public scrutiny or allow independent auditors into its factories.
But on balance, activists and their causes appear to be gaining increased traction in business and trade.
That was apparent at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, long viewed as a club for the rich and powerful and often the scene of violent protests.
Although there were small demonstrations outside this year’s meeting, representatives of about 50 NGOs were inside the conference, buttonholing heads of state and CEOs.
The crowded Davos itinerary of Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, included an appearance on a panel with the chief executive of oil giant BP and private meetings with the prime minister of Pakistan, the president of Georgia and the chief executive of machinery maker Caterpillar Inc. She was focusing on poverty and women’s issues.
“What makes a difference is our ability to dialogue with them in a setting like Davos,” she said. “It’s not across a barrier, and it’s not confrontational.”