Q: What is economic activism?
A: Economic activism is about identifying points of leverage for influencing corporate behavior in the context of a social movement. It is also about holding corporations accountable to the public in times when government rarely plays that role.
Q: Why engage in economic activism?
A: Corporations are not people. They don’t have a conscience. In some ways they are like machines, programmed to operate on profit interests. Although people inside them can be influenced, corporations are generally set up to make decisions that benefit their own bottom line. At the same time, corporations have a profound impact on public policy. Large corporations, with their vast wealth, can exert more influence than elected representatives! That means advocating for change with government officials is not enough to effect change. We need to learn to influence corporate policy as well.
Q: What is AFSC’s role in supporting economic activism?
A: For two decades starting in 1969, a group of AFSC researchers staffed a program known as NARMIC – National Action/Research on the Military Industrial Complex. Their purpose was to research companies profiting from the Vietnam War and publish material that antiwar activists could use to put pressure on various aspects of U.S. society.
Today AFSC is building on that legacy by conducting and sharing independent research on human rights violations that is largely unavailable anyplace else. We look at companies complicit in human rights violations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. We look at the prison industrial complex—not just the companies managing prisons, but also those providing services related to incarceration. And we look at companies that profit from immigrant detention and are complicit in human rights violations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Our research and advocacy support responsible investors in adopting investment screens. For example, we shared testimony ahead of the Episcopal Church’s vote in July to divest from companies involved in human rights violations in Israel and Palestine.
Q: Does economic activism work?
A: Yes! But grassroots movements are currently underutilizing opportunities for influencing corporations. Some assume they cannot be successful. Others vilify corporations, naming and shaming them or holding symbolic protests. Few go beyond that to build a campaign that aims to change corporate policies or behavior.
But that is a missed opportunity. Corporations can respond to public pressure even when the issue at hand is extremely controversial, when advocates cannot get buy-in from politicians, and when those running corporations do not share our movements’ values or concerns. Concern about future risk can be enough to prompt a policy change. And the tools of economic activism can help create that risk.
Q: Can you share an example?
A: Take G4S, which manages transportation of immigrants for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) among other things. In 2008, G4S faced a public outcry in the United Kingdom after stories came to light of prisoner abuse and deaths. Around the same time, AFSC and others began pressuring G4S to stop providing technologies for Israeli prisons and checkpoints.
Last year G4S sold both their Israeli subsidiary and their entire juvenile detention business in the U.K. and the U.S. They had started losing university contracts, and they clearly made a calculation that they were better off getting out of these controversial operations.
Q: What might stand in the way of continued economic activism?
A: Corporations don’t particularly want to be held accountable – and their concerns have been heard. Congress is considering penalties for consumer boycotts, and President Trump’s Economic Council has proposed that only very large shareholders be allowed to file resolutions for other shareholders to vote on. But at least for now, consumer boycotts and investment choices remain effective mainstream tools for people to use in influencing corporate policies and behavior.