<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-P36XLWQ" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

Sport For Good Playbook part four: How brand activism can turn purpose into action

Activism is where purpose meets action. So how are purpose-driven brands using their influence to mobilise communities and further their sport for good strategies?

20 October 2022 Michael Long

The first three parts of this series looked at how brands go about strategising, rationalising and communicating their purpose investments in sport. The aim has been to lay out the foundations upon which any brand can build its own sport for good strategy, secure the internal support necessary to fund and implement it, and then begin to create effective campaigns and programmes that inspire individual action and make a meaningful impact across the triple bottom line.

In this instalment, we’ll consider how companies invested in sport are doubling down on those efforts by actively mobilising communities of people and organisations around a common cause. We’ll explore how brands are collaborating with external stakeholders, such as grassroots organisations, industry coalitions, and athlete activists, to scale up their impact and bring about lasting, systemic change.

The rise of brand activism

Sport has long been viewed as a powerful platform to raise awareness and drive action. Throughout history, prominent organisations and athletes have sought to use their reach and profile to influence the public and pressure policymakers around all types of issues – from racial inequality and LGBTQ+ rights to abortion, childhood obesity and climate action.

In recent years, more and more brands have been speaking out on social, environmental or political issues, with many using sport as a platform to amplify their message. There are, of course, clear risks in doing so, not to mention an inevitable degree of cynicism that comes with for-profit businesses taking a stand on what are often highly politicised or polarising issues. Still, the growing trend towards ‘conscious capitalism’, fuelled in part by changing societal attitudes and heightened expectations among values-minded consumers, has emboldened more companies to outwardly pursue some form of activism.

Brand or corporate activism has been defined as ‘a public stance taken by a major company to positively impact social change or legislation.’ It has been described as ‘a natural evolution’ of values-driven corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) programmes. Brand activism seeks to authentically align a company’s mission and brand values with those of its customers, employees and society at large, going beyond business purpose and cause marketing to focus on the greater good by bringing about progressive changes, such as macro-level systemic reforms or shifts in government policy.

Such activism, which has been proven to be an effective tool for driving brand loyalty and consumer advocacy, is undoubtedly on the rise in sport. Notably in 2020, numerous brands came out in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, with many pledging funds for organisations focused on social justice, education and addressing institutionalised racism in America. Nike, for example, announced a four-year, US$40 million commitment, with its Converse brand pledging a portion of its share to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Equal Justice Initiative. The same day, Nike’s Jordan Brand and Michael Jordan committed US$100 million.

Nike backed quarterback Colin Kaepernick following his anthem protests in the NFL

After speaking out so publicly, Nike faced protests and boycott threats, just as it had after the company backed Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests in the National Football League (NFL). But the sportswear giant also saw a bump in sales and won plaudits for taking a clear and decisive stance on what had quickly become a hugely divisive issue.

Another brand that has experienced a similar fate is Dick’s Sporting Goods, which featured alongside Nike and 27 other brands in the inaugural Laureus Sport For Good Index. Following a school shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, the outdoor retailer removed more firearms from its stores for good. Since then, the company has lent its voice to calls for tighter gun controls, with Dick’s chief executive Ed Stack among a group of more than 220 business leaders from corporate America who signed a letter earlier this year demanding the US Senate “take immediate action” on gun violence.

Like that of Nike and other firms that have spoken out in similar fashion, Dick’s activism has had a direct impact on its business. Its actions initially cost the company millions of dollars, but a Harvard Business School study found that the lost revenue was soon offset by increased apparel sales.

Let’s talk about Patagonia

There is perhaps no better example of a sports-focused brand that uses corporate activism to further its business objectives and bring about meaningful change than Patagonia.

The outdoor gear manufacturer has built a successful global enterprise – one that generates more than US$1 billion annually – on a business philosophy that places purpose before profit. From a commitment to environmental sustainability and responsible sourcing throughout its manufacturing and supply chains, to the protection of public lands and championing gender equality, the Ventura, California-based retailer has long put ethical practices and advocacy for a broad range of political and social causes at the heart of its anti-corporate brand ethos.

Since co-founding the non-profit 1% for the Planet in 2002, Patagonia has donated one per cent of its sales each year to grassroots organisations working to find solutions to environmental challenges, such as climate action advocacy group Protect Our Winters. And with a self-proclaimed mission statement ‘to save our home planet’ through its own business activities, the company and its network of athlete ambassadors strive to have an impact far beyond the realms of the outdoor gear industry.

One of Patagonia’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to connect its action on the ground, including support for grassroots organisations and community-based projects, with its high-level activism. This is particularly evident in Patagonia Action Works, which links individuals with environmental groups in their local area, enabling them to take specific actions, from signing a petition and donating money to volunteering time or attending an organised event.

Though an openly political brand since its formation in the early 1970s, Patagonia has grown increasingly explicit and vocal in its activism over time. In 2018, the company memorably sued the Trump Administration over its plans to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, while it also endorsed two Democratic candidates in state elections that same year. In 2021, it donated US$1 million to combat restrictive voting laws in Georgia. But it was what Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard did earlier this year that most profoundly underscored the brand’s commitment to its all-encompassing purpose.

In September, Chouinard and his family bequeathed ownership of Patagonia to a charitable trust, ensuring that any future profits not reinvested in running the business will go towards tackling the climate emergency. As such, it is anticipated that Patagonia will give away about US$100 million annually to protect nature, promote biodiversity and fight the environmental crisis.

‘Imperfect advocacy’ is still advocacy

Chouinard’s decision was understandably applauded far and wide. But not every brand is Patagonia, of course, nor is every company run by a benevolent billionaire on a mission to save planet Earth.

Ultimately, no brand – not even Patagonia – is perfect. Ownership structures, organisational priorities, working cultures and business practices differ wildly from company to company and, in many cases, pose barriers to progress. The reality is that corporations and entire sectors are at different stages in their sustainability journeys, while the responsibility for setting purpose-driven goals and implementing programmes does not universally sit with the same department or job functions across all brands.

Of course, brands with eco-conscious founders like Chouinard or Dale Vince, the boss of Laureus Sport For Good Index honouree Ecotricity and owner of Forest Green Rovers, have a clear directive from the very top to ensure they are leading by example. Many others, however, are answerable to parent companies, shareholders or layers of management who are likely to have different priorities, creating internal challenges for anyone – marketers, sustainability directors, communications teams, etc – tasked with driving purpose initiatives.

For every brand, though, acknowledging those challenges and shortcomings is the first step on the road to self-improvement. Those that are not living up to their proclaimed values and public statements will find that their activism falls flat, cast off as a PR stunt or insincere virtue signalling. Still, ‘imperfect advocates’ should not be deterred from taking action for fear of sparking accusations of hypocrisy.

Companies are for-profit businesses that sell products or services – they are not professional campaigning organisations. But they can make a difference. When individuals and businesses are inspired and incentivised to make progress towards implementing more sustainable behaviours or practices, and their successes are publicly recognised, others are empowered to do the same. That is where brands hold considerable power. Indeed, this line of thinking is what underpinned the creation of the Laureus Sport For Good Index, and it is also an ethos championed by Protect Our Winters.

Working with stakeholders across the outdoor industry, Protect Our Winters helps organisations and individuals shape their approach to activism and create advocacy opportunities. Its aim is to coordinate efforts and lobby policymakers in a concerted, collaborative manner, while it also runs workshops to train elite athletes and business leaders to hone their messaging around environmental causes, as well as teaching them practical skills in areas like project delivery, communication and carbon literacy.

We’re all trapped in the system; no one can be perfect. But if we can all play our part in moving in the right direction, that is better than everybody being paralysed by hypocrisy.

Dan Yates, Partnerships Manager, Protect Our Winters

When it comes to lobbying key decision-makers, Protect Our Winters has built alliances of climate scientists, athletes and brands to unify the outdoor community and put forth a collective voice. Just this month, for instance, the group issued an open letter urging stakeholders to support a list of demands for policymakers in Europe to legislate sustainability, standardise measurements for environmental impact, help businesses transition to renewable energy, and publish bad practices in the outdoor apparel industry. Founding signatories of the letter, which was deliberately timed to challenge climate policy ahead of next month’s Cop27 conference in Egypt, include Burton Snowboards, The North Face, Picture Organic Clothing, Surfdome and Icebug.

“We’ve worked with five brands around penning demands for legislation, which will ease the barriers to increase sustainability, but also add friction to business as usual,” explains Dan Yates, Protect Our Winters’ partnerships manager. “We’ve done a full stakeholder mapping where we can deliver that to the key European decision-makers. That’s something that the brands can’t necessarily do themselves. They can’t necessarily form a coalition to do that without a third-party, brand-agnostic organisation behind them to do it.

“We’ve got footwear manufacturers, we’ve got hardware manufacturers, we’ve got apparel manufacturers, we’ve got a retailer in the mix. And what we’re now asking is for the rest of the outdoor industry that believes in these aims and thinks they want the same thing to sign on to that letter before it goes. The more signatures it holds, the more impact it will have.”

The power of collective action

That collaborative approach to lobbying is tried and trusted in many industry sectors; other organisations, such as the World Economic Forum, have rallied business leaders in much the same way. The simple truth is that while corporations can be successful in going it alone, working directly with advocacy groups to coordinate and channel efforts towards a common goal can have a far greater impact.

“I think you have to pull together to get your voice heard,” continues Yates. “It’s not necessarily always just pressuring legislators, but liberating them so they know if they want to push forward on this legislation that the outdoor industry will back, then we’ll follow it, and they can turn to the wider textile industry or the wider hardware industry. They can say, ‘you need to accept this legislation, this group of businesses is behind us, you need to step up’.”

It is in that spirit of collaboration and empowerment that all corporations, no matter their size or scale, should approach their activism, says Yates. Brand activism should fundamentally be about standing for, not merely against something, and inspiring others to take action. A solutions-focused approach is not only key for framing the ultimate objective of the activism in a positive light, but also an effective way of rallying broad support and bringing entire communities along on the journey.

Brands in the outdoor industry, perhaps more so than those in most other sectors, are keenly aware of this need to lead by example given their community’s proximity and exposure to the environmental impacts of climate change. A commitment to sustainability is now a prerequisite for just about every outdoor brand, and increasingly expected by the consumers who purchase their products, yet the industry continues to grapple with what that actually means.

Today, there is a growing consensus among outdoor industry and adventure sport stakeholders that more must be done to scrutinise their business practices and hold them to account. If that means imposing independent regulations, minimum standards for reporting environmental impact, and legislation that encourages the industry to choose sustainable options over growth at all costs, then so be it. But what the outdoor industry wants to move away from is an unfair system whereby those who choose more sustainable practices are left at a market disadvantage compared to those who don’t.

Of course, correcting deep-rooted systems is not something that can be achieved by individuals or entities within a single industry alone, nor will it happen overnight. To bring about systemic change, legislation needs to come from the highest levels of government, and as such that is where the focus of any brand activism must be directed.

“I think the outdoor industry has pressure from the outdoor community,” says Yates. “When Patagonia handed their organisation to a trust, sales that weekend went through the roof. Whatever Patagonia does that seems to be self-limiting in some way, it always increases sales.

“It’s not a myth, it’s no mystery to people now that the more environmentally conscious you are, the more socially conscious you are, the better your business. And so that pressure on businesses is already there.

“We’re all trapped in the system; no one can be perfect. But if we can all play our part in moving in the right direction, that is better than everybody being paralysed by hypocrisy.”

Further reading

What is brand activism? (Activist Brands)

Brand Activism: Why It’s No Longer Sufficient For Businesses To Remain Reactive To Societal Issues (Forbes)

How Sustainability Efforts Fall Apart (Harvard Business Review)

This is the fourth instalment of a five-part series – presented by Salesforce – outlining how brands can create and implement a fit-for-purpose sports sustainability strategy. The final part will focus on the following:

  • Report – how to measure and report impact against objectives
1 / 1insight articles read

You’ve reached your article limit for this month. Please create a free account to continue enjoying our content.


Have an account?