In the world of (ir)responsible business practice, 2021 certainly did not disappoint. While COVID-19 continued to dominate the regular news cycle, in the area of responsible business it was big tech and the climate emergency that occupied the headlines. Here Andrew Crane and Sarah Glozer wrap up the year with a lowdown of their Top ten responsible business stories for 2021.
- Social media vs. Trump
2021 was the year that saw Donald Trump leave the US Presidential office. It was also the year in which the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube made history by banning an incumbent President from using their services. These bans – due to be in place for a number of years in some cases – stemmed from Trump’s violation of their content policies, in particular around the incitement of violence during the confirmation of Joe Biden as the 46th US President in January. But the espousing of divisive views was not an incident isolated to the Capitol Hill riots. Trump had developed quite a habit of posting inflammatory rhetoric on his social media accounts. Claims of voter fraud during elections, misinformation on Covid, and climate change scepticism – “It's freezing and snowing in New York--we need global warming!” (@realDonaldTrump) – were frequent themes in Trump’s online activity, causing social media giants to regularly add content labels and public interest notices to his posts. While Trump and his team pushed back on the content warnings and eventual bans, the removal of such a high-profile political figure from the social media landscape further exemplified the political power of tech companies and the fine line social media platforms walk in relation to freedom of speech and expression on one hand, and censorship on the other.
- “No Meta what you call Facebook, it sucks”
Trump’s social media ban was just the beginning of another torrid year in (ir)responsible business for Facebook. In October, after a raft of criticism, the company announced that it would be rebranding to ‘Meta’. Alongside a new logo, founder Mark Zuckerberg shared his vision for the ‘metaverse’ (a virtual reality filled future) that would bring together the various brands owned by Facebook under one umbrella. The move attracted widespread critique and even ridicule (as seen in the quote above), as many saw the move as a deliberate attempt to distract calls for greater regulation amidst revelations made within the ‘Facebook Files’, leaked internal documents published by The Wall Street Journal. The documents, shared by the now infamous whistle blower Frances Haugen, exposed that Facebook was aware of the harmful societal effects of its platforms, particularly in relation to teenagers’ mental health, but had not acted upon this information. The revelations further solidified to many the image of a company that puts profits before people - an image that Facebook had been vehemently trying to distance itself from on the back of data privacy and security concerns raised in 2018, and a whole host of other issues. It remains to be seen if Meta will be much better. But, for a brand that boasts nearly four billion monthly users, the stakes continue to be extremely high.
- Pegasus spyware leaks
Rounding out our top three is another big tech story that captured global attention in the summer of 2021. A consortium of 17 leading media organizations going under the moniker of the Pegasus Project revealed details of widespread spying on journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, diplomats and even current and former heads of state by governments using the Pegasus spyware software. Labelled “perhaps the most powerful piece of spyware ever developed by a private company,” Pegasus is produced by the Israeli firm, NSO Group. The investigations revealed that once installed on a phone, Pegasus can harvest virtually any information, including messages, photos, and calls - and can even secretly film through the phone’s camera or record conversations through the microphone. According to NSO, the software was supposed to be only used against “criminals and terrorists,” but the Pegasus Project laid bare the misuse of the technology adding to growing concerns about extra-legal government surveillance conducted with private spyware in countries across the globe.
- COP 26: Achieving more than expected, but less than hoped
Let’s face it: climate should be our number one story every year. But again in 2021 it still largely failed to cut through the noise in responsible business news. The biggest chunk of media attention was cast onto Glasgow towards the end of the year as world leaders met for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26. With ambitious goals to phase-out coal, accelerate electric vehicle adoption, and encourage investment in renewable energy, a large focus of the conference was to reach net zero by 2030. While progress was made in calling for all countries to present stronger national action plans for reducing carbon emissions next year, instead of in 2025, COP host Alok Sharma and climate activists including Greta Thunberg voiced their disappointment that more stretching targets to ‘phase out’ fossil fuels were replaced at the 11th hour with a commitment to instead ‘phase down’. To close the gap between expectation and action, interest in the role of the private sector in increasing demand for, and adoption of, zero-carbon technology appeared to be gathering pace. John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate commented, “…for the first time, and in a massive way, the private sector is at the table and, frankly, leading in the way that even some governments are not.” The bar is set high for business action on climate change. Let’s hope we see more from the private sector on this in the coming year.
- Shell’s climate conviction
Not everyone would agree that companies are leading the way in dealing with the climate emergency. The other big corporate climate story in our top ten showed that climate activists could successfully use the legal system to downright force recalcitrant companies to get their act together. In May 2021, the energy company Shell was on the receiving end of a landmark conviction in the Dutch courts, ruling that the company was not doing enough to address climate change and that it must cut its CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 compared to 2019 levels. While the ruling was only applicable to the Netherlands, it signalled a huge victory for activists who have long argued that companies should be legally compelled to take greater responsibility for cutting emissions. It also showed to polluting companies that they too may be compelled to meet with the commitments made in global treaties, not just governments. With climate issues also making waves in the boardrooms of oil companies following the replacement of Exxon Mobil board members with “dissident” members advocating cleaner energy, 2021 clearly marked a shift in the battleground for corporate climate activism.
- GameStop and investor activism
Back in January, the fragility of the financial markets once again came to the fore. In what has been termed the ‘Reddit retail trading revolt’, users in the r/wallstreetbets chatroom encouraged retail (non-professional) investors to mass purchase shares of a number of companies, most notably GameStop, a US-based, bricks and mortar video game retailer that was feeling the effects of the pandemic. To support the struggling company, and hit back at the large hedge funds who had shorted the stock by betting that GameStop’s price would fall, Reddit and other social media users spurred on by the introduction of commission free stock trading apps, quickly begin buying positions in GameStop. The activity sent GameStop’s share price soaring, much to the delight of the investor activists. Yet, while the revolt proved the efficacy of coordinated retail trading, or ‘meme investing’, trading apps struggled to cope with the demand and halted buying at the peak of the activity - a move that has led to class action lawsuits in the US and calls for increased regulation. These developments have challenged the much lauded democratisation of the financial markets hoped for in the digital age. Yet, the impact of social media on stock market activity continues to be a hotly debated topic as hedge funds re-think their risk management policies to better consider coordinated buying efforts and the duty of care of trading apps towards amateur investors is further called into question.
- Big wins for gig economy workers
Gig economy workers have not had it easy over the past decade, but in a major development in 2021, the likes of Uber, JustEat and Deliveroo will soon have to vouch for the employment status of workers on their platforms in new European legislation announced during the year. Shifting the onus of employment on to companies rather than individual workers represents a huge move towards ensuring that gig economy workers gain access to minimum wages, sick pay, and other employment benefits that gig economy firms have assiduously avoided. The development came on the back of a UK supreme court ruling that Uber should pay its drivers a minimum hourly wage and would have to backdate missed pensions payments from 2017 to date. These are big wins for the gig economy. With recent predictions suggesting that soon there will be more ‘giggers’ than non-gig workers in some of the world’s largest economies. With the effects of the pandemic still being felt on more traditional employment contracts, flexible working is a trend that is here to stay. Yet, many argue that there is still a way to go to better unionise gig economy workers and stamp down on zero-hours contracts in order to normalise more equitable employment relations.
- European football super league plans shelved
European football supporters were also among those coming out victorious in 2021’s responsible business match-ups. When it was revealed in April 2021 that twelve of Europe’s biggest soccer clubs, including Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus, Liverpool, and Manchester Utd were planning to form a breakaway European Super League (ESL) in which the founding members would reap huge financial benefits and never face relegation, the response from fans as well as many players, politicians and football associations was immediately hostile. Angry protests outside grounds and promises of punitive government action sparked a rapid reversal from many of the supposedly founding clubs, and the plan collapsed less than 48 hours after it was announced. With football increasingly having to face up to a range of challenging social issues, such as racism and human rights, the rapid disintegration of the ESL plans showed that the game’s stakeholders were far from powerless in pushing for more responsible practice.
- Activision Blizzard’s sexual harassment scandal
Since the Me-too movement hit the top of our list in 2017, gender equality has remained a hot button responsible business issue. This year, attention focused on Activision Blizzard, the renowned video game company behind top titles including Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush among others. While the games industry has been no stranger to allegations of sexual harassment and gender inequality, 2021 marked a “watershed moment” for the industry when in July, California’s department of fair employment and housing brought legal action against Activision Blizzard for “rampant sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation, and a ‘frat boy’ workplace culture where men objectified women’s bodies and openly joked about rape.” This was followed by a Wall Street Journal report claiming that the firm’s CEO, Bobby Kotick, not only knew about and failed to act on sexual misconduct allegations for a number of years, but even participated in harassment and abusive behaviour himself. The fallout has been widespread with many current and former employees revealing their own stories of abuse, sparking numerous protests and recriminations, and prompting similar stories from workers at other games companies. Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, it is clear that the case against Activision Blizzard is proving what many women in the games industry obviously already knew—that sexual inequality and misogyny has been deeply ingrained in the culture of the games business for years.
- H&M’s China boycott
Finally, human rights has been a responsible business issue that has steadily risen in prominence in the last few years, with modern slavery in particular drawing significant attention as illustrated by the Uighur forced labour issue in China placing at #5 in last year’s list. In 2021, the issue continued to rumble on and stoked up huge controversy in March when a social media storm broke in China about a statement by the Swedish clothing retailer, H&M, expressing concerns about the forced labour accusations and stating that it would not use cotton sourced from the region. While the statement was several months old, the backlash was rapid once the news started spreading, eventually involving a swathe of Western clothing companies. Chinese activists instigated a boycott of H&M which also spread to some its industry counterparts, and the company was delisted from several Chinese e-commerce sites and phone app stores. The hashtag "I support Xinjiang cotton" became the top trending topic on Weibo with more than 1.8bn views. H&M saw its sales plummet in China while other companies reportedly pulled their statements or even apparently reversed their positions on using Xinjiang cotton in attempts to appease Chinese customers. The forced labour problems in Xinjiang seem clear but how firms can address them in a country like China that has become not only a source of global products but also a market for them is clearly complex. As one report put it, “the escalating conflict shows how difficult it can be for brands to satisfy demands from western consumers and human-rights groups for greater sustainability without risking open war with China.”