Why business needs to take Extinction Rebellion seriously

15 September 2021

It’s easy for corporates to dismiss environmental activists. But given massive youth engagement, powerful social media reach and a compelling message, doing so is a mistake.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is all across the news, whether blocking Tower Bridge or daubing red paint across Standard Chartered.

Once, such antics were seen as a corporate annoyance, from groups on the periphery of politics, like Greenpeace back in pre-millennium days.

These are antics no longer. With social media, citizen journalism and younger demographics choosing the news they ingest from which channels, groups like XR can completely bypass legacy communications.

They impart a powerful message to supporters across the globe, with big corporates largely powerless to put their side of the story.

So, given that XR represents an important and ongoing part of the climate debate, what’s the best commercial approach to both managing XR risk and embracing opportunity? Whether you agree with them or not, your business needs to react.

Why businesses need to listen to XR, now

Back in 2019, edie had this stark message for corporates. ‘As thousands of climate protestors continue to blockade key London landmarks as part of the Extinction Rebellion protests, businesses have been warned that action or inaction to combat climate change will define their role in future societies.’

The risk isn’t necessarily immediate. Politicians often major on short term polling or political cycles, at the risk of missing longer-term trends. Businesses too must be aware their actions now could scupper their future.

Ignoring XR and climate crisis might not define you today. But in five or 10 years? A very different story; critical for your operations down the line.

How XR action is impacting on companies’ reputations and bottom lines

edie also notes that of 2,000 UK consumers, interviewed by Barclays, more than half are seeking ways to lower their individual climate impact. The research found 57% are emphasising low carbon actions; 45% want products or services with a good track record when it comes to climate change.

When XR shines a dark light on corporate misbehaviour, that resonates strongly with the people you want to buy your product. And advocacy and leadership on climate change have become the core responsibility of business.

Data suggests businesses and governments could deliver economic growth worth at least $26trn by 2030 through strong action on climate change, and in the UK at least, business has done well to bring the public with them on the low carbon transition.

It’s essential that by engaging with XR and their agenda, businesses continue to guide the public down the low carbon path, while safeguarding their customer base and sustainable profit.

What proportion of the public supports XR?

A YouGov poll found that among 18 to 24 year olds, 41% either ‘strongly supported’ or ‘somewhat supported’ the disruption of traffic and public transport in London to highlight Extinction Rebellion’s aims.

That might seem like a low percentage, but this is radical action. It isn’t just a call to acknowledge climate risk, nor a survey on who might ideally buy greener.

Rather, this represents half of tomorrow’s UK consumers saying public services in the heart of London need suspending, by force if necessary. That’s a big corporate heads-up.

Are XR justified in what they’re doing?

This is a difficult question depending on your viewpoint. The recent IPPC report on the human role behind climate change, interpreted by Oxford’s Student Union, argues humanity is on the precipice of irreparable consequence.

The subtler methodologies and policies for change are far more challenging to lay out but XR isn’t about these. It’s about highlighting the need for action, today.

Whilst this may be frustrating for those who deal in the complexities of climate change, progress from global corporations and governments to date has still been vexingly slow. Justified? You decide.

What can companies do to make sure they’re not an XR target?

In today’s enlightened corporate age, evading XR’s radar isn’t the goal for corporates. Instead acting sustainably with proof and evidence is key.

XR can supply powerful, free positive marketing too. Their message could be supportive, were corporates to truly embed sustainability and embrace XR in today’s climate debate.

Sustainability spells profit and long-term business success. Ultimately, XR’s agenda, while radical, matches what corporates want; low carbon approaches that can win consumers and create sustainable business over the next century and beyond.

As a closing thought, XR’s vision may be worth a read. It is powerfully conceived.

‘Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, said Mandela. History is calling from the future, a hundred years from now. Half a hundred years. Ten. Today. Calling the conscience of humanity to act with the fierce urgency of now. This is the time. Wherever we are standing is the place. We have just this one flickering instant to hold the winds of worlds in our hands, to vouchsafe the future. This is what destiny feels like. We have to be greater than we have ever been, dedicated, selfless, self-sacrificial.’