Does individual activism have an impact on the achievement of ESG objectives?


It’s an instantly recognizable image of individual activism. A Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, sat perfectly still at a busy Saigon intersection in June 1963, engulfed in flames. This act of self-immolation, arguably the most famous in history, was a protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam under a predominantly Catholic government.

By comparison, Wynn Bruce’s actions barely made national, let alone international, headlines. On April 22, 2022, Bruce set himself on fire outside the United States Supreme Court to protest inaction on the climate crisis. April 22 marks Earth Day, a day characterized by demonstrations in support of environmental protection. This act was reported by several outlets, but many focused more on the social media debates surrounding Bruce’s mental health and less on the act itself.

In an information overloaded world, individual actions can get lost in the noise. However, it is important to remember that the group is nothing without the individual. Collective action causes and continues to cause significant societal change.

The importance of ESG activism

More than seven decades have passed since the first UN resolution on human rights. Since then, corporate sustainability has come a long way as organizations strive to address environmental, social and governance challenges. However, companies and governments often need external oversight and pressure to act – despite the existence of laws protecting human rights, the UN says 40 million people are involved in slavery modern by forced labor and forced marriages.

External pressure works when it is large enough. Around the end of April 2022 and more than a year after The Telegraph reported that PPE worth nearly £150m had been paid to Chinese companies linked to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the UK government has added an amendment to the landmark Health and Healthcare Bill that aims to eradicate slavery from healthcare supply chains.

The move came after several months of lobbying by human rights activists around the world, including the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of lawmakers with members ranging from Albania to in Uganda. Luke de Pulford, chief executive of anti-slavery campaign group Arise and driving force behind IPAC, said that “this is by far the most significant advance in supply chain regulation since the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, and in many ways goes much further.”

Finding meaning in the community

The actions taken by the UK government are just one example of many around the world where collective action has brought about change. Trying to address ESG issues, especially climate change, can seem daunting. However, that doesn’t mean the challenges can’t be overcome. As Margaret Klein Salamon wrote in a letter to the editor published by the New York Times in response to Bruce’s death, “collective action is a particularly effective antidote to despair”, and “we can find a sense of purpose and community in the face of the climate crisis”.

As more companies and organizations recognize the importance of ESG and become aware of this societal shift, things will change. Each of us can do our part to achieve these goals, but it is these united and concerted efforts of activism that are sure to have the greatest impact.


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