understand the issues: Activism



Activism is taking some kind of action in order to bring about change in society. The action can be large or small, individual or collective. It can range from mandate building in the community (taking part in online petitions, petitioning elected officials, contributing to a political campaign), preferential patronage (or boycott) of businesses and demonstrative forms of activism like rallies, street marches, strikes, sit-ins, or hunger strikes. A growing form of activism currently is

shareholder activism (ie buying shares in order to have a voice  at a company AGM).

Activism may be performed on a day-to-day basis in a wide variety of ways such as through the creation of craft (craftivism), art (artivism), computer hacking (hacktivism), or simply in purchasing (economic activism). Collective action that is purposeful, organized, and sustained over a period of time becomes known as a social movement.



The aim of every form of collective action is to build a widespread social movement so large that change becomes inevitable. This can take decades rather than years. Many regard, environmental activism, which first began in the 1970s, as just now beginning to reach the point of a social movement. Even where legislators lag behind, businesses and individuals are increasingly taking action themselves.



There is a wide range of protest options available and each person will resonate with different actions. For some it is being arrested to raise awareness, for others it is starting a business themselves where they can dictate the ethics and output of the company in line with their beliefs. The wider the range of action taken on a single issue, the more likely it is that some part will resonate with individuals and prompt them to take action and convince others around them.



The history of the fair trade movement actually has wide and deep roots as far back as the 18th century where it was used as a way to protect poor urban consumers and even to boycott products from slave owners. The modern fair trade movement started in the 1950’s, then called Alternative Trade, to fight against neo-imperialism and concerns about the highly exploitative international trading system.  ‘Trade not aid’ became an internationally recognised slogan and focused on traditional handicrafts and agriculture to help provide a long-term income solution for communities and producers, particularly those affected by war, conflict or political/trade isolation.

Fair trade supporting financial society Shared Interest was one of the first to create an ethical finance model that supported trade finance to build capacity for Fair Trade livelihoods. Fair trade certification and ethical consumerism began in the late 1980s when a Dutch, not-for-profit label Max Havelaar launched with three coffee brands agreeing to source their coffee beans from a farmer’s co-operative in Mexico and pay rates above the market average that were considered fair. 

Fair trade is now a global initiative with some of the biggest players working together to ensure a huge range of activism – covering politics, business and consumers – can be harnessed more effectively.


For individuals

Many people confuse activism for extremism and are consequently wary of it. However, activism is any kind of action taken, however small, in order to achieve a future you believe in. For environmental activists it might be shifting to a plant-based diet or going on a hunger strike; it could be avoiding ‘fast’ fashion or setting up your own shop to recycle and reuse clothes. The important bit is to establish your beliefs, choose the action/s that fit your beliefs and then find others who share your beliefs and want to do something too.


For business

More organisations and businesses are engaging in activism than ever before.  Activism by a business is no longer seen as risky but as a key method of clearly stating the values your company operates by. This will in turn attract employees motivated by similar values and who see an opportunity to combine their daily work with their own activism. A more powerful collective action and productivity is able to be realised as a result.



A common experience for all activists is that change is not happening fast enough – particularly environmental activists where scientists have set out a clear and challenging timescales to avoid disaster. This depression can lead to anxiety, burnout, compassion fatigue and depression. In severe cases it has even led to suicide.

It can also damage the cause with internal conflict on the methods required to achieve action questioned and undermined by depressive and anxious decision making.



Many activist organisations are now aware of the impact of such anxiety and account for it in their structures and processes. The Extinction Rebellion has a cycle of action, reflection, learning and planning. Others hold courses in mindfulness, counselling and self-help strategies. The Advocacy Academy offers young people from south London nightly meals, community meetings, coaching and leadership courses to develop and sustain activism over a lifetime.

Conversely, many people with depression have said activism was in fact their solution. Moving from fear to action helped them cope with the problems associated with helpless passivity.



Greta Thunberg was studying climate change in school at the age of 11 and underwent episodes of recurring, severe depression as a result. She felt there was no point attending school if there was no future. She decided to push back and channel her sadness into action. Inspired by the survivors of a school shooting in America, she began a weekly schoolwork strike every Friday using social media to urge others and politicians to take action. She sat alone outside the Swedish parliament carrying a sign to urge others to strike for action on climate change.

Thunberg now has a Twitter following of 612,000 and in March 2019 an estimated 1.6million people in 133 countries participated in a climate strike inspired by her solo action. She regards her Asperger’s as an advantage in her activism. She has been quoted saying: “You can’t be a little bit sustainable –  you’re either sustainable or you’re not.” Her intense shaming of apathetic adults and politicians has now gripped and inspired the world.


For individuals

Possibly one of the key things to do as an individual activist is to keep hold of this quote from songwriter, Jana Stanfield: “You cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good that you can do.” Connecting with others who share the same passions and belief will help build a support network around you to help inspire and even laugh about the trials and tribulations you are encountering.

Lastly, put yourself in the shoes of people who don’t share your beliefs. What would make them change their mind? Being abused by an angry and embittered activist is probably not going to work – but meeting a kind, optimistic activist who carries an air of subtle power will possibly make them reconsider. A key ingredient of effective activism is hope and the will to take action and try to hang onto that through the darkest hours.


For business

Activist businesses can supply vital networks of support and resources to individuals and ensure activism is an empowering process not a traumatic and stressful one. Business leaders must also take responsibility for taking action which can help motivate change more quickly than individual action alone. Activism must be seen as an integral part of a new business model that no longer prioritises profit and growth at the expense of others or the planet.

Safia Minney, MBE and founder of People Tree, one of the first sustainable and ethical fashion brands recalls: “When I started People Tree in Japan in 1991, people had not heard of fair trade or designing sustainable products, so we made beautiful products and told them how the product was handmade and supported the makers’ empowerment. Then we talked about the exploitation and damage typical of more conventional fashion companies. It was surprising how quickly people joined us to become part of the change.”

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This article was written in partnership with Ethical Consumer magazine. Revolutionise the way you shop, save and live with Ethical Consumer’s unique shopping guides >

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