Moral Business: Changing Corporate Behaviour by ‘Speaking Their Language’

Paper presented to the European Sociological Association General Conference, Lisbon, September 2009.


The academic publisher Reed Elsevier also organised the world’s largest defence exhibitions. The exhibitions themselves have regularly met vibrant street protests, and from 2005 campaigners targeted the corporate organisers. A coordinated network of anti-arms trade activists, academics, medical professionals and institutional shareholders formed a multifaceted campaign that sought to persuade the corporation to change its behaviour on its own terms. After initial intransigence, Reed Elsevier divested itself of its defence sector activities in 2008.
On the basis of interviews with activists and corporate employees, this paper addresses two sets of questions about the Elsevier campaign. First, what are the components of a successful, corporate-focused campaign? Insights from the recently expanded literature on the outcomes of social movements will be tested against both facts of this case and the conscious strategy pursued by participants. I will argue that the movement outcomes literature continues to cope better with movements demanding state responses than those directed at corporations. Secondly, therefore, this paper examines a set of broader questions about the character of moral demands placed on corporate activity, and the way in which management discourses of corporate responsibility or citizenship partially constrains the response of relevant decision makers.

You can download the presentation slides from: Moral Business Presentation (ppt).