Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 118, Issue 1, pp 189–202 | Cite as

Protest Campaigns and Corporations: Cooperative Conflicts?



This article analyses and systematises the repertoires of action and reaction within conflicts between corporations and adversarial campaigns. Particular attention is paid to the parameters that turn conflicts between corporations and their critics into productive or destructive exchanges. Are protest campaigns able to fulfil a function that goes beyond serving as a seismograph for civil society’s concern and discontent? Which are the circumstances that enable conflicts between protest campaigns and corporations to unfold their potential for correcting social deficiencies? The analysis starts by outlining several typologies of confrontational and cooperative repertoires of action. Based on this starting point, a comprehensive analysis of more than 100 campaigns is presented, which systematises the dynamics of conflict between protest campaigns and corporations. An exemplary comparison of two particular conflicts completes the article in order to elaborate on the interplay between confrontation and cooperation.


Corporate responsibility Corporate social responsiveness Non-governmental organisations Organisational change Social activism 

Introduction: Corporate Power and Protest Campaigns

Against the backdrop of limited national and transnational regulation and the potentially global consequences of corporate action, transnational corporations have become relevant political actors. Their political power comes along with new possibilities to play a major role in shaping society as well as with a need for legitimation: ‘Today, companies are quasi-public actors because of the politicization of their activities through unintended side-effects and the lack of global regulation’ (Palazzo and Scherer 2006, p. 77). Owing to the extent to which corporate activities are no longer regarded as politically neutral, corporations or entire industries have become the targets of public demands and political protests. Social movement activists directly pressure corporate actors through protest campaigns in order to initiate processes of civil regulation. The term civil regulation describes a third arena of regulatory action that differs from legalistic forms of government and international regulation as well as from corporate ‘self-regulation’ (Utting 2005, p. 376). Through processes of civil regulation, social movement actors try to change an organisation’s behaviour with regard to social and environmental concerns. In doing so, their preferred instruments are protest campaigns: ‘Most civil regulations have their origin in citizen campaigns directed against particular companies, industries, and business practices’ (Vogel 2010, p. 76).

Hond and Bakker (2007, p. 901) rightly point out that social movement research has already dealt with protest repertoires, but it has paid less attention to the interplay between protests and corporate change. Hence, this article deals with the dynamics of conflict occurring in protest campaigns that target corporations. In doing so, it focuses on the interplay between confrontation and cooperation. Activists that identify corporations as the origin of grievances first target them in a confrontational way. They connect corporations to negative external effects in the realm of economic globalisation, such as the exploitation of natural resources, the pollution of groundwater, the expulsion of indigenous people or inhuman labour conditions. Hence, they take on the role of civil society’s critical voice. Their campaigns raise concerns over the social injustice they perceive in the current interconnection of international political and economic decisions (e.g. Bennett 2002; Micheletti and Stolle 2007; Tarrow 2005). To what extent, however, do protest campaigns fulfil a function that goes beyond serving as a seismograph for civil society’s concern and discontent? The present article answers this question by analysing campaigns that link up confrontational and cooperative lines of action in different ways. Likewise, it refers to the analysis of corporate action and reaction towards those campaigns. In doing so, the article assesses whether conflicts between corporations and social movement actors may not only be an expression of tensions in society but may also release these tensions through rapprochement.


The following analysis is based upon results of the research project ‘Changing Protest and Media Cultures’ at the University of Siegen, Germany.1 The project was conducted between 2005 and 2010 and was funded by the German Research Foundation. The author was responsible for systematising the repertoires of protest campaigns and corporate action/reaction. In doing so, I strived not only to examine the unidirectional influence of such campaigns on corporations but also to emphasise the multi-stage interaction between social movement actors and corporations. In order to present the results of the study and deduce conditions that turn conflicts into socially productive outcomes I will refer to the findings of the following research steps:

Literature Review

First, I present the core results of a literature review that accompanied my own research. I give a condensed overview of how several authors conceptualise confrontation and cooperation between activists and the targets of their protests. The analysis and comparison of the findings serve as a background and basis for structuring the results of our study.

Systematisation of Conflict Repertoires

In order to gain a complete picture of the possible lines of action employed by campaign actors and corporations I used the results of the research project’s comprehensive inventory of protest campaigns targeting corporations between 2005 and 2010. The inventory concentrated on campaigns that were conducted in German-speaking countries but, at the same time, focused on transnational issues (e.g. environmental protection or labour rights) and that were often part of transnational networks. A sample of 109 campaigns was composed by systematic media analysis and research in search engines. The following search terms were used as a starting point in German and English: boycott; campaign + NGO/non-governmental organisation; campaign + protest; campaign + social movement; campaign + corporation; protest + NGO/non-governmental organisation; protest + social movement; and protest + corporation. Subsequently, we analysed the sample of 109 conflicts by content analysis. For that purpose, we composed material that had been published by the organisers and supporters of the campaigns or members of the corporations, such as flyers, videos, brochures, scientific studies, annual reports, newsletters, press releases or website entries. Moreover, we included the media coverage of the conflicts in order to reconstruct the course of events. Based on the primary data, we conducted a content analysis in order to answer various research questions. My aim was to identify the repertoires of action employed by the campaigns and targeted corporations.2 By systematically going through the material, I extracted the actions and reactions of the conflict partners. Afterwards, I clustered our findings and developed a typology of conflict repertoires as well as of the dynamics of conflict.

Comparative Case Analysis

In a further research step, the project concentrated on in-depth analyses of selected cases. In addition to the material we collected for the content analysis, we conducted focused semi-structured qualitative interviews with campaign organisers, mobilised activists and corporate representatives. Moreover, we dispatched an online questionnaire to mobilised activists via the campaign’s newsletter. In particular, the qualitative interviews provided deep insights into the structures and backgrounds of the conflicts. In order to accommodate the characteristics of each conflict, the interviews included open-ended questions and interviewers were open to topics that were advanced by the interviewee or diverged from the interview guide. In order to place the results into a broader context, we also conducted in-depth analyses of U.S.-based cases. Particularly with regard to conflicts on labour issues this comparison was highly relevant for my research on conflict repertoires. In the U.S., there is a long tradition of campaigning against corporations on labour issues via the so-called ‘corporate campaigns’ (Manheim 2001). In contrast, institutionally guaranteed ways of organising the workforce play an important role in Germany. Non-institutionalised ways of generating support for workers’ interests such as campaigns have only recently gained importance. However, I could detect similar configurations for German and U.S. campaigns which focused on labour rights and related human rights alongside transnational production cycles. These campaigns promoted workers’ rights and freedom of association in countries with anti-union structures outside the U.S. and Germany. Apart from unions, the campaigns were organised by other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or social movement networks which tried to gain the support of the broader public. The article provides insights into the results of the in-depth analyses of a U.S.-based and a German-based case. An in-depth analysis of similar cases but with diverging historical backgrounds is instructive for the article’s core question, namely the interplay between confrontation and cooperation and the circumstances that enable conflicts between protest campaigns and corporations to unfold their potential for correcting social deficiencies.

Corporate and Protest Repertoires––Prevalent Typologies and Considerations

Civil Society Protest

Confrontational and cooperative repertoires of social movements, civil society organisations or campaigns initiated by those actors have been analysed and categorised by several authors. When conducting campaigns, activists usually make use of both cooperative and confrontational lines of action: ‘Both confrontation and cooperation can be adequate strategies’ (Tulder and Zwart 2006, p. 120). However, the literature discriminates between the general positions social movement actors take towards their addressees (e.g. governments or corporations). Campaigning organisations are said to lean more towards either confrontational or cooperative positions and have either a radical or a moderating attitude. Table 1 provides an overview of the conceptualisations that can be found in the literature.
Table 1

Civil society protest

Civil society protest

‘conflict orientation’ versus ‘consensus orientation’ (Downey and Rohlinger 2008)

‘confronta-tional style’ versus ‘collabo-rative style’ (Bendell 2000)

‘radical orientation’ versus ‘reformative orientation’ (Hond and Bakker 2007)

‘engagers’ versus ‘con-fronters’ (Winston 2002)

‘polarisers’ versus ‘integrators’ (Marsden and Andriof 1998)

‘outsiders’ versus ‘insiders’ (Oliviero and Simmons 2002)

‘pressure’ versus ‘part-nership’ (Mach, undated)

‘persuasion, facilitation and bargaining’ versus ‘coercion’ (Taylor and Dyke 2004)

When evaluating cooperation and confrontation, the literature on social movement actors mentions both the importance of cooperation for the effectiveness of civil regulations and the danger of being taken in by corporate strategies, thus losing their autonomy and authenticity (e.g. Dahan et al. 2010; Hond 2009; Yaziji 2009). Along the same lines, Vogel (2010, p. 74, 76) indicates that effective civil regulations need alliances between NGOs and global firms rather than mere ‘naming and shaming’; however, he also points out that corporations may commit themselves to civil society demands in order to avoid additional governmental regulation. Tulder and Zwart (2006) distinguish between dependent NGOs, interdependent NGOs and independent NGOs with regard to their roles at the interface with business. While dependent NGOs run the risk of supporting mere window-dressing through their sometimes unconsidered cooperation, protest-oriented independent NGOs may get stuck in simplification and exaggeration. Even interdependent NGOs, which can be characterised by a hybrid and multidimensional approach, can end up in weak compromises and co-optation (Tulder and Zwart 2006, p. 124).

Both the risks and the chances of cooperation and confrontation will be taken into account in this paper when systematising the repertoires of protest campaigns and analysing the selected campaigns with regard to the potential beneficial outcomes of conflicts. Beforehand, however, the typologies of protest action are complemented by the typologies of corporate action and reaction.

Corporate Action and Reaction

Similar to the realm of civil society protest, the repertoires of confrontation and cooperation are described for corporate action and reaction. However, when analysing the literature on corporate attitudes towards external demands (in particular from social movement actors), it becomes obvious that these attitudes are often conceptualised as a continuum rather than as a dichotomy. In doing so, previous authors emphasise that there may be several nuances of a corporation’s willingness to respond to claims for responsibility and to cooperate with activists. Aside from the different degrees of corporate responsiveness, as well as the overall differentiation between confrontation and cooperation, some authors refer to the lines of action that are part of the symbolic strategies of avoidance. This implies that organisations commit to certain demands of civil society but do not change their own structures. For instance, the symbolic dimension of organisational change may become apparent in a publicly demonstrated willingness for change owing to external pressure that is largely uncoupled from unaltered internal processes. Table 2 summarises some of the central positions mentioned in the literature.
Table 2

Corporate action and reaction

Corporate action and reaction

‘actionistic demonisation’ versus ‘proactive stakeholder dialogue’ (Heins 2005)

‘cooperative relationships’ versus ‘adversarial relationships’ (Heugens 2003)

‘inactive approach’ versus ‘reactive approach’ versus ‘active approach’ versus ‘proactive approach’ (Tulder and Zwart 2006)

‘defiance’ versus ‘acquiescence’/’compromise’ versus ‘avoidance’ and ‘manipulation’ (Oliver 1991)

‘resistance’ and ‘disregard’ versus ‘implementation’ and ‘compliance’ versus ‘evasion’ and ‘symbolic compliance’ (Zald et al. 2005)

‘implementation’ versus ‘decoupling’ (Fiss and Zajac 2006)

When discussing the pros and cons of how different strategies deal with external demands, there is an emphasis on the ambivalent character of both cooperation and confrontation. Confrontational configurations may also include cooperative aspects or result in cooperation and vice versa, just as conflicting demands may result in an interlinkage of cooperative and confrontational lines of action (Heins 2005; Rieth and Göbel 2005). Heugens (2003) points out that cooperative and adversarial relationships are both important for corporations in order to gain access to outside knowledge and to manage stakeholder relationships. He defines adversarial relationships as relationships with parties ‘with whom the corporation fundamentally disagrees about the terms or objectives of collaboration’ (Heugens 2003, p. 305).

In particular, this aspect of shaping conflicts in a productive rather than in a destructive way is crucial for the following analysis. Hence, I place particular emphasis on the interplay between confrontation and cooperation. Moreover, the analysis refers to the symbolic strategies of dealing with conflicts. While those strategies have been only mentioned in terms of corporate reaction to protest action, I explore whether similar strategies can be identified within the repertoire of protest campaigns.

Systematisation of Conflict Repertoires

The literature review served as a basis for structuring the results of our study. In analysing the sample of 109 conflicts between protest campaigns and targeted corporations, I detected and clustered both confrontational and cooperative lines of action. Moreover, I identified a third type, concealed counteraction, which can neither be described as thoroughly confrontational nor entirely cooperative. This type can rather be understood as a mixture between cooperation and confrontation (often concealing confrontation behind a cooperative surface). Characteristic of concealed counteraction is a subtle reframing of the counterpart’s behaviour in terms of the other party’s own interpretation. In this way, an actor makes use of its opponent’s strategy in order to further develop its own repertoire. Table 3 summarises the repertoires of action applied by protest campaigns and targeted corporations.
Table 3

Repertoires of Conflict



Concealed counteraction


Protest campaigns



Public acknowledgement








Inclusive coalitions



Social campaigning

Public acknowledgement

Public denial

Intraorganisational reconstruction



Exclusive coalitions


Legal Action


Inclusive coalitions

First, public scandalising is an instrument that I found to be prevalent in most protest campaigns. Moreover, the analysed campaigns used boycotts as an option to address corporations in a confrontational manner. Many campaigns that did not explicitly call for the boycotting of certain products nevertheless threatened to start a boycott in order to increase pressure. Finally, initiating lawsuits or striving for political regulation could be detected as a confrontational line of action in addressing corporations. Here, it became obvious that campaigns targeted not only corporations and/or industries but also political institutions in order to achieve the broader regulation of corporate action. For instance, campaigns fighting genetically modified food usually strived for appropriate law. Corporations, in turn, instituted injunctions, actions against trademark infringement or libel suits.

Besides legal action, I identified further ways for corporations to face campaign demands confrontationally. First, defiance or disregard for campaign demands falls into this category, since corporations ignoring anti-corporate protests took a confrontational position even if they were not obviously reacting to the demands of their critics. Aside from ignoring the campaign issue, corporations publicly denied the claims brought forward by campaign actors. For instance, campaigns targeting the arms manufacturing industry usually encountered defiance or denial, as such campaigns questioned the industry’s very right to exist. Finally, a confrontational response was expressed by intensifying the behaviour that the campaign was criticising. This line of action attempted to demonstrate corporate action as legitimate and campaign claims as inappropriate and superfluous. This was, for example, the case for the producers of genetically modified seeds, who continually strived for the proliferation of genetic engineering for agriculture despite massive protests in Germany.

Campaigns realised cooperation by the so-called buycotts, namely the deliberate buying of certain goods or brands. In this regard, campaigns that promoted the labels of certain products or product groups, such as the label of the RugMark Foundation, which strives to end illegal child labour in the rug-making industry, or the Fair Trade labelling scheme for flowers, were of particular importance. Corporate cooperation became especially obvious when a firm accommodated campaign demands––for instance by abandoning animal experiments or certain harmful substances in the production of goods. Moreover, cooperation between campaigns and corporations built on direct exchange. Here, for both parties the interrelated instruments of bargaining and public acknowledgement played an important role. In this regard, public statements from both sides that underlined the awareness (and acceptance) of their counterpart’s position were of crucial importance to advance a good climate for discussion. Within the analysed cases, bargaining processes took place on a bilateral basis as well as within broader multi-stakeholder initiatives that included corporations or corporate associations, NGOs, unions as well as state actors or members of international organisations. In some cases, dialogue led to durable inclusive coalitions between campaign actors and corporate actors. These coalitions, for instance, strived for the development or improvement of codes of conduct. Through this approach, global standards have been developed within the toy and diamond industries.

Finally, concealed counteraction has to be considered to be a third type of action and reaction. Concealed counteraction, in particular, contributes to the dynamics of conflict, as it often combines cooperative and confrontational elements. Corporations used concealed counteraction in order to seize campaign issues by developing their own policies without including campaign actors. For instance, social campaigns draw upon campaign issues in an indirect manner, as they deal with the topics a campaign has raised, but do not mention the accusations or negative aspects attached to the corporation. Rather, social campaigns focus on corporations’ positive contributions to the particular issue. For example, corporations in the energy sector promoted their commitment to ‘green’ energy and environmental protection. Moreover, concealed counteraction could be identified when corporations generally acknowledged certain protest issues but linked this with attempts to turn these issues around to the benefit of the corporation. Action taken in this context did not seek cooperation with campaign actors but rather it became enforced in a self-directed manner by intraorganisational reconstruction or through exclusive coalitions with either different civil society organisations or other economic actors. Intraorganisational reconstruction, for example, was enacted through the establishment of the so-called corporate social responsibility departments or the introduction of new ‘eco’ or ‘fair trade’ product lines. Likewise, exclusive coalitions between the corporation and NGOs outside the campaign picked up campaign claims but did not involve campaign actors. Rather, NGOs that were less oppositional were chosen in order to enact social and environmental projects or certification programmes. Concealed counteraction such as this was, in turn, an initial point for campaigns to make use of similar lines of action. Campaign activists scrutinised and deconstructed corporate repertoires that displayed a commitment to social norms if they perceived the measures to be deficient. Hence, environmental initiatives, for instance, were described as ‘greenwashing’. The deconstruction of corporate measures was used as an argument for further scandalisation and mobilisation in terms of campaign frames. Moreover, campaign actors monitored corporate action and corporate codes of conduct. In doing so, they stressed the value and relevance of protests and campaign action by publishing shortcomings and proposing steps for improvement.

When looking at the relation between cooperation, confrontation and concealed counteraction, it became obvious that confrontational elements, in particular, were crucial for protest campaigns––regardless of whether or not they were generally open to cooperation. Especially in terms of mobilising processes, scandalising is at the heart of the campaign strategy in order to define clearly the addressed corporations as the origin of grievances. Likewise, concealed counteraction was important for both corporate and campaign actors in order to distinguish themselves from their counterparts and to centre their own measures. Regarding the core question of ‘productive conflicts’, it has to be mentioned that not only cooperative lines of action but also concealed counteraction and confrontation may serve as a basis for rapprochement. Scandalising and denial can be regarded as one way of uttering positions that can turn into a fruitful exchange of views if both parties are willing to accept their counterpart as a dialogue partner. In terms of concealed counteraction, social campaigning, for instance, signals the corporation’s commitment to a social problem and this approach can thus be an initial point for discussing corporate responsibility. Beyond that, intraorganisational reconstruction and exclusive coalitions include precise steps for correcting social deficiencies. Likewise, deconstruction and monitoring can provide transparency by detecting shortcomings in corporate measures and scrutinising public relations activities. Hence, repertoires of action per se are not the determining factor if conflicts between corporations and social movement actors can be described as destructive or rather productive. It is in fact the dynamics of conflict that are essential, namely the way in which different lines of action are combined within a certain conflict. Table 4 displays the most characteristic dynamics of conflict identified when analysing protest campaigns and corporate action/reaction.
Table 4

Dynamics of conflict


Campaign →

Corporation →





Legal action



Corporations reacted to scandalisation with proceedings against campaign actors, thus fighting the campaign’s basic legitimacy. The analysed campaigns usually reacted to that step with further scandalisation and attempts to take advantage of their role as an ‘underdog’.



Ignoring/intensification/public denial

Scandalising/boycott/legal action/regulation


Corporations that did not accept campaign claims, but did not sue, either, usually decided either to ignore the campaign or to counteract through public denial and/or intensification. The campaigns, in turn, intensified their scandalising and sometimes called for a boycott or switched their efforts to the layer of institutionalised politics, i.e. court or legislation.



Public denial/social campaigning



Corporations that accepted the importance of the campaign issue, but did not regard themselves as a reason for misconduct, but rather as a problem solver, emphasised this role by denying their responsibility and initiating social campaigns. Campaigns, in turn, tried to deconstruct corporate evidence as window-dressing (e.g. ‘greenwashing’).



Intraorganisational reconstruction/exclusive coalition



Corporations that identified the need for action with regard to their own policies, but did not accept campaign actors as partners for initiating required measures, either tried to solve problems through intraorganisational reconstruction or formed coalitions with external partners. Sometimes these measures have also been initiated to prevent binding regulation. Campaign actors monitored these activities in a critical and often sceptical way, as they doubted the authenticity and autonomy of the measures.


Campaign →

Corporation/campaign →

Corporation/campaign →

Corporation/campaign →





Public acknowledgement

Intraorganisational reconstruction/exclusive coalition


If campaign actors and corporate actors were generally willing to talk to each other, scandalisation led to a bargaining process. Successful bargaining was followed or accompanied by public acknowledgements on shared opinions, e.g. through website announcements or press releases. However, some corporations decided at this stage to proceed without campaign actors, but to initiate intraorganisational measures or to build up exclusive coalitions.




Public acknowledgement

Inclusive coalition


A further cooperative step going beyond shared interpretations were inclusive coalitions for instance, a common project to improve a certain product or to develop codes of conduct. Such projects were usually accompanied by monitoring activities of the campaign or were followed by a recommendation for purchase (‘buycott’).

The first four processes are rather destructive, as they do not feature any shared action between campaign actors and corporate actors: however, they vary with regard to the extent of confrontation. While processes a and b are particularly destructive, processes c and d still do not feature interaction between campaign actors and corporate actors but can be characterised by the corporation’s general willingness to deal with the campaign claims. Finally, conflicts between campaigns and corporations included direct exchange and the willingness to turn the conflict into a productive exchange (processes e and f). In particular, conflicts spanning several years usually feature several of the abovementioned processes, which may also overlap or stop at a certain step. This delineation of conflict repertoires has given a first insight into the broad repertoire of corporate and campaign action as well as into possible processes of conflict. The following in-depth analysis examines and compares the dynamics of conflict. Special emphasis is placed on the circumstances that lead to the development of conflicts. The comparative case analysis looks at the conflict between the German Clean Clothes Campaign and the Puma Company on one hand and the conflict between the U.S.-based campaign Stop Killer Coke and the Coca-Cola Company on the other hand. Both campaigns feature multidimensional conflict processes and a complex repertoire of action and reaction. However, they develop in contrary ways, which makes them especially instructive with regard to the comprehensive question of turning conflicts into a productive exchange.

Coca-Cola and the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke

The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke was initiated in 2002 by the U.S. union activist Ray Rogers and members of the Colombian union Sinaltrainal. Campaign activists blame Coca-Cola for the murders of union members in the 1990s, ongoing pressure against unions in Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants and alleged collaboration with Colombian paramilitary groups. Above all, U.S. student groups such as United Students Against Sweatshops are an important factor in organising protests targeting Coca-Cola’s role in Colombia. In addition to these institutionally embedded groups, campaigning is performed by micro-activists who in particular become visible on various online platforms. The dynamic of conflict in this case features four overlapping processes: the first one stands for the underlying lines of argumentation; the second and third processes imply missed starting points of cooperation; and the fourth process comprises the peaks of confrontation both in the market arena and in the arena of political regulation.

Process 1 ‘Fighting for the Truth’: Scandalising → Public Denial and Social Campaigning → Deconstruction

Within the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, scandalising is a predominant part of communication. A separate section on the campaign website deals with ‘Stop Killer Coke Arts’. Here, individual activists confront advertising promises with their own perception of corporate misconduct. The Coca-Cola Company responds to that confrontation by denying the accusations with equal vehemence. According to this, the dynamic of conflict in this case is very much affected by attack and counterattack, which can be described as a ‘fight for truth’ or a fight for the power of interpretation. Michael Stopford from the Coca-Cola Department of Corporate Reputation ascribes the scandalisation to the corporation’s high visibility instead of actual misconduct:

‘Sometimes the name itself attracts the attention. So a little thing…becomes a huge story because it’s Coca-Cola….Any big brand name, and Coca-Cola is one of the biggest brand names in the world, will attract attention just by being that brand’ (Interview with Michael Stopford conducted on 10 March 2008). 3

Moreover, Coca-Cola’s communication links the denial of campaign claims with a strategy of social campaigning. For instance, the company produced an image film called ‘Workplace Opportunity and Environmental Commitment’ (Coca-Cola Company, undated). The film contains statements from employees who compliment the company for its role as a responsible employer and a responsible member of society. Campaign actors, in turn, try to deconstruct corporate argumentation and to promote their own interpretation. The ‘facts’ given by the Coca-Cola corporation are described as ‘lies’ by campaign actors. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, for example, publishes ‘Critical Talking Points’ (Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, undated a), which disagree with the company’s thesis of high wages, good working conditions and solid relationships with organised labour in Colombia. Overall, the communication in this case was strongly worded and it took the form of sharp attacks. This also becomes apparent in the interview with campaign director Ray Rogers, who states: ‘They [Coca-Cola] spend billions and billions of dollars to create an image or reality that has nothing to do with the ugly reality that is the company’ (Interview with Ray Rogers, conducted on 7 March 2008). This kind of radicalness is specific to the U.S. context. In the sample of 109 campaigns conducted in German-speaking countries, some cases could be characterised by a strong irreconcilability; however, the distinct radical nature of the Coca-Cola case could not be identified elsewhere. The following analysis of the conflict between Puma and the Clean Clothes Campaign exemplifies this finding.

Process 2 ‘Conflicting Proposals for Solutions’: Scandalising → Intraorganisational Reconstruction and Exclusive Coalitions → Monitoring

Opposed perceptions of the situation in Colombia and the related scandalisation lead to equally opposed perceptions of the necessary measurements to assure humane working conditions in Colombia. Therein, both groups of actors make use of concealed counteraction. While the Coca-Cola Company adopts intraorganisational reconstruction and exclusive coalitions, campaign actors are consequently sceptical in monitoring corporate measurements. Intraorganisational reconstruction first becomes apparent through the installation of a Director of Global Labor Relations as well as a respective department that watches over the code of conduct at Coca-Cola’s production plants. The company filled the director’s position with Ed Potter, who had previously worked as an expert on labour issues for the United Nations Organization (UNO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). For campaign actors, however, this intraorganisational reconstruction does not contribute to an improvement in working conditions. This position is because of a sceptical attitude towards these international organisations. They are critically monitored and said to be widely dependent on the economic power of multinational corporations among which particular influence is ascribed to the Coca-Cola corporation. With regard to exclusive coalitions, Coca-Cola refers to audits that are primarily conducted by the Cal Safety Compliance Corporation (CSCC), a consultancy specialising in compliance inspections. Again, campaign actors do not accept the solution provided by the company. They describe the CSCC investigation as a ‘bogus report’ (e.g. Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, undated b) because they do not regard the CSCC as an independent and reliable watchdog of corporate codes of conduct. In this sense, campaign director Ray Rogers states:

‘Cal Safety has missed some of the…worst human rights labour abuse cases in the world by investigating companies giving them a clean door…only for somebody else coming back and finding out that these companies were as dirty as sin’ (Interview with Ray Rogers, conducted on 7 March 2008).

Here again, the notably radical way of judging corporate measurements becomes obvious. In this case, monitoring is not a way of improving corporate attempts to remedy social deficiencies but rather a way of condemning activities that do not exactly match with the position campaign activists take. This is one reason for the failure of cooperation in this case.

Process 3 ‘Failure of Cooperation’: Boycott → Bargaining → Inclusive Coalitions → Scandalising/Boycott

The campaign actors’ rejections of audits initiated by the corporation itself are closely connected to the aim of demanding the corporation agree to an ‘independent inquiry of its practices’ (United Students Against Sweatshops, undated, p. 8). However, attempts to start an inclusive coalition in order to conduct a common independent inquiry have failed. Only in 2005 was there a brief prospect of agreement and an inclusive coalition. Coca-Cola launched a so-called commission that was supposed to develop methods for an independent enquiry at Colombian bottling plants that would involve students, representatives of universities and NGOs. Anyway, these early signs of cooperation soon opened out into a confrontational exchange and mutual scandalising. In particular, the participating students called for the retreat of the Coca-Cola corporation from the commission in order to work independently. Subsequent to this request, they complained about the interference and retardation of their investigation by the corporation. An interview statement by Camilo Romero, who is a member of Sinaltrainal and coordinated the campaign activities of the United Students Against Sweatshops, underlines both the corporate effort to keep hold of the power of interpretation and the general reluctance of student actors to cooperate with the company:

‘Coca-Cola said from the beginning that it would cooperate as long as it was able to design the investigation, whereas for the students it was very clear that as long as Coca-Cola was involved it would neither be independent nor a third party investigation…But after Coke was removed, it said that it would not support the investigation locally’ (Interview with Camilo Romero, conducted on 19 August 2009).

During several years of conflict, neither party has been able to gain a common position on how to conduct a truly ‘independent’ enquiry, as they continue to consider their counterparts as biased and unable to take an objective position. Hence, confrontational lines of action such as scandalising and boycott remain prevalent for this conflict. Another aspect that has to be mentioned in this context is that the attempts to enquire and remedy social deficiencies in Colombia transcend the realm of Coca-Cola’s production cycles. There is rather the underlying question of a democratisation process in Colombia that is connected to Coca-Cola’s precise failures. The campaign calls upon the corporation to stop paramilitary influence in Colombia just as Coca-Cola highlights its contribution to a Colombian peace process. However, the history of paramilitary violence in Colombia goes beyond problems that can be solved by reorganising corporate production cycles. Turning this conflict into a productive one is not least impeded by its abundant aim. Hence, the conflict can be characterised by its prevalence of confrontation.

Process 4 ‘Prevalence of Confrontation’: Scandalising → Public Denial → Boycott and Legal Action

Boycotts and legal actions have both shaped the conflict right from its beginning. However, mutual condemnation through scandalising and public denial, as well as lacking rapprochement and failed bargaining, have turned these lines into the prevailing ones, and into indicators for hardened positions. U.S. unions filed several lawsuits on behalf of Sinaltrainal against Colombian bottlers in order to prove the corporation’s joint responsibility for human rights abuses in Colombia with the help of exemplary cases of assassinated union members. However, no claim ended in a conviction. Despite court decisions, campaign actors describe legal action as a promising way to codify corporate responsibility for transnational interdependencies and to regulate corporate power: ‘If it wasn’t for legal action … these people in Colombia wouldn’t have had anything…It was the lawsuits that began to open up the doors’ (Interview with Ray Rogers, conducted on 7 March 2008). The Coca-Cola Company, by contrast, appreciates the court rulings as a reassurance of its non-existent relationship to paramilitary violence and the effectiveness of corporate codes of conduct.

Besides the court rulings, confrontation and contradictory positions become apparent through boycotts. Boycott is one of the campaign’s primary goals, which is obvious by the campaign name, as Ray Rogers confirms: ‘When the name Killer Coke sticks in their minds, people never touch another Coke’ (Interview with Ray Rogers, conducted on 7 March 2008). In doing so, the campaign first focuses on the mobilisation of diverse collective actors for an institutionalised boycott of Coca-Cola products. Hence, communities, universities, restaurants and unions are invited to eliminate Coca-Cola products from their spheres of action. The campaign website lists more than 200 schools that are or were fostering boycott action. The responses of the Coca-Cola Company to the boycott action reveal an ambiguous attitude. On one hand, the company strives to marginalise the boycott effects and characterises the boycotts as sporadic and unrepresentative. Hence, Michael Stopford from Coca-Cola describes the size of the boycott action as negligible:

‘If you think about how many trillions of bottles of Coke are sold every day in North America the fact that three or four universities with…15,000 students each say they would rather have…Schweppes,…on their campus, well that’s not very important in terms of the number’ (Interview with Michael Stopford conducted on 10 March 2008).

On the other hand, boycott action is able to develop a threatening potential regardless of the direct effect on income. Hence, the corporation is making a great effort to enter a dialogue with the concerned universities in order to end or prevent institutional boycotts.

Recapitulation on the Conflict

Altogether, the conflict between the Coca-Cola Company and the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke can be characterised by its outstandingly hardened positions. Neither campaign actors nor corporate actors accept the other party as a dialogue partner, which leads to continuous scandalisation and denial that renders harmonisation impossible. Moreover, boycott action is prevalent for this conflict and this is adopted by campaign activists to express their disapproval in a straightforward way. However, this leaves little space to turn the relationship with the company into a cooperative one. The following comparison with the conflict between the Puma Company and the Clean Clothes Campaign will clarify how conflict orientation and consensus orientation may interlock.

Puma and the Clean Clothes Campaign

The products of the sporting goods company Puma are produced by more than 400 external suppliers in more than 50 countries. Shifting production to low-wage countries and focusing the core business on branding can be described as characteristics of companies in the sporting goods and textiles industries. This configuration, within which high marketing costs are accompanied by strategies of outsourcing and cost reduction in the realm of production, forms the background of civil society protest. Within Europe, this protest is particularly coordinated by the Clean Clothes Campaign, which was initiated in 1990 in the Netherlands. Since that time, it has established a network of widely independent national campaigns in several European countries that are conducted by diverse NGO coalitions. The German Clean Clothes Campaign (‘Kampagne für Saubere Kleidung’) was founded in 1996. It is organised by 20 NGOs and supported by further local and regional groups. The Puma Company has been addressed by the campaign along with other German companies as well as the textiles industry as a whole. The dynamic of the conflict in this case can be characterised by three processes that feature a chronological order, although they are not entirely sequential: the first process stands for the basic lines of argument, which are decisive for later rapprochement; the second process implies the corporation’s first measures in response to external demands and the activists’ reaction to these measures; and the third process features not only further harmonisation but also setbacks in cooperation.

Process 1 ‘Mutual Recognition’: Scandalising → Bargaining → Public Acknowledgement

Campaign actors scandalise the corporation by claiming massive violations of human rights despite the corporate code of conduct. However, communication in this case is not only limited to incrimination but also includes moderating statements as well as processes of bargaining that lead towards mutual acknowledgement. For instance, corporate actors are not described as unethical in principle. Rather, conclusions are drawn in a moderate way, as campaign representatives recognise improvements to certain labour conditions and oppose the ongoing violation of other labour rights. In this sense, Jeroen Merk, who works for the Amsterdam headquarters of the International Clean Clothes Campaign, emphasises the campaign’s differentiated way of addressing corporations:

‘Many people make the mistake that they think you have, let’s say, either “negotiators” or “confronters” and nothing in between and that these things cannot happen at the same time…On one hand, you cooperate within multi-stakeholder initiatives, you develop common programs for factories, or you might endorse something that might happen, but at the same time you can still criticise them on other issues’ (Interview with Jeroen Merk conducted on 24 August 2007).

Puma, in turn, is interested in bargaining and initiated stakeholder dialogues for that aim. Likewise, Dr Reiner Hengstmann, Puma’s Global Head of Social and Environmental Affairs, highlights the imperative of cooperation:

‘Sometimes there are stormy affairs but ultimately we all strive for the same. We want to improve standards and those organisations as well. Hence, we can exclaim against each other but it is better that we work together’ (Interview with Dr Reiner Hengstmann conducted on 31 July 2007. Translation by the author).

This moderating way of communication can be related to a stronger and more institutionalised bargaining tradition with regard to labour issues in Germany. While the German Works Constitution Act assures the right of organising the workforce, unions in the U.S. face considerable obstacles in doing so (Phelan 2009, pp. 330–335). Although the conflict between the Puma Company and the Clean Clothes Campaign takes place outside the bargaining system provided by the nation-state, it appears to benefit from a tradition where pressure is used as a means to the end of negotiation. Moreover, mutual acknowledgement in this case can be ascribed to the Clean Clothes Campaign’s approach of addressing whole industries. The campaign not only names Puma as an example of corporate misconduct but also points to other corporations and overall problems within the textiles industry. Hence, the campaign needs to go beyond disabling the deviant behaviour of single global players but compares the behaviour of different companies.

Process 2 ‘Contested Enhancement’: Scandalisation/Regulation → Intraorganisational Reconstruction → Monitoring

Similar to the compared case, the debate on auditing processes is crucial for this conflict. In 2000, Puma started a formalised system of supplier audits by the corporation’s own S.A.F.E. Department for Sustainability. Campaign actors criticise this approach as insufficient. For instance, Maik Pflaum, responsible for the exchange with Puma from the German Clean Clothes Campaign, blames the corporation for still paying ‘starvation wages’:

‘[Puma and other sporting goods companies] installed codes of conduct and social departments some time ago. However, little has changed for the workers in production countries…Particularly with regard to the question of wages, grievances are prevailing as companies still pay minimum wages’ (Interview with Maik Pflaum conducted on 4 February 2009. Translation by the author).

Against this backdrop, the campaign strives for the binding power of national or transnational regulation: as corporate codes of conduct had appeared to be insufficient, corporations had to be obliged by law to recognise human rights. Regardless of this fundamental claim, campaign actors face the problem of establishing a legal framework for the ethical dimension of corporate behaviour at a transnational level. This is why campaign actors ascribe importance to corporate self-regulation despite the narrowness of these measures. The corporation is called upon to establish codes of conduct just as existing codes are constantly watched and evaluated. During our interview, Maik Pflaum explained the importance of monitoring and constant pressure:

‘Our experience is that a corporation only does as much as it has to do. Labour rights and ecological standards always come along with costs. Hence, corporations only take action if the pressure is high enough to threaten with larger losses. If this pressure decreases, corporate efforts towards engagement will decrease’ (Interview with Maik Pflaum conducted on 4 February 2009. Translation by the author).

The campaign positions itself as well as local NGOs and unions as external watchdogs that aim to ensure independent and effective monitoring in order to exert pressure if there are enduring deficits. However, the campaign also strives for rapprochement through monitoring, as Jeroen Merk mentions:

‘You can sometimes just pick up the phone and say “We have seen this and that in a particular factory” and they will do some sort of investigation on their own and might then remediate or make sure that the situation is solved’ (Interview with Jeroen Merk conducted on 24 August 2007).

Here, it becomes obvious that monitoring can be part of both confrontation and cooperation—depending on whether activists criticise in a justifiable way and whether a corporation is willing to deal with the findings. Moreover, monitoring processes are relevant occasions for inclusive coalitions, as outlined in the following paragraph.

Process 3 ‘Attempts at Harmonisation’: Scandalisation → Bargaining → Public Acknowledgement → Exclusive and Inclusive Coalitions → Monitoring

Both Puma and the Clean Clothes Campaign act on the assumption that an international consensus exists with regard to social norms. In doing so, they refer to the fundamental principles and rights at work formulated by the ILO:

‘Translated into 17 different languages and displayed in the countries where we operate, our Code of Conduct incorporates the fundamentals of proper social practices and is in accordance with the international conventions of the [ILO]’ (Puma 2001, p. 30).

‘The most important framework for…judging those [corporate] codes of conduct are the conventions of the [ILO], a sub-organisation of the UNO, which includes states, employers and unions’ (Kampagne für Saubere Kleidung and Südwind Institut, 2003, p. 4. Translation by the author).

Moreover, processes of acknowledgement become apparent as the campaign recognises corporate engagement while Puma opens up to third party monitoring. This is the case within both exclusive and inclusive coalitions of the Puma Company. One exclusive coalition is Puma’s accession to the Fair Labor Association (FLA). The FLA includes corporations, NGOs and universities and it has developed a code of conduct and a monitoring system for the textiles industry. Activists from the Clean Clothes Campaign have monitored this partnership and raised concerns against the FLA because of a lack of the inclusion of unions and local organisations into the organisation’s administrative body; however, they qualified their rejection because of the FLA’s administrative reforms and the stronger consideration of issues such as freedom of association and living wages.

Apart from this, the Puma Company and the Clean Clothes Campaign formed an inclusive coalition with a common pilot project in 2006. The project was initiated to monitor two factories producing for Puma in El Salvador. After 6 months, both parties drew positive conclusions from the monitoring of the first factory. However, the project could not inspect the second factory, as it unexpectedly did not start the planned business with Puma. In late 2006, the Clean Clothes Campaign announced the project’s failure because the Puma management had not agreed to the additional costs of monitoring an alternative supplier in Mexico that had been chosen conjointly:

‘It became obvious that the project had to be renewed because of a delay owing to the problems with the suppliers. However, the funding of the renewal was questioned by Puma, even though we had stipulated the option of renewal at the beginning’ (Interview with Maik Pflaum conducted on 4 February 2009. Translation by the author).

The Puma Company, however, ascribed the termination of the project to campaign actors’ lack of willingness to compromise during negotiations over a renewal, as Reiner Hengstmann emphasises:

‘We suggested to the Clean Clothes Campaign to start over in another country where we have sustainable procurement. This was rejected by the campaign representatives, whereas they say that the project failed because of money. This is actually not true’ (Interview with Dr Reiner Hengstmann conducted on 31 July 2007. Translation by the author).

Here, it becomes apparent that cooperative lines of action such as the pilot project may also comprise confrontational elements just as confrontation can be a starting point for shared interpretations and common activities. What differentiates this case from the compared one is that in this case both cooperation and confrontation evoke processes of change that are capable of improving social standards within transnational production cycles.

Recapitulation on the Conflict and Comparison of the two Cases

Despite the confrontational lines of action, the communication in this case stands out because of the mutual reference and shared interpretations concerning the complexity of transnational production cycles. Both parties take this complexity as a basis for differentiated statements in terms of the power of civil society or corporate self-regulation. In doing so, they have been able to take an advanced step towards cooperation even though the pilot project was followed by another period of confrontation. The project, on one hand, reveals the potential lying in the openness and mutual acknowledgement beyond scandalising, denial and a battle for the power of interpretation. On the other hand, the contested termination of the project points to tensions that might be characteristic even of the phases of harmonisation between civil society campaigns and corporations. Those tensions are not necessarily destructive; however, they may reveal the problems of civil society self-regulation. Such problems are particularly related to the aspects of substance and sustainability, namely questions regarding the authenticity of cooperation and the ability to establish durable relationships.

Regardless of these general limitations of civil society self-regulation, the case of the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Puma Company can be regarded as an example of a ‘productive conflict’. The parameters for this can be elaborated on in comparison with the conflict between the Coca-Cola Company and the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke. Improvements and advancements in the case of Puma and the Clean Clothes Campaign have not only been achieved by direct cooperation during the pilot project, but can also be identified in further elements of this conflict. One crucial aspect is the general openness of both parties towards the other party’s arguments. This is what Heugens (2003) calls ‘empathy, the ability to share another party’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings’ (p. 306), which is decisive for successful adversarial relationships. Moreover, the Clean Clothes Campaign and Puma agree in principle on the ILO, the FLA and local NGOs as capable third parties, which can be seen as crucial for rapprochement. Mutual adaptation in the analysed case, for instance, leads to a continuous improvement in codes of conduct and auditing processes and thus to the advancement of labour rights.

For the Coca-Cola case, mutual adaptation has already failed because of the lack of a shared perception of existing problems. For instance, corporate communication shows little willingness to reflect corporate responsibility. The deficiencies at Colombian bottling plants are neither recognised nor related to the corporation’s position of power. Moreover, this case shows no agreement on mutually approved intermediaries that could advance rapprochement. The Campaign to Stop Killer Coke utters concerns in a notably radical way without searching for possibilities for improvement. In a similar way, the Coca-Cola Company sticks to its way of conducting monitoring processes and does not allow criticism on the mandated organisation. Connected to the aspect of mutually approved intermediaries is the question of the extent to which corporations and campaigns are willing to build inclusive coalitions. The Coca-Cola Corporation emphasises its general openness to dialogue, especially with regard to student groups, but does not strive in a substantial way for cooperation with campaign initiators. The campaign, in turn, shows little readiness to accept the corporation or corporate positions. Campaign actors’ all-inclusive distrust towards political institutions and governance processes leave little room for a collaboration of actors from state, market and civil society.

Conclusion: Protest Campaigns and Corporations––Cooperative Conflicts?

Based on the results of the case studies and the comprehensive analysis of the full sample, we can draw some conclusions with regard to the article’s focus on the interplay between confrontation and cooperation. We can also answer the initial question concerning the aspects that enable conflicts between protest campaigns and corporations to unfold their productive potential in order to correct social deficiencies.

First, it has to be emphasised that confrontational modes of communication such as scandalising and denial are not per se destructive. They rather have the potential to serve as a starting point of rapprochement. However, this potential depends on the accuracy of attack and defence. All-inclusive condemnation and the global rejection of responsibility impede the clear defining of existing problems. By contrast, concerted critiques and elaborate counterstatements are important for specifying diverging positions and interpretations, which can be regarded as a precondition to identifying shared perspectives. As we have seen in the case of the Clean Clothes Campaign and Puma, these shared perspectives can be accompanied by a joint commitment to social norms and common social practices.

Just as obvious forms of confrontation can serve as a starting point for dialogue, concealed counteraction can be understood to be essential for correcting social deficiencies. Social campaigning, intraorganisational reconstruction and exclusive coalitions are important for finding solutions (e.g. in the realm of labour rights). Their effectiveness, though, may vary, often depends on the seriousness of corporate efforts as well as on the credibility of their partners. Similarly, deconstruction and monitoring are crucial for establishing social norms within transnational production cycles, as they are indispensable for the evaluation of corporate measures. However, the contribution of deconstruction and monitoring beyond serving as a seismograph for civil society’s concern and discontent depends on campaign actors’ willingness not to use these lines of action as ends in themselves but rather to appreciate the meaningful measures that have been taken outside the campaign’s control.

Apart from direct confrontation and concealed counteraction, moderating forms of communication such as bargaining and public acknowledgement are decisive for processes of rapprochement. As the research results have shown, two context factors seem to promote effective dialogue. Entering into such dialogue seems to be a more likely result for conflicts that are part of a campaign’s industry-wide approach. Campaigns that focus on the structural problems of whole industries need to strive for concerted measures of diverse actors, and, therefore, they have to remain open to dialogue and to break through the stagnation of accusation and denial. By contrast, centring campaigns on a single corporation bears the danger of narrow argumentation and mere scandalisation. Further, conflicts are more likely to lead to productive outcomes if they focus on establishing social standards for precise production cycles. Conflicts that are waged with the aim of influencing the political order of the nation-state transcend the abilities of market and civil society self-regulation. Holding market actors responsible for the democratisation of national regimes intensifies dependencies and runs the risk of weakening democratic institutions. Thus, the effectiveness of conflicts between corporations and protest campaigns depends on mutual acknowledgement, differentiated interpretations and the ability to go beyond the bilateral level of the dispute; however, this effectiveness is also dependent on a suitable scope through which campaigns and corporations are able to remedy social problems complementary to and not in place of democratic institutions.

Finally, national institutional contexts provide conditions that help or hinder conflicts becoming socially beneficial outcomes. The present article has provided some results with regard to the institutional context of labour issues in the U.S. and Germany. However, particularly the realm of national specifics in the interaction between movement actors and corporations leaves space for further research. Hence, it seems promising to analyse whether or not the differences identified in the presented cases are specific to the issues of working conditions and labour relations. Does the particular configuration around workers’ representation bring about radical conflicts or can similar patterns be identified for different issues (e.g. environmental protection)? Likewise, these research steps should be taken with regard to other countries in further studies. Are there relevant differences in conflict repertoires despite conflicts broaching similar issues and referring to transnational production processes? In doing so, further research could identify ‘universal’ patterns and country-specific differences in conflicts between social movement actors and corporations.


  1. 1.

    The project was headed by Professor Sigrid Baringhorst. The empirical research was conducted by the author as well as Annegret März and Johanna Niesyto. The systematisation of protest repertoires and corporate reaction has been developed by the author.

  2. 2.

    Further research questions, for instance, focused on the relationship between forms of political participation and types of new media usage.

  3. 3.

    Michael Stopford is no longer a member of the Coca-Cola Company but since February 2011 has been executive vice president and senior global corporate strategist of the public relations agency Weber Shandwick. Since August 2008 he had been the Deputy Assistant Secretary of General Strategic Communications Services in NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. August 2008 has been the Deputy Assistant Secretary of General Strategic Communications Services in NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Frankfurt School of Finance & ManagementFrankfurt am MainGermany

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