It is 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 in protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam under a predominantly Catholic government.
In comparison, the actions of Wynn Bruce barely made national front pages, let alone international. On April 22, 2022, Bruce set himself on fire outside the US Supreme Court in protest against inaction over the climate crisis. April 22 marks Earth Day, a day characterized by demonstrations in support of environmental protection. This act was reported on by several media outlets but many focused more on the social media debates surrounding Bruce’s mental health and less on the act itself.
In a world overloaded by information, individual actions can get lost in the noise. However, it is important to remember that the group is nothing without the individual. Collective action does and continues to cause significant societal change.
The importance of ESG activism
More than seven decades have passed since the UN’s first resolution on human rights. Since then, corporate sustainability has come a long way as organizations strive to tackle challenges around the environment, society, and governance. However, companies and governments often need external oversight and pressure to act―despite the existence of laws protecting human rights, the UN states that 40 million people are involved in modern slavery through forced labor and forced marriages.
External pressure does work when it is large enough. Towards the end of April 2022 and over a year after The Telegraph reported that PPE worth almost GBP150 million was paid to Chinese firms with links to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the UK government added an amendment to the landmark Health and Care Bill Health that aims to eradicate slavery from health care supply chains.
This came after many months of pressure from human rights activists across the globe, including the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), an international cross-party group of legislators with members from Albania all the way to Uganda. Luke de Pulford, chief executive of anti-slavery campaign group Arise and driving force behind IPAC, said that “this is easily the most significant advance in supply chain regulation since the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, and in many ways goes much further.”
Finding purpose in the collective
The actions taken by the UK government are just one example of many around the globe in which collective action instigated change. Attempting to tackle ESG issues, especially climate change, can feel daunting. However, this does not mean that challenges cannot 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 uniquely 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 own part to work towards these goals, but it is these collected, concerted activism efforts that are certain to have the strongest impact.