Disruption Redefined

Welcoming disruption could be a way to prompt major change in major businesses, says Undercover Activist Tessa Wernink

By: Paul Dicken,   3 minutes

On Tuesday 10 October 2023, the Netherland’s House of Representatives – the Tweede Kamer – voted to support a call on the country’s government to come up with a plan to phase-out fossil fuel subsidies. The vote followed days of disruption on a major road in the country, blocked by Extinction Rebellion protestors, leading to the group declaring that “civil disobedience works”. Not necessarily a sentiment shared by XR protestors this side of the channel.

The protest and parliamentary vote in the Netherlands is something Tessa Wernink, co-founder of the Undercover Activist, is keen to talk about when we meet the following day at the Blue Earth Summit. “Extinction Rebellion had a huge win yesterday because they’ve been blockading the highway in the Netherlands for the last 27 days.”

“They’ve come back every day at 12, saying to stop fossil fuel subsidies and they won’t leave until the government starts dialling them down. So they managed to create more transparency around the approximately €46 billion of fossil fuel subsidies that are going into businesses.

An oil rig at sea showing gas or oil being burnt off from an outlet on the facility and a number of tall metal structures.

“All of these subsidies, if you look at them, they’re actually slowing down development.”

What kind of activism would speed up economic developments that are more sustainable?

Modelled disruption

Wernink was part of the team that launched Fairphone over a decade ago – created to develop a fairer and more sustainable electronics industry. “It all started in 2012 as a campaign with Waag around conflict minerals. They were opening up phones and educating people on where the materials come from.”

Following a fact-finding mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo the team wanted to find out what would happen if they made a different type of phone; one that didn’t use conflict minerals and went further. “It wasn’t only what was in the phone. It was also about how it was made, how you use it and what happens to the materials after you dispose of them,” explains Wernink.

Crowdfunded presales got the enterprise off the ground and it has had a wide-reaching effect, from being used to teach social enterprise in universities to prompting big tech companies to find out how such a disruptive tech company was operating.

“Social entrepreneurship is disruptive, it models what things could be like, but I think that change needs to happen within bigger corporations now.”

Scaling-up with disruption?

But surely, for big, established business, disruption is just negative. Where’s the incentive? Think supply chain disruption or disrupted payments?

“It’s funny because if you’re using the word disruption in the context of innovation then everybody loves it; it’s rebellion thinking,” says Wernink.

“I think we can take that idea of innovation to social innovation and people might be able to listen in a different way. And to see disruption, perhaps not as the answer, but as the way to make visible what needs to change.

“If you see it as a start to actually changing your business, maybe you can welcome disruption.”

The Undercover Activist is all about employee activism. The scale of economic change needed has to come from within, says Wernink.

"All businesses need to think about that; it's not just about having a new slogan or branding. It's determining their core value."

“We call ourselves hidden activists. An activist isn’t always on the barricade. Employees may not know that their company is receiving subsidies that are slowing down positive change or they are part of a trade association that is saying the opposite of what they believe.”

Can big business change?

At Fairphone, a campaign was turned into a business model. Can a big business do something similar, from their own starting points?

Take Apple products, they’re designed for the user. That was their big idea, their unique selling point (USP), says Wernink: “If they extend their USP beyond the consumer, to the planet, they could design something completely different. That’s the question companies can ask. What does it mean now? It’s different and what you might have thought was of a benefit to your customer when you started a company, it should be different now.

“All businesses need to think about that; it’s not just about having a new slogan or branding. It’s determining their core value.”


Image credits

Kayden Moore via Pexels
Paul Dicken

Also in this issue