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Supporting Employee Activism With a Design-Led Framework to Embolden Circular and Regenerative Business Models

Published onJun 21, 2023
Supporting Employee Activism With a Design-Led Framework to Embolden Circular and Regenerative Business Models
Raz Godelnik1
1Parsons School of Design – The New School
* [email protected]
Lucia Jaramillo1
1Parsons School of Design – The New School
* [email protected]

Extended abstract

Over the last couple of years, companies have shown growing interest in adopting circular and regenerative business models as instrumental approaches to addressing key sustainability challenges. However, while these relatively novel business models are considered promising in terms of producing meaningful change (Rose, 2021; De Angelis, 2022), they are yet to fulfill this premise. For the most part, firms have been slow to operationalize circular and regenerative business models (Bocken, Weissbrod and Antikainen, 2021; Palm and Sieczko, 2021).

The implementation of circular and regenerative business models is not only slow, but also involves so far changes that tend to be more incremental in the business model (Hofmann, 2019; Godelnik, 2023), focusing, for example, on resource efficiency strategies. One of the key barriers impeding companies from taking a more radical approach to transforming their business models is an organizational barrier, which includes lack of management commitment, management resistance to change (Mangla et al., 2018; Grafström and Aasma, 2021), and a hesitant company culture (Kirchherr et al., 2018). Characterized as a linear mindset (Rizos et al., 2021), organizational barrier has been associated with circular business models but also seem to be applicable to regenerative business models due to the level of disruption the latter requires from businesses (Wahl, 2016).

While the abovementioned organizational barrier has been discussed in a number of studies, there has been very little research conducted on how to overcome this barrier effectively, especially in the context of new sustainable business models. This paper aims to fill this gap by offering a design-led approach to explore the role of employee activism in overcoming this barrier and helping companies adopt transformative circular and regenerative innovations (i.e., H2+ innovations in terms of the Three Horizons framework (Sharpe, 2020)) in their efforts to redesign their business models.

Defined as the “voices of difference, on issues of wider social and environmental concern, that seek to influence company action and that challenge existing patterns of power," (Reitz and Higgins, 2022, p. 1), employee activism has become an important change catalyst in organizations (Gautam and Carberry, 2020). Over the last few years, there has been a growing number of attempts by employees to influence their companies’ practices on numerous social and environmental issues, including climate change policies, collaboration with fossil fuel companies, racial injustice, and LGBT rights (Miles, Larcker and Tayan, 2021). Overall, this growing wave of internal activism in organizations corresponds with stakeholder theory, which “emphasizes the influence that stakeholders—including employees—can have on firm behavior” (Maks-Solomon and Drewry, 2021, p. 130).

The potential impact of employee activism on companies’ business models alludes to the growing interest of employees in taking action on climate and sustainability issues (Kite Insights, 2022), as well as the recognition of companies’ leaders that it is becoming riskier for their organizations to ignore employee expectations (Reitz and Higgins, 2022). However, it should be noted that most employees are more involved in talking about taking action than in actually doing so. For example, Kite Insights’ (2022) survey found that “8 out of 10 employees are ready and willing to take action on climate change in their jobs,” (1) while in reality, the number of employees actually involved in internal activism is much lower (Weber Shandwick, 2019).

Currently, there is little guidance for employees who are interested in pushing their companies to take sustainability issues more seriously; the few exceptions include Briscoe and Gupta (2020), Project Drawdown (2021), and Climate Voice (2021), where the latter two  focus on addressing the climate crisis. This lack of resources suggests that even employees who are interested in taking action may have a difficult time understanding how to approach it, not to mention actually taking action, especially concerning a meaningful shift toward circular and regenerative business models. Thus, there appears to be a clear need to provide employees with further guidance regarding this matter. Consequently, this paper aims to devise a conceptual framework for such guidance.

The suggested framework is grounded in two key elements: Design thinking and the power of narratives. Design thinking involves a mindset and process that take a human-centered approach to tackling complex problems, and it is applied through the phases of inspiration, ideation, and implementation (Brown, 2008). In this case, the suggested framework is built using the British Design Council’s double-diamond process (see Figure 1). This process uses design principles such as iteration and putting people first (Design Council, 2019), which are essential to the success of design frameworks.

Figure 1. A double-diamond process for employee activism

The people in this case are mainly employees and leaders in the organization. The goal is to frame the issue fought for in terms that will encourage more employees to participate in collective action and make the decision-makers in the organization more susceptible to employee demands. Doing so will require not only “a human-centered, creative, iterative, and practical approach” (Brown, 2008, p. 9), but also further emphasis on storytelling to help build empathy and connect with employees and leaders. This is why the second key element in this framework focuses on how to craft effective narratives that motivate action. 

Narratives are powerful tools for change-making, as they play multiple functions in design processes (Grimaldi, Fokkinga and Ocnarescu, 2013). Mayer suggests that narratives are “the most important human device for collective action” (Mayer, 2014, p. 30), and Hansen adds that they create “a bridge from how things are to how they can be” (Hansen, 2020, p. 5). The significance of narratives for deliberate transformations (Knuth, 2019) stresses not only the need to make narratives an integral part of the framework, but also to lean into lessons from the use of narratives by activists in social and political campaigns.

Based on political communications research focused on messaging and narratives (e.g., Shenker-Osorio, 2017), we designed a narrative blueprint that is embedded within the double-diamond process, allowing for the development and testing of narrative strategies that can help mobilize employees and impact decision-makers in the organization. The narrative blueprint includes not only a framing model of narratives but also a tactical model of ‘narrative fighting strategies,’ which offer a number of engagement tactics based on lessons from successful political campaigns, as well as examples of employee activism in companies such as Amazon and Edelman.

The narrative blueprint was tested in a Climate Designers workshop in 2022 and was revised based on the feedback received. In the first half of 2023, the entire framework will be tested with employees from two large organizations; one that is focusing on adopting a circular business model and another that is working to adopt a regenerative business model. The paper will present the conceptual work on the framework as well as the learnings from testing it. Overall, the contribution of the framework presented in the paper lies in its design approach, combined with a focus on narrative building, to explore the potential of employee activism in pushing companies to move away from their current incremental adoption of circular and regenerative business models towards ones with far more substantial impact.


Employee activism, narratives, regenerative business models, circular business models,  design thinking. 


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