Interviews

How Activist Sally Hill Is Keeping Corporate Australia Accountable

The founder of a "purpose-driven creative agency" is rallying companies behind social and environmental issues.

Jed Smith

Jed Smith

Corporate activist and founder of Wildwon Agency, Sally Hill. Image supplied.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Sally Hill has a pretty simple goal in mind. Born in the semi-rural, working class stronghold of Maitland, west of Newcastle, her morals and values were set in stone from a young age. All she wants is for corporate Australia (and corporations everywhere) to get in line.

"There's very much been a skewing of power that's gone on in the last 100 years. In particular around companies and corporations getting incredibly large and powerful and, as we know, being geared around profit and nothing else," she begins.

"They (corporations) literally operate at the expense of everyone around at them, at the expense of the environment, at the expense of the community they operate in, and there's really no checks and balances on them like there is in government," she says.

Growing up a short drive away from one of the country's coal mining and exportation hubs, in Newcastle, the delicate balance of progressive ideals and working class needs were never far from her mind. Her father transcended Australia's class system by way of the Whitlam-era's free tertiary education scheme, moving up from his working class roots into a public servant role with the government. Her high school teaching mother, meanwhile, ensured critical thinking was always part of the menu during any family dinner. It's left Sally with an irrepressible sense of fairness and has led her to the work she performs today.

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"I always had a really strong sense of social justice running through my veins, which was influenced by my dad...He just instilled in me this idea that it's really important," she says.

After graduating from Sydney Uni, Sally found a home at GetUp, the online campaigning community. There, she was thrown in the deep end during an especially torrid yet successful campaign against the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania. The experience pitted her and the rest of the GetUp team against one of Australia's most influential corporations—the ANZ Bank—not to mention the Federal government, led in this case by an unlikely adversary in former Midnight Oil frontman, Peter Garrett.

"We thought he of all people would stand up to this but he was kind of weaving it through saying this is the best practice in the world, it's an environmentally friendly pulp mill," she says.

Despite what Sally describes as "huge local community opposition" in the form of protests and rallies, as well as extensive lobbying by GetUp of local and Federal government, the project was pushed through.

As a last resort GetUp began targeting the project's key financial backer, the ANZ Bank. They organised the many conscientious shareholders and account holders within ANZ to go direct and complain at their local branch, or via emails. It worked. ANZ pulled the pin, the Pulp Mill was crushed, and GetUp took out a full page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review to celebrate it.

"What was really exciting I thought was looking at shareholders as a force. And looking at consumers as well and then thinking about the reputations of these companies and their corporate responsibility to do the right thing and not just completely fuck shit up for everyone," says Sally.

After GetUp Sally went to work for the other side, marketing corporate social responsibility. It was her idea to change the greed culture from the inside. Instead it turned into to a morale crushing episode.

"I just found it so frustrating working in big companies trying to get them to change their behaviour and get them to do the right thing," she says. "It's a constant battle to get them to change one tiny line in their policy and it's almost impossible because they're all geared the wrong way. They're geared to make money and nothing else".

So now she's gone it alone, founding her own creative agency, Wildwon, whose aim is to "get behind companies, government agencies, educational institutions, individuals and communities to rally around a social or environmental mission."

Prior to the election of Donald Trump, Sally had seen plenty of cause for optimism around the world. Companies like Nike and Patagonia for example, "are doing incredible things to add a higher purpose to what they do then just making a profit," she says.

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She also expressed excitement over teams of lawyers across the European Union who were banding together to create the legal framework (for corporations) to act more responsibly. "Right now company directors are legally bound to act in the interests of their shareholders and if they don't they can be sued and lose their job," she says.

Then there are the countless startups and B-Corps ("for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency") founded on the idea of succeeding in the business world while pushing the ethical framework at the core of their DNA.

"The most exciting companies I've seen in the last five to 10 years have emerged out of trying to solve problems with a business model," she says.

Then Trump got elected and the sky fell in.

"I wonder whether we've totally forgotten everything we've learned about race and equality and social justice? Have we forgotten we've lived through two World Wars? Have we forgotten all the stuff that has gotten us to this point?" she begins.

I ask whether she feels the world is moving closer to, or further away, from the goals we should be aspiring to. Sally isn't sure.

"I think we are in danger of not getting to where we need to get to fast enough," she says. "If it's climate change we've already passed the point of no return and it doesn't seem to have inspired any action and that makes me wonder what would it take to get people and companies to change what they're doing?"

And she also worries about the typical things: about people becoming more individualistic and more insular and focusing on themselves and being quite selfish.

But all in all, Sally still thinks humans are pretty amazing.

"We're capable of making things and we're pretty altruistic and community minded when it comes down to it," she says. "I think we're getting better all the time, I think we're getting close to achieving the right things. We've just gotta bring all the knowledge we've learned and keep moving forward rather than rehashing old ground."

Sally is the organiser of Purpose, a conference for purpose-driven businesses kicking off on Sydney on Monday, December 5.

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