The Blog

Activism Unleashed: Companies, Protestors, and the Pursuit of Progress

By Sarah Penney

Have you noticed the increasingly creative methods activists are finding to lobby companies and attract attention to their causes? We certainly have. As part of our mission to attend as many AGMs as possible and fly the flag for investor engagement, we’ve also seen activists use AGMs as an opportunity to get their messages heard. 

We first witnessed this at the Standard Chartered AGM back in May. The Climate Choir Movement staged a protest against the bank’s fossil fuel investments in Mozambique and the Philippines, singing a song of their own creation, “Fossil Fuels are Trouble” (adapted from Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”). The protest disrupted shareholders’ entry to the AGM and the AGM session itself.  



Another notable incident involved the Shell AGM, where Chairman Sir Andrew MacKenzie faced interruption from protestors who performed a version of the Dolly Parton song “Jolene” with altered lyrics criticising Shell. This followed ClientEarth’s 2023 attempt to sue Shell directors over the company’s slow transition away from fossil fuels. ClientEarth, as a shareholder of Shell Plc, sought permission for a derivative action, which was ultimately dismissed by the high court, but garnered significant public attention.



In a separate event, Unite organised a protest outside the M&G AGM, seeking shareholder backing against job losses and offshoring plans. Barclays, a frequent target of climate activists, has this year faced attacks on 20 branches by Palestine Action and the newly formed Shut the System group. Similarly, BAE Systems witnessed protests by pro-Palestinian groups blocking access to their munitions plants nationwide. 

Scrutiny has famously extended to water companies, notably Severn Trent, one of the few publicly listed water firms in the UK, which faced protests such as Surfers Against Sewage’s coordinated demonstrations. 

Meanwhile, Extinction Rebellion staged a mass protest targeting insurance companies earlier in the year. The group occupied several London offices demanding accountability from insurers like Tokio Marine, Probitas, Talbot, Travellers, and Zurich for their involvement with fossil fuel industries. A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion expressed a desire to engage constructively with insurance executives regarding their insuring practices for companies impacting the climate negatively.  

Can We Expect a More Hard-line Response From Companies? 


Historically, companies have tended to refuse to engage with protestors causing disruption and have relied on the authorities to disperse crowds.  

However, with activists becoming more inventive and forthright with their protests, we’re starting to see companies, particularly in the US, take a harder-line approach in response.  

Exxon Mobil’s legal action against investors is an example of this tough approach. In January 2024, the company filed a lawsuit against two investors who made proposals requesting the company do more to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. In the face of the legal mite of a giant like Exxon Mobil, the activists backed down and the proposals were taken off the table.  

While we haven’t seen this kind of retaliation in the UK, there is a concern that if protests threaten companies’ key activities then there may be similar reactions, with large companies looking to suppress activists. 


Could Protestors Engage More Constructively? 


Hard-line responses from companies are not favourable for either party, and we advocate for engagement as the most productive way to make an impact.  

One of our main observations is that protests are often taken too far, with activists being removed from the area and the opportunity for constructive engagement being missed.  

For example, our Founder and CEO, Sheryl Cuisia, was present at the Standard Chartered AGM and witnessed that as the Climate Choir Movement refused to stop singing, they were forcibly removed from the meeting and missed out on an opportunity to have a conversation with the leaders of the organisation, who were sitting right in front of them.  

This leads us to beg a few questions. Do many of these activist groups not understand the power of engagement, or do they just not know how to engage constructively?  

We believe it’s a mixture of the two and that the answer lies in embracing constructivism, as well as enhanced education around finance and investing.   

It’s likely that if many activists were to look at their pension funds, they would find that they’re holding positions in a lot of the companies against whom they are protesting. While they may initially be horrified by this, they would also realise that this presents an opportunity to engage and agitate from the ‘inside’.  

As an investor, you have the right to attend AGMs and pose questions to leadership. You also have the opportunity to engage with like-minded investors and form consensus on tackling specific issues with the company.  

Part of our mission at TEA is to inform these groups about how to engage more constructively, to see more progress made and to avoid disruption (which can ultimately turn off people who may otherwise have been onboard with their message).  

We’re delighted that there are other organisations within this ecosystem advocating on similar issues. For example, ShareAction is working to make the financial system work in favour of both people and the planet, they’re actively defining standards for responsible investment and harnessing the power of the financial system to tackle the biggest environmental and social challenges we face. 

There are also organisations like Chapter Zero, which works directly with companies. They give non-executive directors the support and inspiration they need to advocate for climate in the boardroom. This work is critical and having a real impact. Over 3,000 business leaders have joined Chapter Zero, with over 70% of the FTSE 350 having at least one Chapter Zero member on its board.  

Organisations like these are working under the radar to make important incremental impact which has the potential to lead to wholesale change over time.  


So, How Can Engagement Work in Practice? 


We’re strong believers in the power of engagement. We can see, through the growing membership of Chapter Zero, for example, that there’s willingness on the part of companies to engage in pressing issues like climate. We also believe there’s a desire from many activist groups to sit around a table and discuss their concerns.  

Instead of being reactive to protests, we encourage companies to reach out and invite groups like Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, the Climate Choir Movement and others to have regular discussions with executives. This should be replicated with groups representing other issues and should give protestors an opportunity to have their voice heard. 

We see TEA playing an important role in facilitating this kind of constructive engagement. We are well positioned as a force for bringing both sides together, to facilitate productive engagement and ensure discussions are constructive. It’s important that face-to-face discussions take place, not just in the interest of making progress on key issues, but also so that discussions can be taken outside of events such as AGMs, so as not to monopolise ordinary shareholders’ time.  

We will also play an important role in advancing financial education and understanding of the opportunities for engagement available to investors. We’re bringing together companies and the next generation of investors, enhancing financial literacy and creating spaces for companies and investors to engage, to understand each other and to build mutually beneficial relationships. We’re looking forward to seeing the impact this can make on the progression of activism.

Sarah Penney is TEA’s Millennial Money Writer, covering personal finance and investing from the perspective of a young millennial building a career, travelling the world and navigating the world of investing. She explores subjects that promote understanding of markets, investment trends, and macroeconomics, through her lense. 

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