Businesses walking the talk on corporate social responsibility

Corporate social responsibility is more than a buzzword for UK-based Jessie Macneil-Brown.

“Go where the influence is, then move it,” a friend’s dad advised Jessie Macneil-Brown, back when she was a career-minded student activist at Monash University.

Two decades on, this powerhouse corporate team leader is doing precisely that, campaigning for change at a local, national and global level and transforming lives in the process.

“I’m passionate about using business as a force for good,” she says in her sunny, clear-eyed way.

“Your brand must have a purpose. People increasingly want to know in what way you, as a company, are contributing to the world.”

Portrait of Jessie MacNeil-Brown
Macneil-Brown has spent her career campaigning for change at a local, national and global level.

Head of Global Campaigns for the Ingka Group, part of IKEA retail, Macneil-Brown, 43, splits her time between the furniture giant’s base in Malmö, southern Sweden, and beachside Hove in Sussex, England, where her partner and dog are based.

The pandemic might have slowed the couple’s plans to relocate to Sweden (she joined IKEA in March 2020) but Macneil-Brown’s change-making continues apace. Under her watch, BuyBack Friday IKEA’s recycled furniture initiative, has seen millions of unwanted items returned to the store for rehoming in exchange for vouchers.

Big brands, big impact

MacNeil-Brown champions corporate responsibility.
Macneil-Brown aligns corporate goals with positive social outcomes.

Macneil-Brown was previously head of global activism at The Body Shop, where she spearheaded successful campaigns against animal testing in cosmetics (eight million signatures in 15 months) and the sex trafficking of young people (changing legislation in 24 countries).

Along the way she implemented global campaigns for Amnesty International, after arriving in London in 2004,and cutting her teeth doing marketing for L’Oréal.

“L’Oréal was a great education,” she says.

I realised that activism is just like marketing. If you want to change the world you’ve got to have a product to sell."

A master’s in marketing from London Metropolitan University intensified her belief that charities could learn a lot from business. She already had form in the sector: in Melbourne she worked for the Starlight Children’s Foundation (“We tried to brighten the lives of terminally ill children and their families”) while volunteering as a climate campaigner for Greenpeace. But her wish to give back, and to ‘fight the good fight’, began even earlier.

“Aged 10 I was selling Amnesty badges on the main street in Ballarat,” she says of her hometown, where she attended Ballarat Grammar and was a final-year prefect and drama geek.

Finding her voice

Reflecting on her university experience, Macneil-Brown believes her ethos and voice gained clarity and purpose while studying for a Bachelor of Performing Arts at Monash.

She joined the National Union of Students and the left-wing group Activate, highlighting awareness of issues including student poverty, corporate greed and the discrimination experienced by refugees and asylum seekers.

The power of a positive message

In her final year, Macneil-Brown was elected editor of Lot’s Wife newspaper. “We were a diverse, multicultural team,” she says of her fellow office bearers. “We tried to represent the full spectrum of students with creativity and humour while having serious messages at the heart of all we did.”

That approach remains central to her campaign strategies.

You don’t scare or shock. You create movements of like-minded people," she says.

"The Body Shop’s human trafficking campaign, for example, had bright colours and positive messaging and focused on creating the kind of world we want to live in.

“Our animal testing campaigns included fluffy animals,” she continues. “We made our stores dog friendly, and even had a photo shoot with dogs outside the UN in New York. It made sense: if you care about your pet, you’ll sign a petition.”

By 2017 Macneil-Brown had moved into a senior position at The Body Shop. The same year she launched the Women’s Equality Party’s Tower Hamlets east London branch, later running as a candidate in local elections in London and Hove. “I wanted to disrupt, to show other women it could be done,” she says.

Network of global leaders

Associate Professor Kate Fitz Gibbon
Macneil-Brown connected her IKEA team with Monash's Associate Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon to learn about the intersection of corporate responsibility and domestic violence.

Eager to broaden both her professional network and her strategy work, she reached out to the Monash University Global Leaders Network Advisory Committee (GLNAC) UK alumni program in London.

“Monash’s alumni representative in London immediately understood the opportunities my work presented for Monash alumni,” says Macneil-Brown, who in 2017 was also made UK Trustee of the Global Fund for Women. She became chair of the GLNAC in early 2020.

“Networks opened up not only in London but also in Australia and around the world as [the representative] put me in touch with all these amazing experts,” she says.

“The IKEA team in Australia is doing outreach work on domestic violence; to build on this we connected them with Dr Kate Fitz-Gibbon (Director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre).

After connecting with Monash, the IKEA team came away energised, and with a broader idea of how corporations might help."

Macneil-Brown believes alumni connection are vitally important, particularly at a time when Aussies stuck overseas are craving  connection. "We are keen to remind alumni that they can join us.”

While Macneil-Brown’s own reserves seem inexhaustible, she says she’s learned to strive for balance, and to cope with pressure by staying fit and healthy: doing yoga, connecting with nature, walking by the beach. The wins help, of course.

“Go where the influence is, and move it,” she says with a smile. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. But there’s still so much to do.”