Lumen Scholar Morgan Collins ’20 researching how corporations engage in political and social issues

Morgan Collins ’20, with the guidance of Professor of Strategic Communications Barbara Miller Gaither, is conducting Lumen Prize research about outdoor retailer Patagonia, Inc., and its efforts to engage in environmental issues and policies.

Morgan Collins ’20 has been committed to sustainability from an early age. The daughter of a LEED-certified engineer, Collins started her own recycling program in the fourth grade.

“I guess I took that passion from home from what my dad taught me, and I brought it to school,” she said, remembering the days when she skipped recess to sort through the recycling at her Pittsburgh elementary school.

Now a senior Lumen Scholar at Elon, Collins still carries that passion with her today.

Her interest in environmental matters helped Collins earn the highly competitive Lumen Prize, a $20,000 award for undergraduate research at Elon. Each year, the prize is granted to rising juniors, who use the funding to conduct two years of research under the guidance of a faculty mentor. The research often produces conference presentations and publications.

Applicants construct proposals and interview with a committee of faculty members from across the university, who determine the cohort of Lumen Scholars each year. Scholars are selected based on each students’ merit, proposal and passion for their projects, which Collins clearly showed.

“Earning the Lumen Prize was exciting but daunting, which is kind of reflective of the challenge of solving the climate crisis,” she said.

Collins put her strategic communications major and environmental and sustainability studies minor to good use during her research, studying Certified B corporations and how they use their positions and resources to engage in political, social and environmental issues. Before beginning her research, Collins knew she wanted to focus on the work of her favorite corporation.

“I’ve had a passion for Patagonia since I got my first quarter-zip fleece from them in high school,” Collins said. “They’re doing so much beyond what other companies are doing, especially when it comes to protecting the natural world.”

Outdoor apparel and gear retailer Patagonia, Inc., was the focus of Collins’ case study on corporate engagement in political and social issues. The study specifically analyzed Patagonia’s Action Works initiative that connects individuals with skilled volunteering opportunities in their communities, as well as petitions, events and other Patagonia campaigns meant to help consumers get involved in the environmental issues impacting them where they live.

“Patagonia has considered what its role is,” Collins said. “It’s not an NGO, it’s not a non-profit, but it has this platform and it has this audience of people who are interested and want to be able to make a difference, so it’s created Action Works for us to be able to do that as individuals.”

Collins has studied Patagonia Action Works to learn more about corporate social advocacy, the act of corporations using their platforms to not just speak up about issues, but to act on them and encourage stakeholders to do the same.

To understand Collins’ research, it’s important to understand how corporate social advocacy is related to corporate social responsibility but is quite different in several meaningful ways. Acts of corporate social responsibility often include corporations speaking out on issues in ways that garner generally favorable responses from most stakeholders. On the other hand, acts of corporate social responsibility require corporations to act on issues that might not be popular among all stakeholders, particularly as political divides continue to widen.

Collins’ research examines Patagonia, Inc.’s, corporate social responsibility practices through the lens of deliberative democracy.

“Patagonia Action Works reflects deliberative democracy through encouraging and allowing for conversation between diverse members of Patagonia’s audience, ultimately to be able to influence environmental policy and initiatives,” Collins said. “It’s going beyond just taking a stance. It’s one step further. It’s almost saying how change should be enacted – rather than just saying that it needs to occur – and giving an opportunity for that change to happen.”

The Lumen Prize allowed Collins to continue the research she began as an Honors Fellow at Elon. And as she did for her Honors research, Collins selected Professor of Strategic Communications Barbara Miller Gaither as her mentor during the Lumen portion of her work.

“From the very first year, we had a good connection based on our mutual interests,” said Miller Gaither, who also serves as associate director of the Honors Fellows program. “Over the last three years, my enthusiasm for her study and confidence in her abilities as a scholar have only grown.”

Collins and Miller Gaither’s interest in corporate social responsibility research has led to the authoring of two papers on the topic. Miller Gaither, Collins and former Elon faculty member Lucinda Austin co-authored research about the public response to Dick’s Sporting Goods’ decision to stop selling assault-style rifles and to raise its minimum age for gun sales to 21. Their research was published by the Journal of Public Interest Communications in 2018.

Collins and Miller Gaither have also completed a second paper related to Collins’ Honors thesis, focusing on Patagonia’s impact through CSA and deliberative democracy. Collins presented her work at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Orlando, Florida, in March.

“It’s been wonderful to see,” Miller Gaither said. “I’m just constantly amazed with how curious she is and her sustained passion for this topic and the work she’s been doing. Now that she’s a senior and thinking about what she’s going to do next, I’ve enjoyed seeing how much this process has impacted her direction.”

Collins says her direction has been further impacted by her recent Winter Term study abroad trip to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Collins called the trip a life-changing experience but saw firsthand how even the world’s tallest free-standing mountain can suffer from negative human impact.

“It kind of made me even more fired up about the need to protect the natural world,” she said. “We were hiking in what was supposed to be a protected natural area, and there was still noticeable human impact, trash and waste, and disruption of the land around every corner.”

Collins hopes to carry that spark into her next chapter where she plans to pursue a master’s degree in business administration with a concentration in sustainability. She says her Lumen research has helped her feel even more connected to the planet and will be beneficial as she works to help others – especially corporations – understand their role in protecting the environment.

“Since corporations have had such an impact on the climate crisis that we find ourselves in now, I think they also have a responsibility to amend things,” she said. “That’s where I realized my passion and my major best overlap. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to use my degree in strategic communications to convey, specifically to business leaders, the importance of protecting and preserving the natural world to make sure there’s a future on this planet for me and everyone who comes after me.”