Jan 25, 2016 ยท 5 minutes

January has been a tough month for Yahoo's public image and it just keeps getting worse.

Yahoo's stock has fallen 11 percent, more than the Nasdaq's 8 percent drop, as the company fends off takeover offers. Reports have emerged that its programmatic ads generate fraudulent traffic and that a third of its work force has left in the past year. Marissa Mayer, struggling to retain the faith of remaining workers, fumbled an attempt to reassure workers there would be no layoffs.

Could the news about Yahoo get worse? Yes, it could get worse. And it already has. Last week, the nonprofit Avaaz launched an online petition, aimed at Mayer and Yahoo Japan CEO Manabu Miyasaka, to stop Yahoo Japan's online sales and advertisements that support the ivory trade responsible for killing 100 elephants a day.

The petition has already gathered more than a million signatures (a caution: the image accompanying the petition is graphic), spawning tweets by scientist Richard Dawkins and others. And just like that, Yahoo's name became linked with the horror of slaughtered elephants and Mayer was called on to do something about it.

To be clear, the sites Yahoo operates itself do not allow the sale of ivory or ads for any products that involve endangered species. Google, Amazon and other global tech giants ban the sales of ivory goods as well. That's not the case in Japan, where ivory is largely used to make hanko (personal seals used to sign documents), and where Rakuten and Yahoo Japan continue to facilitate the ivory trade.

Yahoo's stance is that Yahoo Japan, as a separate company, is free to sell what it wants. “Yahoo, Inc. is an investor in Yahoo Japan and does not have controlling ownership. As such, Yahoo Japan determines their own policies,” a Yahoo spokesperson said in an email statement. “We understand the concerns and we in no way condone the sale of products made with ivory obtained from any animal at risk of extinction.” 

Yahoo Japan offered its own statement that it “values its full compliance of law and prohibits any illegal sales of products” and that “this basic principle applies to ivory trade.” The company says it will delete illegal listings it discovers on its site and that “a pop-up which clarifies the guidelines, etc. is displayed before moving on to the page for entering the product information.”

Critics respond that compliance with a poorly enforced law isn't enough. A century ago, several million elephants populated Africa and Asia, a number that has fallen to around half a million today. Japan signed a 1989 convention banning the global ivory trade, but the ban exempted ivory stockpiled before 1989, creating a loophole that facilitates the import of illegal ivory into Japan.

Earlier this month, the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency released a report uncovered an underground system exploiting those loopholes, including a Japanese government official who advised an undercover investigator on how to sell illegal ivory in Japan. While demand for ivory has been falling in China, it's rising in Japan. Yahoo Japan's ivory sales rose from $2 million in 2010 to $7 million in 2014, according to Avaaz.

Yahoo Japan and Rakuten have faced pressure for years to address the illegal ivory trade on their sites. A campaign in 2013 targeted at Yahoo Japan's largest investor, Mayayoshi Son's Softbank Corp., went nowhere. Now activists are going after Yahoo Japan's second largest investor: Yahoo, which owns a 35 percent stake.

Why should getting ivory off a site Yahoo doesn't directly control be Mayer's responsibility? Activists see a few reasons. A 35-percent ownership, recently valued at $7.7 billion, isn't a controlling stake but it's a loud voice to be reckoned with – much as an activist shareholder with a large stake can be. Yahoo also received $142 million in cash dividends from Yahoo Japan in the first nine months of 2015, as well as $172 million in technology and trademark licenses. Beyond all that, there is the shared Yahoo brand.

“We want Yahoo to make sure any site with the Yahoo brand is clean from ivory,” said Bert Wander, a campaign director at Avaaz in London. “The first thing Marissa Mayer can do is have a conversation with [Yahoo Japan CEO] Manabu Miyasaka in Japan and say, 'You're using our brand.' She has a duty to do all she can do to help the brand.”

Unlike Rakuten, Yahoo is a household name around the world, Wander says. And one that can right now ill afford a PR black eye. An email that Avaaz sent to its 43 million members noted that “Yahoo's CEO, Marissa Mayer, is under threat... The last thing she needs right now is to be distracted by even more bad publicity and employee anger.

True enough, but this could also be why the company isn't inclined to rock any boats either. Yahoo is not just an investor in Yahoo Japan, its a close business partner with it. Yahoo has looked into selling its Yahoo Japan shares or severing them, along with the Alibaba stake, from its core operations.

Yahoo's stance on the campaign so far has been to indicate that independent companies don't tell each other what to do, but instead mind their own businesses. If this attitude has a sound business logic behind it, it's not going over well with many of its users.

Yahoo posted a response to the Avaaz campaign on Facebook. Few of the 180+ comments so far are sympathetic. Some samples: “YAHOO is YAHOO, that's all ! So do something to not let them dirt your name all over the world...” “It's a scandal! Do you really allow Yahoo! Japan to use your trademark even if they do not comply to your environmental policies?!” “If you don't like being tarred with the same brush, talk to Yahoo Japan about it!”

“Every other tech giant is doing something to address this,” says Wander. “The public knows it, and that's why they're responding to Yahoo this way.”

Which suggests a silver lining in all this bad news, a chance for Yahoo and Mayer to finally garner some positive press in 2016: What if Yahoo did succeed in pressuring Yahoo Japan to give up its ivory sales and advertisements? Its image as a champion of a just cause would shore up employee morale and send a message that Yahoo listens to its users.

No, it wouldn't change any of the larger problems haunting Yahoo, but it could be the change in optics that the company needs right now. And it would send a strong message to weary employees: Even when nothing is going right, it's always still possible to do the right thing.