Shareholders' Top Priorities: Green Issues, Political Spending

Environmental concerns and sustainability reports remain the most common subjects of shareholder resolutions, but their number declined slightly in favor of proposals about corporate money in politics, according to the Proxy Preview 2012 report.   

Published by As You Sow, the report captures the current landscape of resolutions from social- and environment-focused shareholder advocate groups. This year, environmental issues and sustainability reports had a run for their money: They were nearly matched by the number of proposals about political spending.

About one-third of the 349 resolutions filed in 2012 so far refer to campaign spending and lobbying. Those proposals made up only 23 percent of the 360 resolutions that were filed by this time last year.

"Every year the resolutions reflect a snapshot in time, the zeitgeist of the day - and surely the Supreme Court Citizens United case has had an impact on corporate influence and power that shareholders are reacting to," As You Sow CEO Andrew Behar write in the report. "Simultaneously, the Occupy Wall Street movement is providing a voice to those opposing growing economic inequality and the entrenched concentration of corporate power.

That jump in political finance proposals, though, wasn't enough to make it the top issue. A little more than one-third -- 34 percent -- of the proposals are focused on a range of environmental topics and requests for broad sustainability reports. That's down slightly from 36 percent of a higher number of resolutions in 2011. 

Meanwhile, human and labor rights proposals continue to decline, making up 7 percent of proposals in 2012, compared to 12 percent in 2011 and 18 percent in 2010.

Requests for companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and disclose what they are doing are now focused more on energy efficiency and renewable energy. A number of proposals to cable companies call for them to use set-top boxes that are more efficient. Many food producers, meanwhile, are being asked to agree to sustainable sourcing for palm oil.

Natural resource resolutions continue to hammer on coal and hydraulic fracturing, asking for companies to disclose risks they face or their efforts to reduce hazards related to mining and other operators. Cabot Oil & Gas, Range Resources, and Southwestern Energy have been asked to tie senior executive compensation to sustainability principles and the environmental impacts of their company operations.

While those topics have steadily remained major issues for shareholders, the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant last year prompted nine new proposals related to nuclear power, mainly asking companies to report on safety risks, with two calling for companies to stop developing nuclear power.

Packaging, also under the umbrella of environmental concerns, remains a subject of resolutions, with proposals put in at Colgate-Palmolive and Kraft Foods asking the companies to consider extended producer responsibility policies and increase packaging recycling. Extended producer responsibility is a concept that makes the producers of a good, in this case packaging, to be financially responsible for collecting and recycling it.

While there was a slight drop in total social and environmental resolutions filed so far this year, taking a long view shows that social and environmental resolutions have increased 50 percent in the last 10 years, with more than 400 filed in each 2011 and 2010. The number of withdrawals -- typically a sign that the resolution's proponents and management have come to an agreement -- has increased as well.

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