Skip to main content

On the Money

Investors push for more disclosure on corporate lobbying

Resolutions related to lobbying and political spending have so far received the most support of socially-oriented proposals this proxy season.

A hand controlling a wooden puppet

Image via Shutterstock/New Africa

One ESG issue finding traction at the ballot during the 2024 proxy season: transparency about corporate lobbying. 

Shareholder proposals related to lobbying and political spending accounted for eight of the 10 socially oriented resolutions receiving the most shareholder support as of May 18, according to an analysis by ProxyMonitor.org, which tracks shareholder resolutions at the 250 largest public U.S. companies.  

The eight companies facing those proposals were Truist Financial, Goldman Sachs, Norfolk Southern, Bank of New York Mellon, IBM, Huntsman, Alcoa and Wells Fargo. None of the resolutions received majority support, but all received enough backing to meet the Securities and Exchange Commission’s thresholds for resubmission at future shareholder meetings (between 5 percent and 25 percent).

The scope of these recent resolutions covered not just direct lobbying by corporations; they also addressed lobbying through trade associations and tax-exempt organizations with which companies had affiliations or memberships. The proposal to receive the most support (41.17 percent) so far was filed at Truist Financial. It highlights the "reputational risks" Truist faces "when its lobbying contradicts company public positions." The resolution cites the company’s support for the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have opposed climate legislation including the Inflation Reduction Act. 

The proposal called for an annual report disclosing Truist’s policies and governance for both direct and indirect lobbying; payments for those activities and how they were authorized; and memberships or payments to any tax-exempt organization that writes and endorses model legislation.

Danone: Shareholder engagement success story 

Investor education groups including Climate Action 100+, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, As You Sow and Principles for Responsible Investment have developed strategies investors can use to communicate their preferences about direct corporate lobbying activities. They include dialogues with management, filling resolutions and proxy voting. 

Investors and shareholder advocacy groups have had some success in convincing companies to be more transparent. Danone, for example, moved to disclose its lobbying activities after it was engaged by a group of investors that make up the Climate Action 100+ Climate Lobbying Working Group, including BNP Paribas Asset Management (BNPP AM) and the Church of England Pension Board. 

At the beginning of 2023, Danone had not disclosed a review of its direct lobbying or indirect lobbying through industry associations in which it is a member. By February 2024, it had earned a B-minus for its practices from InfluenceMap, a nonprofit that tracks corporate climate lobbying.

We are not just asking for disclosure; we're asking directly for companies to evaluate the cost benefit of their trade associations.

That was the third highest grade for any of the companies considered. Danone improved its score through public disclosures that demonstrated its intention to embrace positions aligned with its corporate commitment to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal of the Paris Agreement. 

One key tipping point was a call BNPP AM held with Danone’s management to discuss climate lobbying activities, according to a ClimateAction 100+ case study about this engagement. During the dialogue, BNPP AM suggested Danone embrace best practices in the Global Standard On Responsible Corporate Climate Lobbying, established in 2022 as a guide to investors’ expectations for corporate lobbying practices and disclosures.  

Pharma AbbVie under the microscope

Biopharmaceutical company AbbVie has also been engaged by shareholders over its lobbying activities. It ended its membership in two controversial trade associations investors raised concerns about, but AbbVie shareholder and socially responsible investment manager Zevin Asset Management is pushing for greater transparency. 

"We are not just asking for disclosure; we're asking directly for companies to evaluate the cost benefit of their trade associations," said Marcela Pinilla, head of responsible investing at Zevin Asset Management.  

Zevin’s latest lobbying-related resolution at AbbVie received 27 percent of shareholder votes in support, slightly less than the 33 percent the proposal received in 2023. When asked for possible reasons support decreased, Pinilla pointed to anti-ESG legislation proposed and passed in several U.S. states in recent years. "Anti-ESG bullying is affecting proxy voting outcomes at some big institutional investors, who are being invited to leave entire state's pension funds" for supporting such measures, she said.  

Investors’ continued interest in responsible corporate lobbying and disclosures can be seen in lobbying resolutions at Goldman Sachs, where shareholder support increased to 39 percent from 35.6 percent in 2023, and at Bank of New York Mellon, where its first lobbying-related proposal received 38.4 percent of the votes, Pinilla said.

The significant shareholder support for lobbying disclosure resolutions, especially compared to other environmental and social issues, highlights the importance of this issue to investors. Management teams should expect questions and more shareholder proposals regarding disclosures until they provide sufficient information regarding all of their direct and indirect lobbying expenses and activities. For tips on how to respond, check out the Global Standard on Responsible Climate Lobbying to see the 14 indicators responsible investors are using to evaluate corporate climate lobbying practices. 

More on this topic