10 lessons for engaging with investors on toxics

The Right Chemistry

10 lessons for engaging with investors on toxics

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As I retire at the end of 2017, ending an environmental career that began in 1973, I am passing the curating torch for The Right Chemistry column to Mark Rossi, lead author of the Chemical Footprint Project and a frequent past contributor. For my final piece in this space, GreenBiz agreed to rerun this article from 2010. This was part of a series of "10 lessons" articles commissioned by Joel Makower on occasion of GreenBiz's 10th anniversary. I drew the lessons from my numerous corporate engagements since launching the Investor Environmental Health Network in 2004. The lessons are as true now, entering 2018, as they were then. I expect these lessons resonate with GreenBiz’s readership of sustainability professionals who fully recognize the value of stakeholder engagement and who I trust are its champions within your companies.

Through the Investor Environmental Health Network, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Ceres and other organizations, investors have engaged scores of companies in recent years on toxic chemicals in products.

Here are some lessons I hope companies have garnered from these experiences:

1. Investors can be a useful antidote to senior management group-think. Group-think can cause senior management to fool both themselves and their investors, to the detriment of both.

2. Investors can be silo-busters. Chemical issues cut across departments and supply chains; investors can prompt senior management to bring together product designers, marketers and other folks who ought to be talking to one another but aren't.

3. Investors can prompt development of forward-looking, beyond-compliance programs. Like soccer, football, baseball or hockey stars, the most successful companies anticipate and move to where the ball or puck will be and get there ahead of the competition.

4. Investors can provide over-the-horizon warnings. In 2005, investors raised concerns about Bisphenol-A (BPA) in polycarbonate plastic bottles, three years ahead of the massive market shift to alternatives. Investors now suggest that companies consider exit strategies for triclosan used in soaps and body washes.

5. Providing investors an opportunity to review draft corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports can prevent corporate embarrassment. Not only might they remind corporate staff that in the very first paragraph "data" is a plural, not singular, word, but investors can suggest how companies defending their use of BPA can do so without citing ancient discredited data.

6. Investors can be adjunct staff or free labor — to a point. If a company's just starting down the sustainability path or dealing with a new issue, knowledgeable investors can identify readily available resources, such as a network of sustainability officers within the company's sector. Some of the best resources lie within the nonprofit community, and investors may know exactly where to find them. Investors can save both staff time and consulting costs.

7. Investors are eager to be educated. From the outside, investors might not see everything visible inside. Transparency builds understanding.

8. Where there are unknowns or differences of opinions, fact-finding and other measures can lead to shared problem-solving. It's "Getting to Yes" in practice.

9. As JohnsonDiversey (now Diversey) reminded readers of its 2007 Global Responsibility report [PDF], social responsibility involves treating "others the way you would like to be treated." Beneath all the jargon of stakeholder engagement and corporate social responsibility, and at a time when the phrase "civil society" increasingly sounds like an oxymoron, this is what it's all about.

10. Answer investors' letters or pick up the phone. Investors own stock in the company. Talk to them. This is "stakeholder relations 101."

Richard A. Liroff, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN). IEHN is a collaboration of investment managers that advocates for safer corporate chemicals policies to grow long-term shareholder value and reduce financial and reputational risks to companies. The business case for corporate safer chemicals policies, a list of shareholder resolutions on safer chemicals policies, and a roster of participants can be found on the IEHN website, www.iehn.org.