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The evolution of corporate activism: Lessons from GreenBiz 20

Getting Real

The evolution of corporate activism: Lessons from GreenBiz 20

GreenBiz, via Shutterstock

Last February, GreenBiz 19 hosted a panel on corporate activism. It was great. The panelists (Davida Heller of Citicorp; Bruno Sarda, then of NRG Energy; Alyssa Caddle of Bemis Associates; and Bill Weihl, previously of Facebook) were extraordinarily candid, informative and energized. They described how they decided whether to act, and the expected and actual ramifications — positive and negative — of choosing to act. Or not. And it was well-received.

So, we decided to do it again.

This time, I had a year to prep. I assiduously read every article — pro and con — that described a company or group of companies taking a stand on LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, equity, racism, voting rights, protection of natural resources, reproductive rights, equal pay, parental leave and, of course, climate change.

It was encouraging. The list was long, and in the midst of it, we also had the Business Roundtable issuance of its Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs and the Davos Manifesto.

But it was also disappointing. We reached out to many companies that had made strong public statements on issues of policy and social debate. They were disinclined to discuss it in this kind of forum. I get it: It’s tricky to stick your neck out like that, and many had very finely honed messages, crafted over time with the help of many interested parties. Panel sessions offer too many opportunities to go off-script.

And, frankly, companies (and people) have vulnerabilities, too, and they must have had concerns that the conversation would digress into their weaknesses rather than focus on what they had to offer.

No matter. We got a terrific panel that brought different perspectives to the table. And for all that I thought I knew about corporate activism, each and every panelist had something new to teach me (and, I fervently hope, the others in attendance).

As with the year before, the attendees were treated to authenticity, passion and forthrightness from our panelists: Verity Chegar of Blackrock; Dave Rapaport of Ben & Jerry's; Anna Walker of Levi Strauss & Co.; and Bill Weihl, who has re-emerged from his leadership role at Facebook as an activist for corporate advocacy of climate policy.

At the start of the session, I defined corporate activism as "taking a public stand on a policy question or advocating for sides on a social issue that is the subject of policy debate with intent to influence the outcome." I thought I knew the levers for companies to influence policy. After all, I’d been documenting cases for a year and more:

They can publish or sign a statement online or in a newspaper, as Bloomberg did on reproductive healthcare, or use their voices on TV, as so many companies famously have done with Super Bowl ads. They can change business practices, as Dick’s Sporting Goods did on guns, or sign an amicus brief, as many companies (including my own former employer, EMC) did on same-sex marriage. They can join and even lead a campaign such as Time to Vote or sign letters to legislators, as 120 companies in Florida did in support of policies that welcome immigrants. They can walk with their feet (or, more accurately, their pocketbooks) when many withdrew sponsorship from an Indiana conference in the face of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Or they can make a statement by publicly withdrawing from groups that do not align with their stances.

Turns out, there’s even more they can do.

I learned from Chegar that while yes, investors can divest or use their proxy votes, they also can use shareholder resolutions as an opportunity to truly engage with management and convince them to act.

Walker explained that Levi Strauss & Co. did something other than the two typical choices: waiting for the cover of crowds to take a stand or just going it alone. It took the lead, but it went out to peers and talked them into joining. Next time, I’ll ask, "If this really is important, what are you doing to get others on board?"

Rapaport and Walker both highlighted the importance of leadership in making a clear statement about intent to use their influence for a better world. Both built it into their governance, Ben & Jerry’s upon its acquisition by Unilever, Levi Strauss & Co. upon the occasion of its initial public offering last year.

Using our voices

You know how sometimes someone says something that is — or should be — blindingly obvious, but you’ve forgotten it nonetheless? Rapaport gave this simple advice: Stop trying to make everyone like you. It won’t work anyway, so better to strengthen your ties to those with whom you already share core values.

Weihl, with his usual fervor, challenged us all to use our voices as employees as well as consumers. The current and future workforce is making known that they want — and expect — their employers to fight for a just and sustainable society.

We learned from the audience, too. The vast majority raised their hands in response to every one of these questions:

  1. Have you ever made a purchase decision based on a company’s stand on a public policy issue? (A resounding yes!)
  2. Have you ever decided whether to take, or even apply, for a job based on a company’s stand on a public-policy issue? (A surprisingly large number of hands!)
  3. Should companies take stands on public policy issues? (If there were any hands not raised, I couldn’t see them.)
  4. Are companies too powerful in exerting influence on public policy? (You bet, they said.)

The last two were particularly interesting and resulted in a good exchange during Q&A. Many people in the room (present company included) have been dismayed by the consequences of the unfettered spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. So, why are we asking (or demanding, even) that companies lobby even more aggressively? Because, as Weihl pointed out, there is always huge spending by the side that has something to lose (fossil fuel companies) and when other interests decline to jump into the fray, they win.

The bar, it was clear from all four of our speakers, is higher than it used to be. It’s lovely that companies support a price on carbon. (Yeah, I was the author of one of those statements.) But they need to support actual policies and regulations that are on the table. (ExxonMobil supports "well-designed carbon pricing mechanisms." But did you see what it and its oil industry brethren did to defeat Initiative 1631 in Washington state?)

When people hear "policy" they tend to think "national." But where it’s happening, especially now, is in the states. And there is help to be had. Many of us in the sustainability community have worked with organizations such as Ceres, Advanced Energy Economy and others on federal policy. But, in fact, these groups are deeply engaged at the state level, and they have the information that can help companies understand what the impact is, what it’s going to take to get it passed, and what the political implications are. Ignorance is not an excuse anymore.

Their stories were different. Their experiences were different. Their techniques were different. But the message was consistent: Silence is no longer an option.