In 2013, news outlets may be reporting a sharp rise in SRI and consumer activism in the U.S. and abroad.
Editor's Note: It's that time of the year again and we're ready to wrap up 2012. Like last year, we've assembled an impressive lineup of thought leaders and experts who will examine the year that was, guide us on what might be ahead and offer their advice on how our business, social and environmental consciousness continues to converge. They will spotlight achievements, highlight trends and activate the change makers among us in our end of the year CSR & Sustainability 2012 series. Consider this series a call to action.
Today's editorial is by Hank Boerner, chairman of the Governance & Accountability Institute and a frequent contributor to CSRwire.
Trajectory – a path a "body" (such as a comet or bullet) follows, moving under a given force, says the Oxford Dictionary. Think of the "body" as an issue – steadily building, resonating with more like-minded people, gaining traction with key stakeholders, either quickly or over time building in strength and momentum, and colliding with other forces. The opposing forces are often immovable objects, such as large corporations, government agencies, professional trade organizations, and lobbyists.
Looking at the events of 2012 and peering into the 2013 crystal ball, this is the time of year we serve up the issues to "stay tuned to." Our stay-tuned focus is:
Socially Responsible Investing
Rising stakeholder interest in societal issues that may seem disconnected but really are of one piece, such as:
- The rising inequality in wealth and wages (the 1 percent/99 percent divide in the public dialogue);
- Soaring CEO compensation at some firms;
- The shedding of American jobs as companies outsource work;
- The relentless financial squeeze on the middle class family;
- The debate about the appropriate level of government-paid services (and therefore revenues needed), usually now with emphasis on cutting services for low-to-moderate income families while maintaining or increasing subsidies for corporations (such as the oil depletion allowance).
These issues create tectonic plates in the social fabric of the U.S., and the issues individually and collectively are found along the fault lines where conflict is created and builds in momentum. This is the issues arena. America in the 21st century is more and more about issue battles in the public arena.
How will the societal issues play out in 2013? Here are the top-lines.
Case in point at year-end: we learn that 15-year old Sarah Kavanagh (a vegetarian) likes to read labels to see what the ingredients are in foods and beverages; she spots "brominated vegetable oil" in her favorite Gatorade® made by PepsiCo and the issue comes into greater focus for consumers. BVOs have been used in food for many years (the ingredient is used to stabilize fruits in beverages). But there are side effects including neurological disorders.
So Sarah launches a social media campaign on Change.org (a non-profit website), which quickly gathers 200,000 supporting signatures—and a New York Times Business (page one) story. This is but one example – think of the more dramatic examples of the intersection or organized activism and social media represented in the Arab Spring civil protests in 2012.
And, In Other News…
The organized protests we'll see in the coming corporate proxy-voting season where issues play out in shareholder-corporate showdowns. The annual election process in publicly owned companies is where certain societal and governance issues come into focus.
In 2013 watch for demands by investors (supported by stakeholders) for:
- Companies to expand their disclosure and reporting on the impacts of climate change on the company (both risk and opportunities);
- More information on energy consumption, and efforts to reduce energy use and/or expand use of renewables);
- Focus on water (water used in operations, water in products, waste water, water sources);
- Board diversity;
- Equitable treatment of female employees;
- Information on political involvement and contributions of corporate money;
- Corporate sustainability reporting; and
- A number of campaigns focused on change in the board (such as election practices).
The continued embrace of sustainable and responsible investing...
... (SRI) approaches, which in turn tends to fuel the above shareholder activism (SR investors focus on ESG issues). We learned in a recent survey of asset owners and managers that of the total U.S. assets under management (US$33.3 trillion), about 11 percent or $3.74 trillion is invested following SRI approaches and methodologies. That's a 22 percent increase since year-end 2009, a clear demonstration that ESG factors are of great importance to a growing number of investors.
Increased ratcheting up of pressure on companies...
... on key issues, both from outside and inside, and in a variety of ways. The PepsiCo/Gatorade campaign is an example from outside. Wal-Mart employees, long discouraged from organizing a union, are nevertheless finding ways inside to pressure the nation's largest retailer to treat its workers with more respect. OUR Walmart (Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart) members staged protests at 1,000 stores on Thanksgiving shopping days to draw attention to their demands (including more full-time scheduling). Imagine the results if the campaign continues, builds in momentum – and more of the 1.4 million Wal-Mart workers join in.
More of these type of issues being framed...
... blossoming and being conducted on social media platforms in 2013. Sarah Kavanagh's campaign is an example of a one-person constituency reaching potentially millions of people at no or little cost—and capturing the attention of a major news organization to considerably amplify the message.
What does this all mean to investors and stakeholders, and the companies in their focus in the New Year? Issues that many of us will be tuning in to – and in some cases, joining or supporting – will become the New Normal of stakeholder activism.